Kirill’s statements and sermons largely avoided censorship and international scorn before the war, but his fiercely patriotic stance and pro-Putin propaganda have now caused some religious leaders to condemn him.
Among those alarmed by Kirill’s latest actions is Pope Francis. After holding a virtual meeting with Kirill in May, the pope told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Kirill “cannot turn into Putin’s altar boy” and that they are not state clerics, but of God.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who acts as a spiritual leader and de facto representative of Christian Orthodoxy, in an interview in late May with Greek state television ERT1, said “the Church of Russia has let us down” .
“I don’t know how he can justify himself to his conscience. How he will justify it, how history will judge it,” Bartholomew said of Kirill. “He should react to the invasion of Ukraine and condemn the war as all the other Orthodox primates have done.”
The tensions pushed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to declare itself an autonomous faction, with the Ukrainian parliament passing a resolution to sanction Kirill.
The Ukrainian embassy in Washington declined to say whether President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government was pushing the United States to sanction Kirill.
Congress, the State Department and the White House have remained largely silent on the issue, baffling some foreign affairs observers.
“I think it’s just pure embarrassment that they’re not sanctioning it,” said Gary Clyde Hufbauer, nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “I imagine the reason for this is that the Treasury authorities in the United States do not want to get into a dispute over religious qualifications and moral authority.”
The United States has sanctioned religious leaders in the past, but they haven’t necessarily landed there because of their preaching.
A notable example is Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is a high-ranking Islamic scholar, but he is also the Supreme Leader of Iran and has been sanctioned by the United States for supporting terrorism and engaging in a series of destabilizing actions in the Middle East. East.
The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other self-proclaimed religious figures within the so-called Islamic State faced sanctions, but they were targeted by the United States for terrorism. In many of these cases, the sanctions are nominal because the individuals have no assets in the United States and do not tend to surrender; Yet the sanctions can have a chilling effect far beyond US borders, as foreign banks and other institutions avoid doing business with those targeted.
Analysts and former officials could not think of many, if any, prominent religious figures who had been disciplined for their faith-related work or words.
“The United States recognizes religious freedom as an inalienable right and is therefore committed to its preservation and advancement for all,” a State Department spokesperson said when asked to comment. “Imposing sanctions is a complicated process. The decision to sanction an entity or individuals should be seen as advancing goals and effectively influencing outcomes, but most importantly, the sanctioned person must meet certain criteria before the sanctioning decision is made, as described in Authority competent for this sanctions programme.
In other words, it may come down to whether the individual in question poses a threat, may be linked to state corruption or the financing of terrorism.
“The others were sanctioned because they supported terrorist operations and directly funded them,” said Brian O’Toole, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US Treasury official who helped design sets of US sanctions. “If you can remove the ability to fundraise, you should because it helps the battlefield. It saves people’s lives. Sanctioning Kirill probably won’t save anyone’s life.
“If he were involved in some of the Putin-related corruption, that might make him a more advantageous target politically,” O’Toole added.
US officials are also considering how a sanctions move might prompt the Kremlin chief to react. For example, Putin’s long-talked-about girlfriend Alina Kabaeva is on international sanctions lists, including those of Canada, Britain and the EU. But the United States has not pursued it, with some behind-the-scenes officials concerned Kabaeva’s inclusion would hit too close to home for Putin, possibly leading him to step up the fight.
The Russian Orthodox Church in the United States has remained relatively silent on this subject. Metropolitan Tikhon, the highest clergy in Christian Orthodoxy in the United States and Canada, sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill in March calling on him to “do what he can to end the war in Ukraine and the suffering and death of countless victims”.
But Kirill seems to have ignored the advice.
“We don’t want to fight anyone, Russia has never attacked anyone,” Kirill told worshipers during a sermon in May. “It’s surprising when a big and powerful country hasn’t attacked anyone. He only defended his borders.
The hesitation of US sanctions may be indicative of how Washington understands religion. But in Russia, Soldatov argues, the lines between church and state are not only blurred, they are almost indistinguishable.
“You can argue that the Russian Orthodox Church is a state affair; an ideological institution that provides an ideological argument to those who support the war,” Soldatov said.