Cassocks and camouflage uniforms alternate these days in the monastery of Saint Theodosius in kyiv, a true reflection of the schism that exists within the Orthodox Church after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is easy to see the religious move between barricades already uniformed with weapons inside the temple. Some monk even wears boots and military pants under his black habit, like the one in charge of dispatching the souvenirs to the few visitors who frequent the place.
Can a priest wield a kalashnikov in a conflict like the current one? There are several who have said so, but after the dust raised, the authorities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have stopped their feet. Father Makarios, 42, publicly boasted a few days ago of having his bulletproof vest, helmet and rifle ready in his office at the San Teodosio monastery. That did not sit well and now he prefers not to resort to such boasts when asked by the reporter. But he laughs mischievously as he performs various tasks around the compound with several men in camouflage suits. They belong to the civil defense bodies established to help the Ukrainian Army against Russian troops.
One of them is called Stas, who moves around with a knife, handcuffs and various magazines with ammunition attached to his military bulletproof vest. No one would tell at first glance that he is a civilian. At 31, this school principal held out as long as he could in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of kyiv that has been the scene of heavy fighting since the start of the war. He sent his mother, his wife and his three children to Germany at the first moment of the Russian invasion. He left Irpin on March 6 and his house is now the monastery. “Our mission is to protect civilians, help in evacuations, collaborate with the Army…”, he explains. That yes, he adds that some other skirmish with weapons has been with the religious. He does not confirm, however, specific training with shooting. He does affirm that the weapons in the hands of the monks “are only for self-defense, not for attack.” “If the Russian soldiers come, yes”, he justifies.
Part of the parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church see as a threat not only the invasion of the Russian Army that began on February 24. Also the postulates that the Russian Orthodox try to impose in kyiv from Moscow by the hand of President Vladimir Putin, who is indissolubly linked to Patriarch Kirill. Archbishop Yevstratii Zoria, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the kyiv patriarchate, describes Putin as “antichrist” and compares him to Stalin or Hitler in statements to EL PAÍS at the San Miguel de las Cúpulas Doradas monastery, also in the capital .
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The brawl comes from afar and has spiritual overtones, but also political (due to affinities with the government of one or another country), cultural (due to linguistic ties) and patrimonial (due to the control of sacred places). In fact, just a few meters from that of Saint Theodosius stands the enormous compound of the Caves monastery, the most important in Ukraine and which remains faithful to the Russian patriarch. You can’t see militiamen settled in the facilities on its streets and you can hardly see a couple of police officers patrolling in absolute calm, but none of those responsible for the institution wants to make statements or comment on the current situation. Only one of the religious in charge makes it clear that the oven for buns is not there: “Our leaders have prohibited us from speaking with journalists at this time so that there are no provocations.”
“I believe in God and if he wants 100 bullets not to kill me, that’s how it will be. If he decides that one bullet is enough, that’s the way it will be.” With the same name as another of the aforementioned religious, Father Makarios, 60 years old and leaning on a cane, admits in San Teodosio that since January he has attended several training sessions on Saturdays as part of the civil defense groups. They included emergency medical assistance, sealing windows from blasts, taking cover from shelling, and a few other techniques, but not the use of firearms.
“We are not facing a religious war, but Russia and Putin himself try to use religious excuses in their aggression,” says Archbishop Yevstratii Zoria, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He says that in his last address to his supporters, the Russian president alluded to religious ideas four or five times. “What he does is diabolical, demonic, satanic,” he says. “Putin is the antichrist of our days, as were Stalin or Hitler,” he settles.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis, who in recent days has spoken with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, tried on Friday from the Vatican to stop what he describes as a “hateful war”.
The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, coordinator of all the Orthodox churches in the world, signed in 2019, when Petro Poroshenko was president of Ukraine, the decree of the independence of the Church of kyiv from that of Moscow. From the 17th century until then, the cult was governed in the former Soviet republic by the rules of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the largest denomination, with 12,000 parishes; followed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the kyiv Patriarchate, with 6,000 parishes, and by a minority independent church, with 1,000.
“The main problem” was the interventionism exercised by Poroshenko, denounces the analyst Ruslan Bortnik, who considers that the religious split between kyiv and Moscow was not necessary. He believes that until then there were not so many problems between the people, but that the tensions between the two churches have been caused by political intervention. Bortnik insists that the Moscow patriarchate has also clearly positioned itself against “Russian intervention.”
Leaning on his cane and stroking his abundant gray beard as he speaks, Father Makarios tries to live as oblivious as he can to the warlike climate that almost intoxicates him in kyiv. Before the Spanish reporter, he prefers to name Miguel de Cervantes or Federico García Lorca and express his sympathy for flamenco. But tears roll down his cheek as he remembers that 16 years ago he came to kyiv from his homeland, Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine where the Army has been at war with pro-Russian separatists since 2014.
That war is not unrelated to the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. On a staircase in the monastery of San Teodosio, several recent paintings summarize the history of the country. One of the frescoes depicts the well-known opera singer Vasil Slipak, who was shot dead in 2016 while fighting in Donbas, alongside a religious figure. He is considered a national hero. A few meters away, several men equipped for combat move from one place to another inside the monastery compound, which these days looks more like a barracks.