The pledge from Patriarch Kirill I came in response to a written appeal from a Ukrainian Orthodox Church leader, who asked him to speak out in favor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The Ukrainian clergyman sent a separate letter to Putin, appealing to him “to not permit bloodshed” in Ukraine.
There are three rival Orthodox churches in Ukraine, and the most striking aspect of the appeals is that they came from the one that is closest to Moscow – the only one that has canonical ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In his letter to Kirill, Metropolitan Onufry, the acting head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Moscow Patriarchate (UOC/MP), voiced concern “about a possible invasion of Ukraine by border troops of the Russian armed forces.”
“If this happens, the Ukrainian and Russian peoples will be engaged in a clash that will have catastrophic consequences for our countries,” he said.
“I appeal to you, Your Holiness, to do everything possible to prevent bloodshed on the territory of Ukraine. I ask you to lift your voice for the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.”
Kirill is generally viewed as supportive of Putin. In 2012 he was quoted as calling the years during which Putin served as president and prime minister a “miracle of God.” Last November Kirill awarded Putin a prize honoring his efforts to turn Russia into “a powerful and strong country that has self-respect and is respected by others.”
Kirill’s response to Onufry’s appeal came in a message in which he expressed on “sorrow, anxiety and pain” about the situation in Ukraine, and “the confrontation and divisions between people including those who are bound by the common faith.”
“The church does not take a particular side in political struggle. But the duty of the church is to intercede on behalf of those who are subjected to violence, who need protection, whose life is in danger,” the patriarch said.
“Responding to your appeal, your Eminence, I assure you and our Ukrainian flock that I will do everything that is possible to persuade those in power that they cannot allow destroying peaceful people in the Ukrainian land so dear to my heart.”
Kirill also addressed divisions between the country’s Ukrainian-speaking majority and Russian-speaking minority.
“None of those who live in Ukraine today should feel strangers in their own home, whatever language they may speak,” he said. “Any further polarization of society and growth of violence against civilians cannot be allowed.”
Following the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow former president, Viktor Yanukovich, the Kremlin has accused the new administration in Kiev of discriminating against Russians in the south and east, citing fears of oppression and violence against them as reasons for its military intervention in Crimea.
In his letter to Putin, which was read out at an important UOC/MP monastery in Kiev on Sunday, Onufry expressed deep concern at the Russian parliament’s granting to the president of the right to use armed force on Ukrainian soil.
“Very little separates us from slipping into the abyss from which it will take decades to exit,” the letter said,
“Today official rhetoric is a long way from assuring the people of God who live both on the [Crimean] peninsula and in all other parts of Ukraine,” he wrote. “Careless speech can bring unpredictable consequences and, God forbid, disaster.”
Onufry urged Putin to “prevent the division of our Ukrainian state and the holy church,” and “to not permit bloodshed and fratricide.”
The UOC/MP is one of three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. It received autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990 – weeks after Ukraine’s parliament declared independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union – but remains under its ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
The other two Orthodox churches are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Kiev Patriarchate (UOC/KP), which was established in 1992 and is unrecognized by other Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which dates back to the 1920s, was formally disbanded during the Soviet era, but regained state recognition in 1990.
Meanwhile leaders from a cross-section of Ukrainian religious denominations, including the UOC/KP, Greek Catholic, Lutheran, Adventist, evangelical and Jewish faiths signed a letter calling on Russia to “stop its aggression” and withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory.
The religious leaders disputed Moscow’s claims about discrimination along language, religious or national lines, and said its portrayals of the change of government in Ukraine as a “fascist coup” or victory by “extremists” were untrue.
They also appealed to the United States, Britain, the European Union and United Nations to “stop foreign invasion into Ukraine and brutal interference into our internal affairs.”