Patriarch Kirill (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (file photo)
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has told his followers that "sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins."
The patriarch's comments during his Sunday sermon on September 25 came amid nationwide protests and rising criticism over the Kremlin's recent announcement of a partial mobilization to replenish Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
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Western officials estimate that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties since it invaded Ukraine in February.
Russian officials have said the draft would focus on reservists and would bring 300,000 fresh troops to the war effort. But Russian media has said the real target is 1 million new troops, and reports that men with no combat experience and beyond draft age are being enlisted has attracted criticism even from pro-Kremlin voices.
Kirill, a prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin who has "blessed" the war effort and warned by Pope Francis against becoming "Putin's altar boy," has previously claimed that Russians were doing a "heroic deed" by killing Ukrainians, even as he has urged them not to see the Ukrainian people as enemies.
"We know that many today are dying in the fields of internecine battle," Kirill said at a church near Moscow on September 25. "The church is praying that this battle will end as soon as possible, that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war."
However, he added, "The church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to honor his oath, stays loyal to his vocation and dies while carrying out his military duty, then he is, without any doubt, doing a deed that is equal to sacrifice."
After Putin announced the military mobilization on September 21, Kirill was quoted by Russian state media as saying that "danger looms over the Ukrainian people," claiming that unidentified forces were trying to turn them from being "part of the holy united Rus into a state hostile to this Rus, hostile to Russia."
Kirill sees Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February as a bulwark against a decadent West and has insisted that "Russia has never attacked anyone."
About 34 percent of Orthodox believers in Ukraine identify with the main Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which in 2019 was officially recognized as separate from the Moscow Patriarchate by Orthodox Christianity's spiritual head, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
About 14 percent of Ukraine's Orthodox community are members of Ukraine's Moscow Patriarchate Church, according to a 2020 study.
Following Russia's invasion in February, about 400 parishes of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine that had remained loyal to Kirill cut ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over the patriarch's position on the war.
"Not only did he fail to condemn Russia's military aggression, but he also failed to find words for the suffering of the Ukrainian people," church spokesman Archbishop Kliment said of Kirill's stance in May.
Days later, Kirill said he understood the decision to cut ties amid Moscow's invasion but claimed that the "spirits of malice" were trying to divide the Orthodox people of Russia and Ukraine.
More than 150 Russian Orthodox clerics called for a stop to the war in an open letter on March 1. Kirill was not among those who signed it.
Britain imposed sanctions against Kirill in June as part of a package aimed at punishing Moscow over the war in Ukraine. The measure came shortly after the EU dropped a similar proposal to sanction Kirill following opposition from Russia-friendly bloc member Hungary.
Jen Psaki, who was spokeswoman for the White House at the time, said in May when asked about the possibility of sanctioning Kirill that "no one is safe from our sanctions."