Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard) of the Orthodox Church in America
To: His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada
March 31, 2022
In its statement published on March 27, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America has unequivocally condemned Russia’s horrific aggression against Ukraine and called on the Russian authorities to end the war. The Synod also affirmed your unpublished letter to Patriarch Kirill imploring him “to do whatever possible to end the war in Ukraine.” The statement is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Notably, the Synod issued its statement two days after Public Orthodoxy had published an open letter calling on the OCA to condemn not only the criminal war, but also the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in it. So widespread has been the indignation with the actions of Russia and its Church that you must have received other similar letters. Among them was an open letter that I sent to you on March 24. It focused on the role that the Patriarchate of Moscow has played in the war and listed steps that, in my humble opinion, would help the OCA assert its ecclesiastical self-determination and rid itself of dangerous Russian liaisons. Since the Holy Synod’s statement did not address these issues, I decided to publish my letter. The following is my original letter with minor edits and changes.
The foremost motive for this letter is my love for and gratitude to the people and clergy of the Orthodox Church in America and my admiration for the sound principles on which the Church stands. The OCA clergy and faithful lovingly accepted, spiritually nourished, and in countless ways helped me and my family, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from our first days in this country almost 32 years ago. The inspired work of Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff has strongly influenced my understanding of Orthodoxy. For thirty years I was blessed by a precious friendship with Father Leonid Kishkovsky, may his memory be eternal, and had an opportunity to learn from his wisdom and immense knowledge. I rejoiced when your enthronement marked the end of a difficult period in the OCA’s recent history. From my professional studies of religion, I also know that many believers in and outside of North America see the OCA as a hopeful and admirable example of a church that is free from two widespread maladies of the Orthodox world, ethnophyletism and dependency on the state. This is also the view that I share.
This letter is also informed by my professional work. As a social scientist, I study religious trends around the world and focus on Eastern Europe, and especially on Russia and Ukraine. A recent book that I edited includes my comparative study of Russia and Ukraine. It shows how and why, after decades of Soviet repression, churches in Ukraine enjoy religious freedom while Russia has succumbed to neo-imperial and neo-Soviet ways of controlling religion. My earlier research compared Russia’s top-down and state-controlled restoration of its Orthodox Church to Ukraine’s religious revitalization “from below.” It also predicted the inevitability of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church and its impact on the ROC.
Knowing how often people, even Christians, attribute one’s opinion to his ethnic and national origin, I need to clarify that I am not a Ukrainian. I was born and raised in Russia and consider myself an American. Yet my research on and multiple trips to Ukraine have resulted in numerous professional contacts and wonderful friendships with Ukrainians. I love Ukraine and Ukrainians as, I believe, does anyone who knows that country and its people. And I decry the genocidal crimes that Russia — with a blessing or tacit approval of its church leaders — has committed against Ukraine. These crimes offend me as an American, a human being, and, last but not least, a Christian.
Russia’s war against Ukraine did not start in February of 2022. It started in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the de facto occupation of a part of the Donbass region. Russia has fought this war on many fronts, including the one that deals with Orthodoxy. In fact, so important has the religious front been to this war that Putin held an emergency Security Council meeting in response to the declaration of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
As the conflict was unfolding, I had increasingly perceived that the OCA leadership took a timid stance towards the Russian Church and its participation in the hybrid war, the war that now reached the stage of an all-out invasion aimed at ending Ukraine’s statehood and nationhood. In 2019, after the OCA took a rather pro-Moscow position vis-à-vis Ukraine’s autocephaly, I joined a Greek Orthodox parish. The Patriarchate of Constantinople has consistently supported Ukraine’s ecclesial and national self-determination, and I believe, this is the right thing to do.
Lately, Patriarch Kirill explained that the war was fought because people in Donbass did not want to have gay parades. To him, this must be a good enough justification for bombing Ukrainian cities and killing thousands of civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, some of whom survived World War II. To him, this must rationalize the targeting of hospitals, maternity wards, as well as theaters and schools where civilians are trying to hide from bombardments. I do not understand how a Christian church, such as the OCA, can keep maintaining a sisterly relation with an organization whose leader utters this murderous nonsense, especially during a Lenten-cycle sermon.
More recently, Patriarch Kirill handed an ikon of the Holy Theotokos to the commander of the Rosgvardiia (Russian Guard) Zolotov, one of Putin’s henchmen, whose troops participate in the invasion and are infamous for cruelly suppressing dissent inside Russia. We thus see a patriarch who is blessing the genocidal war and its generals. Does the OCA want to continue to be associated with this unholy church-state alliance? I hope this question is merely rhetorical.
Meanwhile, Russia bombed the Holy Dormition Sviatohirsk (Sviatogorskaia) Lavra which, ironically, is in the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), and where many have sought refuge from the Russian onslaught. There have been reports that other churches were destroyed or damaged elsewhere in Ukraine. Alongside the church buildings, Russian bombs, missiles, shells, and bullets are forever destroying or crippling thousands upon thousands of other, even more precious temples – human bodies, which, as we know, are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). I have heard no condemnations of these acts by the hierarchs of the ROC, and their silence makes them complicit in the crimes. And, sadly, it took the OCA more than a month to utter a public condemnation of these killings.
Meanwhile, these crimes have been so horrifying that a growing number of the UOC-MP dioceses and parishes have refused to elevate Patriarch Kirill in their prayers. Tellingly, this is how Patriarch Kirill explained the growing unwillingness to pray for him. In his Sunday of Orthodoxy sermon, he said: “Today even the mentioning of the Patriarch’s name in the temple is becoming impossible for some for fear of the Jews (Jn 19:38).” I am not a theologian, but, in my opinion, this is malicious misuse of the Gospel. This misuse frames the growing indignation with the ROC in Judeophobic, and ultimately anti-Semitic terms. Are we to believe that Ukrainian parishes stopped praying for the Patriarch because they are afraid of the Jews? I am not surprised: my research shows that this is not the first time the Patriarch misuses the Gospel to construct an implicitly anti-Semitic interpretation of opposition to his actions. Yet, unsurprising as it may be, the statement cannot but shock and offend any honest Christian.
These are just some of the most obvious and recent examples of the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in the war against Ukraine. I wish I could say that the involvement is limited to the hierarchy, and that the majority of Russian Orthodox are against the war. Yet, we know that about 80% of Russians identify as Orthodox, and 70% of Russians, according to surveys, support the war. This suggests that a majority of those who consider themselves Russian Orthodox are in favor of the war. As a sociologist, I look at war-time surveys, especially those conducted under tyrannical regimes, with skepticism. However, hardly any research conducted in the last twenty years would indicate a sizable opposition to the Putin regime among the ROC clergy and laity. There have been heroic voices of resistance to this madness, but they are few and far between.
The ROC’s involvement in the war against Ukraine has a longer history and pre-history. Since the early 1990s, the ROC has worked to suppress the UOC-MP’s efforts to achieve autocephaly, and recently Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) — in my opinion, quite cynically — stated that the Moscow Patriarchate did not give the UOC autocephaly because “nobody has asked.” During the hybrid stage of the war against Ukraine, the MP increased its efforts to control the UOC. The status of the Ukrainian Church has been used as a pretext for political meddling in Ukraine, destabilization of the country, and attacks on its international reputation. And since January 2019, after the Patriarchate of Constantinople had granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Moscow launched an ecclesial war not only against Ukraine, but also against all Orthodox Churches and leaders in the world who recognized or even considered recognizing the OCU. Unfortunately, in this situation of a worldwide conflict within Orthodoxy, the OCA has ostensibly sided with Moscow and, although maintaining Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, took no steps towards building relations with the new autocephalous Church of Ukraine, let alone towards recognizing its canonical status. Unfortunately, the statement of the OCA Synod reaffirms its support for Metropolitan Onufriy and the UOC yet does not even acknowledge the existence of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The ROC’s involvement in the war against Ukraine is not an aberration of its political role in Russia and abroad. Its leaders chose to be dependent on the Russian state and serve as its ecclesiastical arm. They embraced the ideology of the “Russian world” that justifies Russia’s neo-imperialist expansionism. Sadly, even as the ROC’s role in the Putin regime and its crimes has become increasingly clear, the OCA has pursued a growing collaboration with the Russian Church. Thus, it has given podium at St. Vladimir’s Seminary to Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) as if his role of a faithful servant of the Russian state and a cheerleader for suppression of religious liberty was unknown. Ukraine aside, should not his 2017 endorsement of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses have excluded him from the list of the honorary guests of St. Vladimir’s Seminary? It is with his approval that the Witnesses were banned as an extremist group and now serve prison terms that are much harsher than even in the Soviet times. Even their translation of the Bible is considered “extremist literature”! By associating with this hierarch, the OCA inadvertently assumes a degree of responsibility for persecution of religious minorities in Russia as well as in the occupied and annexed territories of Ukraine.
Moreover, St. Vladimir’s Seminary has announced the establishment of the Patriarch Kirill Endowment for Biblical Studies. The timing of the announcement has coincided with Alfeyev’s visit. It thus appears possible that the endowment was funded from Russian moneys. But we all know that much of the funding of the ROC is coming from the Russian State. If so, the Endowment may have been funded from the same sources that finance the ongoing slaughter of Ukrainians. Orthodoxy in Dialogue was first to publicly raise this issue and insist on returning the money. I, too, beseech you to give this tainted money back to the donors.
In addition, the OCA has agreed to accept support from the government of Moscow to maintain its Representation Church of St. Catherine the Great Martyr in the Russian capital. Yet, the Moscow government is a key element of the Putin regime. It thus shares responsibility for the regime’s crimes. If the OCA cannot afford to maintain an expensive historical building in the center of Moscow, then the only honest solution is to give it up. Many OCA parishes started by conducting services in rental places or sharing buildings with other churches. Why not do the same and preserve financial independence from Moscow? And nowadays, after the Department of State had advised all Americans to leave Russia, what does the Representation church still do there?
We all know that the OCA received its autocephaly from Moscow, and that this status of the American Church is not universally recognized. I understand that this may make some in the OCA feel vulnerable to the Russian pressure. However, I urge you not to be afraid. Sociological studies have repeatedly shown that your flock is strong, truly multi-ethnic, relatively young, and committed to embodying Orthodoxy in America. Of whom shall the OCA be afraid? Worse comes to worst, Moscow revokes the tomos it once gave you. So what? The Church of Muscovy itself did not have a recognized autocephaly for a very long time, but somehow survived. The OCA will not only survive. It will grow and ultimately gain the recognition it deserves. Nothing inspires growth more than a strong commitment to Christian principles. And it is Christian to be on the side of the oppressed, of those under attack, of those innocently slaughtered, of a heroic people fighting — without sufficient support from the rest of the world — for their national and spiritual freedom from the zombie-like remnant of the Soviet empire.
Another potential obstacle to a greater independence from Moscow is the myth shared by some among clergy and laity that Russia is somehow the last bastion of Christianity in the struggle against Western decadence. I have often heard this kind of talk in Orthodox parishes. This dangerous myth is purposely disseminated by a worldwide network of Russian and pro-Russian groups and publications. It is popular among well-intended yet insufficiently knowledgeable Christians in the USA who, in search for an alternative to the cultural crisis at home turn their hopeful eyes to Russia. The cure against this ignorance is education. The OCA must tell the truth to its adherents not only about the spiritual treasures of Russian Orthodoxy, but also about the current state of Russian society and culture, and the actual status of Orthodox religiosity in the country. How many naively Russophile Americans know that weekly church attendance in Russia has remained at the level of roughly 2% for the last thirty years? How many understand the scale to which alcoholism, drug abuse, and other social diseases have undermined the supposed last fortress of true Orthodoxy? How many realize the degree to which corruption permeates Russian life? How much do the OCA faithful know about the atrocities Russia’s presumably Orthodox warriors have committed in Chechnya, Syria, and now in Ukraine? The illusory image of Russia as a spiritual paradise and antidote to America’s ills needs to be dissipated.
In this regard, allow me to mention another disturbing trend. My impression from regularly reading the OCA website dedicated to the Lives of the Saints is that it heavily emphasizes the Saints of Russia. Far from always they are distinguished from those of Rus. Inadvertently yet dangerously, this equates Russia (a contemporary country) with Rus. But this is exactly the equation that the ideology of ‘the Russian world’ employs to justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the birthplace of historical Rus. Moreover, the interpretation of the lives of the Russian Saints often appears to me late Imperial or contemporary Russian in its spirit if not origins. It notably stresses the Saints’ roles in fighting or blessing wars, in overpowering the heterodox, and so on. If my observation is correct, this may cultivate among the OCA faithful the same spirit that now motivates many Russian Orthodox adherents to support the war against Ukraine.
To conclude, I entreat you to consider taking the following steps:
- Establish sisterly relations with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and start the process of its recognition while also maintaining sisterly relations with the UOC-MP. It is only a matter of time before the majority of the faithful, clergy, and hierarchs in Ukraine are reunified. Surveys already show that most parishioners of the UOC-MP want to disassociate themselves from Moscow. The OCA will only benefit by being proactive and evenhanded. It is also important to remember that, as studies show, in terms of the actual — not mythical — religious adherence of its people, Ukraine may have a larger Orthodox Church than Russia, and in the future will be more important to the OCA.
- Suspend concelebrations and other joint activities with the ROC until the end of the war against Ukraine and proper investigation of any war crimes that the ROC hierarchs might have been complicit in. Consider a temporary suspension of commemorations of Patriarch Kirill in your diptychs.
- Publish your recent letter to Patriarch Kirill as well as his response.
- Consider concelebrations and other collaborative activities with the clergy and hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada.
- Suspend the activities of the representation church in Moscow and refuse to receive any funding for its maintenance.
- Return the funds of the Patriarch Kirill Endowment to the donors and rename the endowment.
- Address the Church with a letter that would not only condemn the crimes of the Russian state but also point at the complicity of the ROC hierarchs. Some in the flock will disagree and react negatively. Yet I am sure that a majority of the OCA members is sufficiently appalled by Russia’s crimes to agree with such an assessment.
- Conduct an examination of the way the Saints of Russia, Ukraine, and other nations are presented at the OCA website and what Christian and secular (e.g., nationalist, militaristic, and other) values dominate their presentation.
Thank you in advance, Your Beatitude, for your time and kind attention to this letter. I pray that our Lord grants you wisdom and strength to do what is right in this dire situation.
Vyacheslav Karpov, PhD
Professor of Sociology at Western Michigan University*
*The thoughts and opinions expressed in this letter are mine and do not express the position of the university I work for or of the church I am a member of.