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Russian Orthodox Parishes in Europe Pressured From Both Sides As War Rages in Ukraine

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Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, center, welcomes relics of the Saint Spyridon, Bishop of Trimythous from Corfu, Greece, during a service at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow on Sept. 21, 2018. (Igor Palkin, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP)

PARIS (RNS) — The war in Ukraine has split Russian Orthodox parishes across Europe, forcing believers outside Russia to either stay loyal to the church leadership in Moscow despite its support for the invasion, leave the church in protest or seek a messy middle ground.

While public opinion in Europe has almost unanimously denounced the war Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed, the small communities of Russian Orthodox faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate are in a bind because its head, Patriarch Kirill, has come out solidly in its favor.

Many of these believers are Western-born descendants of earlier emigres who have few links to today’s Russia but a faith anchored in the Russian tradition. Some belong to other Orthodox churches but happen to frequent a Russian church.

Archbishop John of Dubna in Paris, the head of a diocese of Russian Orthodox in Western Europe, struck a typical note by declaring solidarity with Ukraine and calling the war “monstrous and senseless” in an open letter to Patriarch Kirill March 9. While denouncing Kirill’s support of the war and asking for his intervention, Dubna stopped short of taking action that might signal a formal break.

Others stopped commemorating the patriarch in their liturgies, which ranks as a serious protest in Orthodox churches, but otherwise kept their dissent discreet. Only more attentive parishioners would notice on Sunday that the patriarch was not mentioned in normal commemorative prayers.

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The Parish of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, where several hundred worshippers from about 20 nations attend weekly services in Dutch, Russian or English, has learned how complicated this choice can be. Probably the first Western Orthodox church to break ties with Moscow over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, St. Nicholas went from loyal criticism of Moscow’s decision to switching its allegiance to the rival Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

“There are many traditions within Russian Orthodoxy,” Archimandrite Meletios Webber, head of the parish, told the congregation on Monday (March 14).

The London-born archimandrite — a monsignor in Roman Catholic terminology — spoke in a clipped English accent at his church near central Amsterdam. Another Orthodox priest translated his remarks into Russian.

“This tradition cannot be attached to any organization or any thought which promotes violence and warfare,” said Meletios, born an Anglican but converted during his studies at Oxford by the influential British Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware.