Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill Calls Russia’s Bombing in Syria a ‘Holy War’

May 6, 2016
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill meets with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad in 2011. Photo by Moscow Patriarchate

LIVE UPDATES: The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill designated the war in Syria a “holy war.”

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Numerous Detentions on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square as Activists Protest Political Prisoners of May 2012 Action

On the 4th anniversary of the famous May 6, 2012 Bolotnaya Square demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin’s fraudulent win in the elections and subsequent policies, protesters once again came out to Bolotnaya to protest not only the government but the imprisonment of 35 people on charges of public disorder or assaulting police, despite thin evidence presented by investigators. 

Russian authorities have continued prosecutions under the “Bolotnaya” rubric today as two more people were added to the ranks of political prisoners related to this demonstration of four years ago. 

An activist tweeted the progress of the action today — which ended in multiple arrests: 

Translation: the first posters have appeared #May 6 #Bolotnaya
Translation: There are more and more people on Bolotnaya Square. No one has been detained yet.
Translation: A girl with a poster in defense of the prisoners of #May6 has just been detained on Bolotnaya Square.
Translation: “Freedom to heros of #May 6!”
Translation: mass detentions have begun on Bolotnaya Square.
Translation: Police and OMON [riot troops] officers continue to detain activists who have come out in support of political prisoners.

More people have been detained since then and we will have an update soon.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill Calls Russia’s Bombing in Syria a ‘Holy War’
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has called the battle against terrorist groups in Syria a “holy war,” Novaya Gazeta reported, citing Interfax.
Speaking after a liturgy at St. George’s Cathedral at the Poklonnaya Gora war monument, Patriarch Kirill said (translation by The Interpreter):

“Therefore today, the war with terrorism is a holy war, and God grant that this be understood throughout the whole world, so that they don’t divide terrorists into good and bad, so that no one links the war against terrorism to the achievement of their own, often undeclared, but really existing goals in the political sense.  Then the war with such an enemy through such honest means will also be holy.”

Patriarch Kirill made no mention of the fact that mostly Russia and Assad have avoided bombing terrorists but have actually empowered them in Syria.

Following the obscenity of the Russian orchestra playing in Palmyra as a refugee camp was bombed nearby, as we reported earlier, the Patriarch’s declaration appeared to be part of Russia’s interpretation of itself as the leader of “Christian civilization” where the decadent West has failed.

The Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, as he is titled officially by the Russian Orthodox Church which is integrated into the Russian state, was made at a setting that President Vladimir Putin has often chosen for state celebrations and speeches, especially in the run-up to the May 9th Victory Day celebrations. 
Dubbed “the last gasp of Soviet monumental triumphal art,” Pokolonnaya Gora [literally “bow-down hill”], among the highest points in the city of Moscow was originally dedicated to Russia’s victory over Napoleon, where, after the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and his army, battered by “General Winter,” were said to stand starving and waiting in vain for supposedly conquered Muscovites to bring them the keys to the Kremlin in 1812. The original Soviet monumental complex was put at this site where much earlier, Russian princes knelt before the suzerains of the Mongolian Horde. The site today contains the St. George Orthodox Church and also a Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. President Vladimir Putin has built out the monument extensively during his rule with 15 more columns symbolizing the Red Army’s victory during World War II. 
St. George, known for slaying the dragon or the devil, has been adopted as the avatar of the patriotic and nationalists groups in Russia as well as the “Novorossiya” movement in southeastern Ukraine, and the orange-and-black St. George ribbon associated with the saint as well as past Soviet war medals has been adopted as a symbol for these views. So by appearing at a church at this site, the Patriarch is steeping his remarks in history and emphasizing his message further regarding Russia’s crusading mission in the world.

In September 2015, at the onset of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, Patriarch Kirill also defined the action as a “holy war.” He appears to have stopped short of doing this for the war in Ukraine, possibly because the Moscow Patriarchate’s own parishes are on Ukrainian territory.

He did speak in 2014,  however of the “unambigious religious agenda” of the war, as he saw it, an allusion to both ancient and post divisions between the Orthodox Church dominated by Russia and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church which are not recognized by Moscow, as well as the self-governing Ukrainian Uniate Church, the Eastern rite body related to the Catholic Church. He said that the Ukrainian armed forces’ ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation], which in fact began as the defense of Ukraine against the Russian-backed armed separatist movement, was religious in nature. The remarks were removed later from some official Russian Orthodox web sites, but remained on the web site of Metropolitan Ilarion:

Uniates and the schismatics who adhere to them, having received weapons, under the guise of an anti-terrorist operation have begun to carry out direct aggression regarding the clergy of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the east of the country. 

Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine have openly supported the Russian-backed war by providing sanctuary to militants, allowing armed persons to attend religious services, hiding ammunition and blessing weaponry.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick