Last week, more than a dozen religious and political leaders sat on the dais of the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Volodymyr on the Upper West Side, listening to solemn prayers and fiery speeches denouncing Russia and extolling Ukrainian resistance to the invasion that began two weeks earlier.
They gave speeches, one by one: the leaders of the Ukrainian, Greek and American Orthodox churches; a prominent rabbi; the leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; even Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York.
But one group was missing from this interfaith tableau: the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, is an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. Organizers said Russian Orthodox leaders in New York had been invited but did not reply.
“Here in America they’re not taking a position against the Moscow Patriarchate or against the political leadership of Russian Federation,” Archbishop Daniel, a leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A., said of Russian religious leaders in New York. “They’re trying to dance a political dance.”
The world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is complex, with more than a dozen self-governing branches whose leaders live primarily in cities across Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Because New York is home to hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians, many of their churches treat it as an American base of operations. Those include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and a subsidiary to it, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The three have outposts within walking distance of one another; the headquarters of the Russian branches are practically neighbors on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, while the an ornate Ukrainian cathedral sits across Central Park.
Patriarch Kirill is based in Moscow and is the highest authority for both the Russian Church and its New York-based American branch, which merged with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. He is also the highest religious authority for most Russian Orthodox parishes in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church became independent in 2019 by decree of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the religious authority for all Eastern Orthodox branches. That decision outraged Russian political and religious leaders, and the future of the Ukrainian church may hinge on the outcome of the war.
Patriarch Kirill has declined to condemn the Russian invasion. Instead, he has attacked Western culture, in particular gay rights, in recent weeks, and has given a religious cast to Mr. Putin’s rhetoric about the oneness of Russia and Ukraine.
In a recent statement, Patriarch Kirill asked God to “preserve the Russian land” from “evil forces” and specified that he was referring to “the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.”
That and other statements have drawn rebukes from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the United States. In an interview, Archbishop Daniel described Patriarch Kirill as “a product of a Soviet system” and a political tool of the Russian state.
“The church is one of the departments of propaganda or control of the society, and it has been since the collapse of Soviet Union,” the archbishop said. “Obviously he will say what he needs to say.”
Across the park, an atmosphere of fear has descended on the Ukrainian Cathedral’s Russian counterpart, Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which is the Moscow Patriarchate’s administrative and religious headquarters in the United States.
The cathedral draws worshipers from across the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. In recent days, some parishioners and priests seemed hesitant to discuss the war. Some cited the Russian government’s increasing repression, saying they feared endangering loved ones in Russia and Ukraine.
One congregant, her face twisted in anguish as she stood on the cathedral’s rain-slicked steps, apologized for turning down an interview with a reporter, explaining that her family is in Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has been bombed relentlessly since the war began).
A priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said the cathedral had gotten hate mail since the invasion began, and a protester had even come into the sanctuary and disrupted a religious class. She left after priests called the police, he said.
“Whether anyone believes us or not, we are in pain from this,” the priest said. “We have relatives and friends in Ukraine. Parishioners have relatives and friends in Ukraine.”
He said clergy members do not talk about politics in public in part because they do not want to stoke division in the parish. But he said anguish about the war seemed pervasive among the parishioners.
“We are trying to explain to people that we are not politicians or about politics,” the priest said. “At least here, no one asked us our position on whether or not we should begin fighting against Ukraine or not. Everyone here is against it.”
Father Sergey Trostyanskiy, a rector of St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission at Union Theological Seminary, said public discussion of politics was a violation of canon law in the Russian Church, even though Patriarch Kirill’s public utterances are politically freighted.
Father Trostyanskiy is also a priest with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which was founded in New York after the Russian Revolution and reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate 15 years ago. The church, just blocks away from St. Nicholas, also declined to send a representative to the interfaith event, where the Russian government was denounced, sometimes in vividly religious language.
In a speech at the interfaith prayer service, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, described his Russian counterpart, Vasily Nebenzya, as “the herald of Satan” and said Ukraine would prevail over Russia “because we believe in God.” His remarks drew a standing ovation.
Father Trostyanskiy said: “The Russian church cannot participate in any event like this.”
He said Patriarch Kirill’s speeches should be read not as endorsements of war, but as an effort to protect the unity of the church, which operates in Ukraine and Russia, by refusing to antagonize the Kremlin.
“The bottom line is people expect him to take part in political endeavors, and it is impossible,” Father Trostyanskiy said. “All the statements from Kirill are constantly, ‘Let’s do things peacefully, lets pray and supplicate.’ That is quite clear. But he will never go against the Russian authorities.”
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To do so, he added, might be dangerous for any priest or parishioner.
“If people participate in more public endeavors where they make more open statements — people at this time try not to do that because it might affect their future or the future of their relatives,” Father Trostyanskiy said. “After this war you never know what is going to happen.”
Other Orthodox leaders said Patriarch Kirill was morally obligated to oppose the war publicly, not least for his many followers in Ukraine.
“It hurts because we are part of the same church, the Orthodox Church,” said Archbishop Daniel, at the Ukrainian cathedral. “He is a spiritual leader also for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who follow the Moscow Patriarchate, and he is not defending them.”
But the fear of speaking out was palpable at St. Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox church. Speaking after services there recently, some parishioners said the war had overwhelmed them emotionally. Others said they were afraid of what might happen to their families if they stated their views publicly, even in New York.
One woman, who gave only her first name, Olga, out of fear for her relatives in Russia, including a son and her mother, said she was still haunted by the 15 years her grandfather had spent in a Soviet prison.
“I think that kind of thing can happen again, definitely,” she said. “The situation is getting worse and worse and the newspapers are not telling people the truth.”
Coming to St. Nicholas brought her comfort, she said, with prayer and the elaborate rituals of the Orthodox faith providing a respite from worry.
“Even normal people cannot say what they think because they are afraid,” she added, before walking into the cathedral to pray. “Even me, I am thinking about my family.”