World churches body critical of World Russian People's Council decree describing Ukraine conflict as 'Holy War'

(Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC)

World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Jerry Pillay says the WCC cannot reconcile the Decree of the XXV World Russian People's Council, whose head is the Orthodox Patriarch, and which described the conflict in Ukraine as a "Holy War."

The World Russian People's Council is the largest Russian public forum, and according to its Statutes, the head of the council is the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, under whose presidency the annual council meetings are held, said the WCC

According to Newsweek, on March 28, the Russian Orthodox Church approved a document that deems President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine a "Holy War."


"The declaration came during a congress of the World Russian People's Council in which religious, political, and cultural figures in the country met at the site of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a focal point for the Orthodox faith in Russia," said Newsweek.

The declaration came during a congress of the World Russian People's Council in which religious, political, and cultural figures in the country met at the site of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a focal point for the Orthodox faith in Russia

On March 27, with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in the chair, the Decree of the XXV World Russian People's Council "The Present and Future of the Russian World" was approved, the WCC reported.

The decree was addressed to Russia's legislative and executive authorities, and Pillay said it raised grave concerns among WCC member churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church is believed to be the most numerically strong of the 352 member churches of the WCC, which includes most of the world's Orthodox churches (Eastern and Oriental).

It also includes African Instituted, Anglican, Assyrian, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian, Old-Catholic, Pentecostal, Reformed, United/Uniting and Free/Independent churches, Disciples of Christ and Friends (Quakers).

"Among other concerns arising from the recent decree," said Pillay, "the World Council of Churches cannot reconcile the statement that 'the special military operation [in Ukraine] is a Holy War,'"

He said the world church body could also not align "with what we have heard directly from Patriarch Kirill himself, nor with relevant WCC governing body policy pronouncements, nor indeed with the biblical calling for Christians to be peacemakers in the midst of conflict."

In a meeting with the WCC general secretary in Moscow in May 2023, Patriarch Kirill said that any references he had made to "Holy War" in the current context were related to the metaphysical realm, not the physical armed conflict in Ukraine.

He had agreed with the WCC general secretary that no war of armed violence can be "holy."

"The decree contradicts this position," Pillay noted.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, WCC's highest governing bodies – the central committee in June 2022 and the WCC 11th Assembly in September 2022 – have strongly affirmed the position that "war is incompatible with God's very nature and will for humanity and against our fundamental Christian and ecumenical principles."

They explicitly denounced the invasion of Ukraine as "illegal and unjustifiable," says the WCC.

In addition, they rejected "any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred."

The WCC noted that the Russian Orthodox Church was represented in key governing body meetings of the church body and the processes leading to adopting these statements.

"In light of the established positions of WCC's highest governing bodies, the WCC cannot accept the decree's presentation of Russia's illegal and unjustifiable invasion of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine as a new stage of the national liberation struggle of the Russian people against the criminal Kyiv regime and the collective West behind it, conducted in the lands of South-Western Russia since 2014,' or the perspective that 'all territory of modern Ukraine should enter into a zone of exclusive influence of Russia,'" said Pillay.


The WCC general secretary has written to Patriarch Kirill to clarify whether this decree should be understood as expressing the Russian Orthodox Church's position.

He wants to know how such positions can be held by a member church of the World Council of Churches and how they compare with what he has heard directly from the Patriarch himself.

"An urgent meeting has been requested to discuss this matter and to find ways in which the concerns raised within the fellowship can be addressed," said Pillay.

In February 2022, Patriarch Kirill said that Ukraine and Belarus were part of "Russian lands" and called the Ukrainians who were defending themselves against Russian aggression as "forces of evil," pitching the war as a battle for the future of Christianity, Newsweek reported.

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