(In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, Russian Orthodox priest Father Vasily Gelevan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Church of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin in Sokolniki in Moscow, Russia. The fresco in the background depicts a Russian Orthodox priest walking with a cross in hand alongside Russian army soldiers in a 1904 battle with Japanese troops.)
ROME – A group of Russian Orthodox priests has launched an open petition calling for an immediate ceasefire to the war with Ukraine and criticized the suppression of non-violent protests demanding peace.
In the petition, which already has nearly 300 signatures after being launched earlier this week, the priests and archpriests said they are each appealing personally “to everyone on whom the cessation of the fratricidal war in Ukraine depends, with a call for reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire.”
The appeal is considered unusual because the Russian Orthodox Church, especially at the leadership level, has long been considered a reliable ally of the Kremlin. Notably, there are no metropolitans among the signatories to the petition, the most senior figures in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy.
They noted that the appeal was launched between the second Sunday before Lent, which is dedicated to the Last Judgement, and the final Sunday before Lent, which in the Orthodox Church is known as “Forgiveness Sunday.”
In their appeal, the priests cautioned that “the Last Judgment awaits every person. No earthly authority, no doctors, no guards will protect from this judgment.”
“Concerned about the salvation of every person who considers himself a child of the Russian Orthodox Church, we do not want him to appear at this judgment, bearing the heavy burden of mothers’ curses,” they said.
Jesus’ body and blood, they said, will be received in communion on Sunday “by those people who give murderous orders, not into life, but into eternal torment.”
“We mourn the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to,” they said, calling life a “priceless and unique gift” and calling for the safe return of all soldiers, Russian and Ukrainian, to their homes and families.
The priests lamented “the abyss that our children and grandchildren in Russia and Ukraine will have to overcome in order to once again begin to be friends with each other, respect and love each other.”
Stressing the value of mankind’s freedom as a God-given right, they said Ukraine ought to decide their future “on their own, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East.”
As Forgiveness Sunday, observed March 7 for the Russian Orthodox, approaches, the priests said the gates to heaven are open to everyone, even those who have committed serious sins, provided that they seek forgiveness from those they “humiliated, insulted, despised, or from those who were killed by his hands or by his order.”
“There is no other way but forgiveness and mutual reconciliation,” they said.
Quoting a biblical passage in Genesis after Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy, the priests said, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground; and now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother from your hand.”
“Woe to every person who realizes that these words are addressed to him personally,” they said.
The priests also opposed the oppression of peaceful protesters to the war in Russia, many of whom have been arrested, saying, “no non-violent call for peace and an end to war should be forcibly suppressed and considered as a violation of the law, for such is the divine commandment: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’”
They called all parties involved to engage in meaningful dialogue, saying, “There is no other alternative to violence.”
“Only the ability to hear the other can give hope for a way out of the abyss into which our countries were thrown in just a few days,” they said, adding, “Let yourself and all of us enter Great Lent in the spirit of faith, hope and love. Stop the war.”
Now in its 11th day, the war began Feb. 24 when Russian military crossed into Ukraine for what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation.”
Numerous countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world have issued harsh sanctions against Russian companies and individuals as a result of the war, which so far is estimated to have claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Ukrainian troops and around 500 Russian soldiers, according to official estimates.
The war took a frightening turn Friday, when Russian military fired on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine, causing a fire that was later extinguished. Russian troops have now occupied the plant and are reportedly forcing managers to work at gunpoint.
Numerous countries around the globe condemned the incident, with the United States embassy in Ukraine cautioning that an attack on a nuclear plant is a “war crime,” and the United Nations Security Council calling an emergency meeting.
Since the war erupted, numerous other Christian churches and leaders, including many other Orthodox communities, have condemned it, and called for an immediate end to hostilities.
While the Russian Orthodox priests who signed the petition are calling for a ceasefire, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has yet to issue his own condemnation.
Kirill has prayed for the safety and wellbeing of civilians and for a quick end to fighting. However, he has come under fire for his perceived lack of support for Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity.
During a divine liturgy in Moscow Feb. 27, just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kirill said, “We must not let dark and hostile external forces laugh at us; we must do everything to maintain peace between our peoples and at the same time protect our common historical fatherland from all outside actions that can destroy this unity.”
Several Catholic and Orthodox leaders have appealed to Kirill to plead with Putin for an end to the war, including Romanian Orthodox Father Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches; Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops’ conference; the recently independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine; and Ukraine’s other Orthodox Church which is in full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kirill has not yet responded to any of these public appeals. However, he met with the Vatican’s envoy to Russia, Archbishop Giovanni D’Agnello, at the Moscow patriarchate March 3.
Pope Francis, while not yet mentioning Russia or Putin directly, has consistently appealed for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine. He is expected to meet with Kirill over the summer.
According to the Moscow patriarchate, in his meeting with D’Agnello Kirill praised Pope Francis as someone who “makes an important contribution to the creation of peace and justice among people.”
He also said the “moderate and wise position” of the Holy See on many international matters is consistent with that of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“It is very important that Christian churches, including our churches, voluntarily or involuntarily, sometimes without any will, would not become participants in those complex, contradictory tendencies that are present on the world agenda today,” Kirill said.
“We are trying to take a peacemaking position, including in the face of existing conflicts,” he said, “Because the church cannot be a participant in a conflict – it can only be a peacemaking force.”