ROME (AP) — The European Union plans to sanction the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in its next round of measures aimed at punishing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU diplomats said on Wednesday, opening a new religious front in the European sanctions regime.
The proposal, which must be approved by the 27-member bloc, drew immediate criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church, which also lambasted Pope Francis on Wednesday for his recent comments about Patriarch Cyril.
Kirill, the head of one of the largest and most influential churches in Eastern Orthodoxy, justified the invasion of Russia on spiritual grounds, describing it as a “metaphysical” battle against the West and its “gay parades”.
Three EU diplomats with direct knowledge of the talks said negotiations to add Kirill’s name to the list of those sanctioned by the EU were continuing on Wednesday. If approved by EU members, Kirill would face travel bans and an asset freeze, joining 1,093 people including Putin and oligarchs, as well as 80 entities already subject to the punitive measures.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the Russian Orthodox Church promised that the sanctions would never intimidate Kirill and would only prolong the conflict.
“Patriarch Kirill comes from a family whose members were repressed for decades for their faith and moral stance during the era of militant communist atheism, and none of them were intimidated by the prospect of imprisonment and repression,” church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda said. in a statement on its messaging app channel. “You have to completely ignore the history of our church to think that it is possible to frighten its clergy and followers by putting them on some sort of list.”
He added that the measure would only delay the prospect of peace “for which the Russian Orthodox Church prays on the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch in every liturgy.”
Kirill echoed Putin’s baseless claims that Ukraine was engaged in the “extermination” of Russian loyalists in Donbas, the breakaway region in eastern Ukraine held since 2014 by separatist groups backed by the Russia. And in his last published remarks, he denied that Russia had even launched the invasion.
“We don’t want to fight anyone. Russia has never attacked anyone,” he said Wednesday at the end of a divine liturgy at the Archangel Cathedral in Moscow, according to a text of his remarks on the church’s website. “It is amazing that a great and powerful country has never attacked anyone – it has only defended its borders.”
The pope has tried to maintain an open dialogue with Kirill, given the Vatican’s longstanding efforts to heal relations with Russian Orthodoxy. Francis and Kirill had a videoconference on March 15 and were due to meet for the second time next month in Jerusalem, but the meeting was canceled on the advice of Vatican diplomats.
François told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Tuesday, Kirill spent the first half of their 40-minute video call reading a piece of paper justifying the invasion.
““I listened to him and said to him: ‘I don’t understand any of this. Brother, we are not clerics of the State, we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus. For that, we must find ways to peace, stop the firing of weapons.
He added that Kirill “cannot turn into Putin’s altar boy”, a dismissive term used by a prominent Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop in the United States.
In a statement posted on its website on Wednesday, the Patriarchate of Moscow’s external relations office said it was “regrettable” that Francis “chose the wrong tone” to convey the content of the conversation during the interview.
“Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which is particularly needed at this time,” the statement said.
The statement went on to say that Kirill had used the call to explain the origins of the conflict, citing attacks on Russian speakers in Ukraine dating back to 2014 and NATO’s eastward expansion.
Petrequin reported from Brussels.