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Orthodox Church leaders called on to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When we think of Russians living outside of Russia, attention is often focused on the high-living oligarchs in Putin's corner, but there are millions of others in the Russian diaspora, and some have been vocal in their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. And as the war enters its third year, they want their church leaders to be more vocal, too. Russian-American lawyer Lena Zezulin wrote about this in Fordham University's Public Orthodoxy forum. I asked her whether any Orthodox clergy leaders abroad had condemned the war.

LENA ZEZULIN: Parts of the Russian Orthodox Church that were in Ukraine, headed by a clergyman named Metropolitan Onufriy - they condemned the war. They asked the patriarch in Russia and President Putin to end the war. But the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia did not issue any statement condemning the war. They have done fundraising for Metropolitan Onufriy's flock and for some relief of refugees in Ukraine. I've personally spoken to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2022. And we asked, why aren't you condemning the war? Their answer is they don't want to get into politics. Well, in fact, they are in politics if they're not saying anything and if they are remaining part of a structure that is affirmatively supporting the war. The Patriarch of Moscow has not only supported the war by various statements, in which he says that it's a just cause, etc. He's also said something that the Orthodox consider rather heretical, which is that if a soldier dies in the war, instantly, his or her sins will all be forgiven, and that person will go to heaven. That is not a mainstream Orthodox opinion.

MARTIN: So you've been part of a group of Russian-Americans who've been trying to kind of rally Russians outside to dissent and also to try to get messages into the Russian-language media to express this stance. Do you feel that you've made any headway?

ZEZULIN: Most people don't like to rock the boat. And generally, in most parishes, there's very much a focus of going along, obedience to the leadership of the church. But I do think that the church is split and that there are a number of people who agree with me, but they're not outspoken.

MARTIN: In the piece that you wrote for the magazine Public Orthodoxy, you said, the Moscow Patriarchate is acting as a de facto arm of the neo-Stalinist state. Defrocking clergy who pray for peace, President Putin mischaracterizes the invasion as a war against the West and Western decadence.

ZEZULIN: The way it works is that the Russian Church historically, before the revolution, was very aligned with the Russian state. And under Putin's presidency, he has sought to have the church be part of the state ideology. And the church very much supports the state, blesses weapons, blesses soldiers. And I don't think it's unfair to call the Russian state neo-Stalinist at this point. They're repressing people all the time. And, of course, there's not only the Navalny death in a prison camp, but thousands of people whose names we don't know have been arrested for opposing the war. And the patriarch has defrocked clergy. I mean, instead of praying for victory, clergymen have prayed for peace, and they have been defrocked for that.

MARTIN: Do you have hope that at some point, the leaders of your church will come to see things as you do or at least to be more outspoken? Do you still hold on to that hope?

ZEZULIN: I do have a hope. I think that every day that the war goes on, every day that there are new atrocities that we're aware of, people are becoming more aware that this is actually happening. As time goes on, more and more people become outraged about the war.

MARTIN: That is Lena Zezulin. She is a Russian-American attorney based in New York. Lena Zezulin, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

ZEZULIN: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: We did reach out to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Spokesman Nicholas Ohotin told NPR that a prayer for peace in Ukraine is read at all the church's liturgies. He said lay refugees from Ukraine and clergy have been welcomed into its communities, and the church has provided its Ukrainian counterpart with financial and humanitarian aid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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