Putin is ‘making it a religious war’ — Head of U.S. Ukrainian Orthodox Church slams Russian leader, Moscow Patriarch Kirill

“The responsibility is on him and his soul,” Archbishop Daniel says of the Russian president.

(Alexander Zemlianichenko | The Associated Press) Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin, right, during the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 28, 2019.

As Archbishop Daniel, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, watched his home country endure an invasion at the hands of Russia this week, he found himself waffling between two emotions: shock and devastation.

It’s not that he was surprised by tension between the two countries, which is long-standing. The rifts between Russia and Ukraine even extend to the religious realm: In late 2018 and early 2019, Orthodox Christians in Ukraine declared independence, or autocephaly, from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Russia. The Orthodox Church in Constantinople promptly set about recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while Russian Orthodox leaders refused. The result: two opposing Orthodox factions in the country.

But seeing such tensions escalate to the level of armed conflict — with deadly consequences for Ukraine and its people — tore at Archbishop Daniel’s heart.

“I came to the United States of America in 1995, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said Thursday in an interview for Religion News Service with Lew Nescott Jr., an independent producer covering religion and politics. “I lived through the images of tanks going through Moscow and when the Soviet Union fell.

“Now, 30 years later,”  the archbishop said, “I am living through the images of Russian tanks going through the streets, through the sovereign borders of Ukraine.”

The interview is below, edited for length and clarity.

You went on a pastoral visit to Kyiv the first weekend in February. It must seem like it happened a year ago.

Absolutely. When I was in Kyiv, I stayed in a hotel very close to St. Michael’s Cathedral. I recognized the balcony where CNN was doing their live shot on television — at the hotel where I stayed. I called a friend of mine who lives in a monastery, a monastic. I said, “How’s it going? What’s happening?” He sent me images of news media all over St. Michael’s monastery trying to get as much coverage as they can.

As we were talking, he said, “Can you hear it — explosions in the background?” It was probably in a proximity of a few kilometers from there, and they were able to hear them.

Being in Kyiv at the beginning of February, people were on edge. They thought of the possibility of provocation from Russians, but nobody expected a full invasion. Now, our Western allies and intelligence from the U.S. have been saying — and in many news networks — that it’s possible, the Russians would do that. But you know, we live in the 21st century; who wants to believe that in the middle of Europe, in Ukraine, somebody will take the actions that he has taken?

I just finished talking to our seminarians — we have seven of them from Ukraine that reside in the seminary (in the U.S.). They’re telling me their parents are afraid to go outside. Bombs are being thrown. Aircraft are flying. Explosions are everywhere. My mother lives in western Ukraine, and she says that today, she wasn’t able to buy bread. The pharmacies are empty. People standing in lines, people trying to get as close as they can to the Polish border.

I understand you spoke with Metropolitan Epiphanius of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine a few hours after the invasion started. How is he and what did he say to you?

I reached out to him via mobile devices and tried to see how things are in Ukraine. My message did not get to him until about 4 in the morning today. I received a phone call back from him and, then, later I spoke to him for the second time. He is at St. Michael’s Cathedral, in his offices. He told me he’s in good health. He’s standing with bishops, clergy and faithful military chaplains of Orthodox Church of Ukraine. He is not planning to leave Ukraine. He said he is the spiritual father of the people of Ukraine and he must be with his flock, with his people.

So he’s staying in Kyiv, and I encourage everybody to offer their prayers for the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Orthodox Christians worldwide are on the verge of entering the most holy of seasons: Great and Holy Lent. What is your message to Ukrainian Americans here in the United States and to Ukrainian Orthodox Christians worldwide?

The sacred season of Great Lent is one of my favorite spiritual journeys that I always take very seriously. As Ukrainian Americans, we have a blessed opportunity right now to practice truly the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian when he talks about humility, when he talks about sacrifice, when he talks about looking at our own sinfulness and repenting over our personal transgressions and coming unto the Lord and asking for protection and for the renewal that we need. I am dropping, with my people of God of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, onto my knees, in that humble prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, asking God to have mercy over the people of Ukraine. Soldiers, military generals, right now they have these powerful weapons — they have nuclear power, tanks and what have you. But as Christians, as people of faith, we also have a weapon in our hands — and that’s a prayer.

I’m asking people of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and people of goodwill regardless of background to use the weapon of prayer, to soften the heart of the aggressor against Ukrainian people, and to stop the crimes against humanity that we’re experiencing.

Many Americans would be surprised to learn Russia and Ukraine are predominantly self-identified Orthodox Christian countries. Would it be fair to characterize this as a religious war with Orthodox Christians killing Orthodox Christians?

I think the president of the Russian Federation is making it a religious war. The responsibility is on him and his soul.

Look, major saints of the Slavic Orthodox Church — and I’m talking about Ukrainian Russian Orthodox Church and Serbian, what have you — a lot of them are of Ukrainian descent. Ukraine has produced the fathers of Orthodox Church that have served in Russia, Serbia, Moldova, Romania, in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and in Jerusalem. Ukrainians have contributed to the fabric — into the mosaic — of the spiritual entity of who we are as Orthodox Christians.

We are two distinct groups of people, Russians and Ukrainians. We’re people of one faith — we’re Christians. But our cultural background makes us different. Because of the impact that Western society has had on Ukraine, people in western Ukraine, and in general in Ukraine, are open to their whole idea of self entities, identifying themselves as Christians and asking themselves valid questions, “Why am I a Christian? Why am I Orthodox? Why am I doing the ritual I’m doing? Why am I living the way I live?”

In the northern part, or the northern neighbor, the Russian Federation, they would often use the teachings of the saints of the church and imply that you are not worthy of anything as a person, as a child of God, to accomplish anything in order to fully and truly approach him with your worthiness. Two distinct approaches to the sanctity of human life.

You’re saying that, imbued in thinking and practice in faith, the Ukrainian view is one of independence and freedom. Those who profess Orthodoxy are not entirely devoid of their ability to be good. Whereas in the more austere form of Russian Orthodoxy, all of humanity is condemned?


Ukrainians are striving or trying for centuries to preserve their identity — who they are as children of God.

There was a statement released Wednesday from Moscow Patriarch Kirill. What are your thoughts on that statement? Conciliatory? Goodwill? An appeal of some sort?

A letter from a religious politician, and not a spiritual father of the people of Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Kirill is repeating a so-called history lesson we all received from President Vladimir Putin a few days ago. You cannot rewrite history, Ukrainians and Russians. I’m not being divisive here, but we’re not sharing the same history. Ukraine — Kievan Rus’, not Russia.

To say that we share the same ethnic background and what have you — I think it’s a mistake. It’s an incorrect statement. And I wish the religious leaders would correct that terminology he’s utilizing. It’s not a brotherly conflict that we’re having in Ukraine. I have a younger brother, and when we were growing up, we had a conflict. We fought over little things. But at the end of the day, we knew we were brothers and we knew we had to respect each other because there was love between us. If you love somebody, as a brother, as a true brother, you’re not going to go and bomb the homes and destroy the lives of people, and then say, “Well, let’s bring humanitarian aid,” and what have you. If you’re truly the spiritual father, as you claim, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow, Patriarchate in Ukraine, then go and confront the political leader of the Russian Federation and tell him, “Stop abusing the people of my church.”

What is important for people in the United States, in particular, to know? Especially those who might say, “I’m not Ukrainian. I don’t know any Ukrainians. Why should we be concerned with Ukrainians? It’s their fight.”

It’s an issue of crimes against humanity. It’s against who we are as freedom-loving people of God.

If we allow something like this to happen in Ukraine today, then atrocities similar to this will happen in other parts of the world — sanctioning other dictators and political leaders to go ahead and abuse the sanctity of human life. I agree with you — some people may watch and hear reports and watch videos and say, “What do I have to do with Ukraine? I have my own way of life. I live in America. It’s thousands of miles away. As far as I’m concerned, Ukraine is far, far away from here, and it’s not dangerous for me.”

Well, it is. We live in a cosmopolitan society, in a cosmopolitan world. It’s no longer about one single nation here and there, spread around the globe. We’re all interconnected, our economies, our way of life, our cultures. And then there is the very core of our existence: created in the image and likeness of God. We have to keep that in mind. We’re all part of the mystical body of Christ.

Jack Jenkins contributed to this report.