Does the Polish Orthodox Church have a problem identifying the aggressor?

11.03.2022, 10:50
Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene in Warsaw, the main church of the PAOC - фото 1
Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene in Warsaw, the main church of the PAOC
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Despite the active participation of Orthodox dioceses in Poland in helping those affected by the Russian Federation's aggression in Ukraine, the bishops have not announced a joint condemnation of the crimes committed by the Russian army against civilians, nor have they dissociated themselves from the Moscow Patriarch's participation in the war propaganda machine.

The Polish Orthodox Church avoids moral assessments of Russian aggression, using very general phrases in official communications about spiritual support for the war tragedy: "prayer for the victims of war in Ukraine", "strenuous prayer for peace in Ukraine and the modern world", "prayer for the gift of peace", "fervent prayers for peace", etc. These terms sound ambiguous because Patriarch Kirill also prays for "peace in Ukraine" without condemning the bloody battle for the "Russky mir". In his recent statements, Kirill has defined Russian terror in Ukraine as "a struggle that has a meaning not physical but metaphysical", "only the right choice". The Moscow Patriarchate issued a circular to all diocesan bishops containing the contents of a "prayer for the restoration of peace" with the call: "to those tongues of foreign tribes who would like to fight with and against Holy Rus, forbid this and overturn their plans". Patriarch Kirill does not condemn the crimes committed against the people of Ukraine, nor the destruction by Russian troops of religious buildings, often belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate itself.

Silence of aggression and "forgiveness" for the aggressor

In his homily on the occasion of the beginning of Lent, Metropolitan Sava of Warsaw spoke about the "dramatic experience" of war in Ukraine and the need for mutual forgiveness. The hierarch's call to “reconcile with everyone to whom we bear a grudge” seems to be deeply inadequate to the situation of the shedding of Ukrainian blood by Putin's army, especially since the condition of every act of forgiveness is realising and confessing one's faults, regretting them, making amends and resolving to improve. The tone of this sermon corresponds with the style of previous announcements of the Orthodox Metropolis of Warsaw: they are characterised by neutral language in terms of moral evaluation of the Russian aggression against Ukraine itself, as if it was a war between two equal sides. The sermon of Metropolitan Sava contains many analogies to the controversial statements of Metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky of the Moscow Patriarchate, who in 2020 demanded in his public statements “full respect” and “forgiveness” for the pro-Russian terrorist groups of Donbas, and at the same time avoided naming Russia as the aggressor or occupier, referring to the alleged principle of non-interference of the Orthodox Church in political affairs.

The line of Metropolitan Sawa favours the policy of the Kremlin, which finances various initiatives of the Polish Orthodox Church through its agencies, whether connected with the Rosatom foundation or the oligarch Vadym Novinskyi. This state of affairs is also because several active Polish Orthodox hierarchs collaborated with the communist security apparatus - two of them, Metropolitan Sava and Bishop Varsonofiy Doroshkevich of Siemiatycze, co-founded a network of agents operating abroad and coordinated by the KGB. They were recruited from non-Catholic Polish churches and religious associations. In recent years, Metropolitan Sawa has maintained contacts with former influential functionaries of the special services of the People's Republic of Poland.

Autocephaly: a real definition of Orthodox freedom in Ukraine

The Orthodox community in Poland is divided in its assessment of the Russian Federation's mandate for military action in Ukraine: some, as exemplified by the position of Metropolitan Sava, which seems to be shared by almost all members of the Synod of the Polish Orthodox Church, follow the Kremlin's line of ‘silent’ justification of Russia's historical revanchism; others, on the other hand, the vast majority of clergy and believers, acknowledge that no rationale justifies military violence. Is the price of losing the shaken authority of the shepherds among the faithful not too high? Does the reduction of the mission of the Polish Orthodox Church to narrow political reasons favour its development? Orthodox bishops will try to answer these fundamental questions at the synodal session in Warsaw, which is scheduled for 22nd March.

The test of the authenticity of the support for Ukraine, however, would be not only the abandonment by the Polish bishops of the policy of silence on evil, which prevents them from perceiving the 'Holy Russia' as the war aggressor but also the revision of their reluctant attitude towards the autocephaly of Ukraine: this would be a testimony of the highest pastoral responsibility for the fate of hundreds of thousands of believers of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, who received shelter in Poland from the turmoil of war. Currently, despite his involvement in the ecumenical movement and its 'authorisation' of the sacraments of other denominations (in contravention of its own canon law), the Polish Orthodox Church paradoxically does not recognise any of the spiritual goods administered by the new structure established in Ukraine under the auspices of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The fact that the attitude towards autocephaly is a litmus test for the attitude towards Moscow is demonstrated by the reality of the last days of the war in Ukraine, when one-third of the Orthodox dioceses, which are dependent on Moscow and located mainly in the western part of the country, suspended the prayerful remembrance of Patriarch Kirill during liturgies. Although the Moscow Patriarchate has recognised these gestures as acts of schism, doubts about the intentions of the rebellious bishops are raised by the fact that they remain united with Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv, who, although he has called on the Russian president to "immediately stop the fratricidal war", also fully recognises Moscow's supremacy (in 2013, he awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013; was recognised as a Russian "agent of influence" by the Kyiv Centre "Myrotvorets" in 2018). Following the voice of the Ukrainian faithful, several metropolitans of the Moscow Patriarchate have even opted for granting Ukraine autocephaly, but this does not mean their automatic transfer to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which in 2018 already issued a positive decision on the matter. The scenario of the reaction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is somewhat analogous to the actions that took place in 1991-1992, when Metropolitan Onufry made contradictory gestures on the issue of granting autocephaly to Ukrainian Orthodoxy, initially favouring it, and eventually withdrawing support and eliminating the "autocephalist" faction from the structures of the Moscow Church. Some commentators suggest that these actions may have been coordinated by the Russian special services as part of a preventive measure to minimise the adverse effects of the war on the Moscow Patriarchate. The credibility of the Ukrainian structure of the Moscow Patriarchate as loyal to the local authorities would be a counterpoint to demands for its banning and confiscation of church property due to increasingly frequent accusations of anti-state activity.

The author of the text is an expert on analysing the security environment in the context of religious relations in the "NUP 2X35" Campaign of the Polish Centre for Doctrine and Training of the Armed Forces. At the University of Wroclaw, he directs the Foresight Research Centre on Religious Changes.