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Russia attacks Ukraine: Why some experts insist Putin is motivated by religion

What’s religion got to do with Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

A whole lot, according to some experts.

At ReligionUnplugged.com, Richard Ostling stresses that journalists shouldn’t neglect the importance of two rival churches.

Ostling, retired longtime religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press, points out:

Russia and Ukraine contain, by far, the two largest national populations in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The new World Christian Encyclopedia edition — which belongs in every media and academic library — counts 114 million Orthodox in Russia, for 79% of the population, and 32 million in Ukraine, for 73%.

Terminology note for writers: “Eastern Orthodox” is the precise designation for such churches — related historically to the Ecumenical Patriarchate based in Turkey — that affirm the definition of Jesus Christ’s divinity by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The separate branch of so-called “Oriental Orthodox” is non-Chalcedonian; its largest national church is in Ethiopia.

Ukraine’s ecclesiastical history, like its political history, is highly complex. The saga began with the A.D. 988 “baptism of Rus” in Kyiv — Russians prefer “Kiev” — when Prince Vladimir proclaimed Orthodoxy the religion of his realm and urged the masses to join him in conversion and baptism.

Russians see Christendom’s entry into Eastern Europe as the origin of their homeland and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian President Vladimir Putin cites this history to support his claim for Ukraine as a client area within greater Russia instead of a validly independent nation. His post-Soviet Kremlin maintains close bonds with the Russian Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, which in turn has centuries of ecclesiastical authority within Ukraine.

At Religion News Service, religion author Diana Butler Bass makes the case that “Kyiv is essentially Jerusalem, and this is a conflict over who will have control of Orthodoxy — Moscow or Constantinople.”

Bass writes:

While the secular media tries to guess Vladimir Putin’s motives in Ukraine, one important aspect of the current situation has gone largely ignored: religion.

I’m no expert in Eastern European history, but my training in church history offers a lens into the events in Ukraine. In effect, the world is witnessing 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.

The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into 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.

At Religion Dispatches, scholar Katie Kelaidis argues:

Make no mistake about it, if there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, it’ll be a religious war. The sooner those in the West recognize this reality and catch up on the details the better.

At Unherd, journalist and clergyman Giles Fraser reflects on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “spiritual destiny” and suggests:

At the heart of this post-Soviet revival of Christianity is another Vladimir. Vladimir Putin. Many people don’t appreciate the extent to which the invasion of Ukraine is a spiritual quest for him. The Baptism of Rus is the founding event of the formation of the Russian religious psyche, the Russian Orthodox church traces its origins back here. That’s why Putin is not so much interested in a few Russian-leaning districts to the east of Ukraine. His goal, terrifyingly, is Kyev itself.

Putin “is after more than land — he wants the religious soul of Ukraine,” former U.S. State Department envoy Knox Thames writes for RNS.

For additional background, see researcher Chrissy Stroop’s 2018 ForeignPolicy piece on how “Putin wants God (or at least the church) on his side.”

Read the rest of the column.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

“Weekend Plug-in,”  featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced each week by Religion Unplugged.

Filed under: Conflict in Ukraine Eastern Europe Inside Story International News Pray for Ukraine Russia Russia Ukraine conflict Top Stories Vladimir Putin Weekend Plug-In

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