Russian priests speak out against war despite threat of prison, sanctions from church

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A pair of Russian priests have spoken out against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine despite the risk of prison or, worse, angering the Russian church. 

The church has backed the state’s “special operation” in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leader, has remained a vocal proponent of Putin’s war, saying that God is on Russia’s side even as Russian soldiers allegedly commit atrocities against civilians. 

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But some priests have started to speak out despite the incredible risk they face by doing so. 

Father Georgy Edelshtein, 89, spoke with AFP, expressing his disappointment with the state and claiming he has been a “bad priest.” 

“I’ve never been against all wars but I’ve always been against any land-grabbing, aggressive war,” Edelshtein said. He supported Ukraine’s independence and right to “build their state as they see necessary.” 

Only a handful of priests have found the voice to speak out against the war, and therefore speak out against Kirill. The patriarch has called for Russians to “rally around” the state and accuses “enemies” of trying to destroy historic unity between Russia and Ukraine. 

The church maintains a distinctive interest in the Ukraine war: The Russian Orthodox Church obtained the right to ordain the top bishop of Kyiv – effectively putting it in control of the church there for almost 300 years. 

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The Ecumenical Patriarch – head of the orthodox churches – maintained that the power was temporary and in 2019 formally recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as independent of the Moscow patriarch. 

Kirill fiercely opposed the move as “illegitimate.” Many monasteries and parishes in Ukraine remain under Kirill’s purview, even if the parishioners remain unaware of the fact. 

But Edelshtein and Father Ioann Burdin have stood in opposition to their leader, saying “the blood of Ukrainian residents will remain on the hands not only of the rulers of Russia and soldiers carrying out this order. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who … simply remain silent.” 

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The priests wrote their comments in a letter posted online, which has since been deleted, AFP reported. 

“For me, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional,” Burdin, 50, explained, adding that opposition carries the risk of sanctions and prosecution. He remains active while Edelshtein has retired. 

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“If a person commits a personal sin, he himself rebels (against God), not the whole Church with him,” Burdin said. 

“If I’m within the Church but censoring myself as I speak, if I’m silent about a sin being a sin, and about bloodshed being unacceptable, then I will just gradually, without noticing, stop being a pastor.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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