Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “has become a holy war for Russia”, says Janine di Giovanni in Foreign Policy. And he’s enlisted Bishop Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, as his “wingman”. Kirill justifies the war through homophobia: in a March sermon, he claimed that the West was trying to exterminate the people of Ukraine’s Donbas region because the locals refused to hold gay pride parades. Kirill, a long-time Putin ally, has praised his president’s wars before: he described Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war as a “holy battle”. Then, as now, photos circulated of Orthodox priests “blessing missiles and planes that would destroy people’s homes and crush lives”.
This use of Christianity to justify violence isn’t just a Russian phenomenon. During the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbian Orthodox bishops blessed troops who butchered Muslim civilians. The Catholic Church in Rwanda has been accused by some theologians of having supported the country’s genocide “to secure its own power”. For a recent book, I interviewed dozens of Christian minority leaders in the Middle East, many of whom “backed murderous dictators” like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad. They supported these tyrants to gain protection for their communities. But preaching “the Gospels of love and compassion” sits uneasily with putting trust “in men with blood on their hands”.