Those of us who write about religion — what is known colloquially as “the God beat” — know that there is a religious angle to most stories. This includes the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Those of us who write about religion — what is known colloquially as “the God beat” — know that there is a religious angle to most stories. This includes the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In deciding to invade that country, Vladimir Putin gave many reasons: regime change, a return of Ukraine to the Russian fold, preventing it from joining NATO, and to demilitarize it.

One other reason not widely spoken about is his desire to unite Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine under one church controlled by Moscow.

That’s the view of Knox Thames, a former special envoy for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State. In a recent article for Religion News Service, he noted the physical landscape of Ukraine isn’t the only battle space Russian invaders hope to dominate.

“For the past decade, the two countries have fought another battle — not over territory but the religious orientation of Ukraine,” he said. “And if Russia occupies the country, religious freedom will be one of the many casualties.”

Ukraine, he noted, is an ancient nation, dating back to at least the 10th century, with an eastern Christian identity at its root.

While many faiths operate freely in Ukraine, such as Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, the country’s population of 43 million is overwhelmingly Christian and predominantly identifies with the Orthodox Church.

Many are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, with 12,000 parishes. A branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is under the spiritual authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

But others belong to the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriarchate, with 7,000 parishes. It was formed in 2018 to be independent from the Russia-led Orthodox Church and to provide a unique Ukrainian expression of the Christian faith.

How does this fit into the invasion?

For Thames, it’s all part of Putin’s plan to put all of Ukrainian life, including religious life, under the sway of Russia. This, he said, would be a disaster for Ukraine, since Russia has one of the worst records of religious freedom in the world; it is well known for its persecution of small religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

According to Thames, Moscow “would likely not countenance an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, possibly forcing it back into the family of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia’s regressive treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and proselytizing groups would likely be forced on the entire country.”

But it goes further than that, said author and church historian Diana Butler Bass.

Writing on her substack, The Cottage, Butler Bass said what we are witnessing is “a new version of an old tale — the quest to re-create an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval ‘Holy Roman Empire’ — uniting political, economic and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.”

In her view, Putin’s ambition goes beyond Europe to create a coalition of religious conservatives as a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom.

“The theory is to create a partnership between American evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in Western countries and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies — decadent secularism, a rising China and Islam — for a glorious rebirth of moral purity and Christian culture,” she said.

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Butler Bass went on to say Putin’s ambitions cross the ocean to the U.S. in the form of a Christian Internationalism that has been supported by people like Steve Bannon, former U.S. Secretary of State, evangelical Christian Mike Pompeo and Franklin Graham, who has spoken positively of Putin in the past for what he sees as his emphasis on strong family values and opposition to LGBTQ+ rights.

For her, the conflict in Ukraine is about “what kind of Orthodoxy will shape Eastern Europe and other Orthodox communities around the world, especially in Africa,” she said, adding “this is a crusade, recapturing the Holy Land of Russian Orthodoxy, and defeating the Westernized (and decadent) heretics who do not bend the knee to Moscow’s spiritual authority.”

The question ahead of us, she said, is who will control Orthodox Christianity. “Will global Orthodoxy lean toward a more pluralistic and open future, or will it be part of the authoritarian neo-Christendom triumvirate?” she asked.

This column is being written a week before you read it. I don’t know how the invasion will turn out. But if Thames and Butler Bass are correct, Putin’s war against Ukraine is bigger than territory, resources and politics. It’s also about the spiritual soul of Ukraine.

As Butler Bass put it: “Putin thinks he’s got the approval of God. You just know he wants to celebrate Easter — this one or next — in Kyiv.”

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.