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Orthodox Jihadis

An Orthodox Christian reader and friend sends a report from the NYT, which he describes, accurately, as “nauseating”: some Russian Orthodox clerics are aiding and abetting the violent Novorossiya rebels in eastern Ukraine. Excerpts:

The Russian Orthodox Church, like the Kremlin, has strenuously denied any role in stirring up or aiding separatist turmoil in Ukraine. But as Slovyansk and other towns seized by pro-Russian rebels have fallen over the summer to a since-stalled Ukrainian government offensive in the east, evidence has begun to accumulate of close ties between the church, or at least individual Orthodox priests, and the pro-Russian cause.

“They were working hand in hand,” said Victor Butko, the pro-Ukrainian editor of a small newspaper here shut down by the rebels during their nearly three-month occupation of the town. He said priests at an Orthodox church in the center of town often blessed the rebel fighters and let them store ammunition on church grounds.

Since they began their drive to grab chunks of territory back in April, pro-Russian insurgents have repeatedly shifted their political agenda, undecided over whether they want eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia, an independent country or an autonomous region of Ukraine in a loose federal state.

Throughout, however, leaders have declared themselves bearers of the banner of “Holy Rus,” both a theological concept akin to the Kingdom of Heaven and a reference to a state in the Middle Ages that comprised the territory of modern Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.


Among their principal targets were Christians defiant of the Moscow church’s claims of religious primacy and suspected of connections with the West.

“Their logic is simple: You are an American church and America is our enemy so we have to kill you,” said Mr. Dudnik, the evangelical pastor. No one at his center had been killed, he said but added that the rebels had murdered four evangelical Christians from another Slovyansk church.

Grabbed by pro-Russian gunmen in June after a Pentecost service at the Divine Transfiguration Church, all four victims were taken away for interrogation and were later found dead in a burned-out car. The Voice of Russia, a state-run radio station, asserted against all known evidence that they had been killed by the Ukrainian Army.

Instigators of the rebellion, notably Igor Strelkov, a Russian former intelligence officer, embrace a radical strand of Orthodox tradition suffused with xenophobia, a passionate expectation of the Second Coming of Christ and a belief in Russia’s right and duty to rule the lands of Holy Rus.

Read the whole thing.  It is a shameful thing when the Church puts itself under the thumb of the State, and when the Body of Christ pledges allegiance to nationalism, especially violent nationalism. As an Orthodox believer, I grieve for and pray for the Protestants and others persecuted by these Russian Orthodox jihadis.

I’ve been reading around in James Billington’s classic study of Russian cultural history, The Icon And The Axe.  It’s the first time I’ve seen it since high school, and I’m much better able to understand it now. The power of Slavophilic nationalism, of the idea of Russia as the bearer of salvation to the world, goes very, very deep in the Russian character. The Bolsheviks reified this in Marxist-Leninist terms, but they were working with what was already there. Whatever else this is, it is not the Gospel. Orthodox priests on both sides of the conflict ought to be working for peace and reconciliation, not war and the persecution of fellow Christians of different churches. What a terrible witness to the world. If that is Orthodox Christianity, who can blame people for judging it harshly?

This is why it is important, I believe, for Orthodox Christians to speak out against this abuse of the Gospel and the Church. We expect Muslims to do it when jihadists wage war in the name of Islam. We Orthodox Christians must do it when our own self-styled holy warriors make war in the name of Orthodoxy — especially against fellow Christians, including brother Orthodox Christians. I do not understand how any Rus unified by these tactics could possibly claim to be “holy.”

To be clear, I do not know how the conflict in Ukraine should be properly settled. I’m not taking sides. I am saying that those stirring images from the Maidan protests of Orthodox priests standing between protesters and police, desperately trying to keep the peace, are where in my view priests and monks on both sides of the civil war ought to be. Above is a photo of St. Vladimir cathedral in Kiev, built in the mid-19th century at the request of the Patriarch of Moscow, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus — the acceptance of Orthodox Christianity as the religion of historic Russia by Prince Vladimir. The Ukrainians and the Russians are brothers, whether they like it or not. The Church ought to be reminding them of this, not stoking war. And if brothers are bound to fight, then the least the Church can do is work to keep them from using the name of Christ and the Church to baptize their war.

UPDATE: Look, don’t misread this post as support for the Ukrainian cause. It is strictly an expression of lamentation and protest that some priests and monks are engaged in “holy war.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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