Russian Orthodox Church says not taking sides in Ukraine crisis

(PHOTO: REUTERS / Yves Herman)People gather outside an European Union emergency foreign ministers meeting to protest against Russian troops in Ukraine, in Brussels March 3, 2014.

MOSCOW, April 30 (Reuters) - The Russian Orthodox Church, accused by critics of being too closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin, should stay out of politics and focus on promoting peace inUkraine, its head Patriarch Kirill said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a meeting with his senior clerics, Kirill said Ukraine was one of the most important concerns for the Russian Orthodox Church and that the church should "safeguard its peace-making capacity" there against all odds.

The West and Russia are at loggerheads over Ukraine and some of the recent comments made by theRussian Orthodox Church about the crisis have echoed Moscow's lines.

"Our Church is not succumbing to any political temptations and refuses to serve for any political positions," Kirill said, thumping his fist on the table for emphasis.

He said the Russian Orthodox Church, resurgent since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and promoted by Putin as the carrier of national values, "is working not only for the flock in Russia, but for the whole Church."

Putin and Kirill have fostered increasingly close ties since the former KGB officer returned to the presidency for a third term in 2012 and took a more conservative stance on social matters.

Critics of the Russian Orthodox Church have said it is acting as a de-facto government ministry for Putin, including in foreign affairs, and have warned that such political engagement could backfire.

Kirill's church is aligned with Putin's drive to reunite the former Soviet space, with the Russian OrthodoxChurch exerting considerable influence through its 165 million members in Russia and other former USSR republics.

That also goes for Ukraine, where Kirill's Moscow Patriarchate is at odds with the Ukrainian OrthodoxChurch of Kiev Patriarchate that seceded from Moscow after Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

The Moscow Patriarchate dominates in the Russian-speaking East, where there is growing separatist unrest.

Orthodox followers of the smaller Kiev Patriarchate tend to be more numerous in Western parts of the country and to back Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity. Some of its clerics actively supported pro-Western protesters in Kiev.

In his speech, Kirill attacked the Kiev Patriarchate for taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict, and said only his congregation was following the principles of political non-involvement and denouncing as "insane" priests who take part in popular protests and encourage the crowds.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toni Reinhold)