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Orban criticises EU plans to sanction head of Russian Orthodox Church

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By Alice Tidey
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the Naval Cathedral in Kronshtadt, July 30, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the Naval Cathedral in Kronshtadt, July 30, 2017.   -   Copyright  Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP   -  

EU plans to impose sanctions on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church are an attack on religious freedom, says Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban. 

Patriarch Kirill, one of Vladimir Putin's most fervent supporters, was put on a draft European Commission blacklist earlier this week. 

Orban, in an interview with Hungarian public radio on Friday, said he is against the move, calling it an "issue of religious freedom".

EU ambassadors are meeting in Brussels on Friday to finalise a sixth round of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. 

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs earlier this week that the punitive measures would target the oil sector as well as people who act as the Kremlin's mouthpieces.

She did not name Kirill but media reports said he is expected to be included. 

War in Ukraine is a 'test of loyalty'

In a sermon delivered earlier this week, Kirill stated that "Russia has never attacked anyone" and that "we don't want to go to war".

"It is amazing that a great and mighty country has never attacked anyone - it has only defended its borders," he added.

In another sermon, this time from March, he claimed that "for eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in (Ukraine's eastern region of) Donbas. And in the Donbas, there is a rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are being offered today by those who claim world power".

He then said the region is going through a "test of loyalty to this power" and continued by saying: "The test is very simple and at the same time terrible – this is a gay parade. The demands on many to hold a gay parade are a test of loyalty to that mighty world, and we know that if people or countries reject these demands, then they do not enter into that world; they become strangers to it."

He added that what is happening is "far more important than politics" and that is "it about human salvation, about where mankind will be on the right or on the left side of God the Saviour".

'Putin's altar boy'

Kirill's support of Putin and the war has already drawn condemnation.

A Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam split with the Moscow patriarchate in March. The clergy said then that " it is no longer possible for them to function within the Moscow Patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for our faithful" in a statement posted on Facebook.

Pope Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra that he told Patriarch Kirill during a 40-minute long phone conversation in March that "we are not state clerics" and warned him against becoming "Putin's altar boy". He also said Kirill spent their call reading odd "justifications for the war."

The Russian Orthodox Church criticised the Pope's comments in a statement on Thursday as "the wrong tone to convey the content of this conversation".

"Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which is especially needed at the present time," it added.

The statement also includes Kremlin lines to justify its invasion of Ukraine, accusing "representatives of Nazi groups" in Ukraine of attacking Russian-speaking residents of the country and NATO for moving eastwards. 

The World Council of Churches, a worldwide Christian inter-church organisation, has meanwhile written twice to Patriarch Kirill since the beginning of the Russian invasion on 24 February. In their latest letter, dated 19 April, he was called upon "to intervene and mediate for a peaceful solution, for dialogue rather than confrontation, for an end to the fraternal blood shedding".

"I am aware that it is not in your power and authority to stop the war or to influence those who have such powers of decisions. But the faithful are waiting for a comforting word from Your Holiness. They think that if you come out with a public statement and request, as the spiritual father of so many millions of Orthodox in both Russia and Ukraine, that might have an impact," the organisation's Acting General Secretary, Father Ioan Sauca, wrote.

Former Soviet states largely Orthodox

According to a Pew Research Centre poll carried out in 2017, more than 70% of adults identify as Orthodox in Russia and former Soviet or Soviet-allied states including Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) aligned itself to Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with ties strengthening since Putin came to power, according to the European Parliament's Research Service. The ROC claims canonical jurisdiction over much of the former USSR territory and has elaborated a Russkiy Mir or "Russian world" ("mir" also translates as peace) doctrine.

A  Russkiy Mir Foundation was also been created by Putin in 2007 to promote the Russian language and Russian culture worldwide.

The close links between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin had already created tensions between the various Orthodox authorities prior to this year's invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared itself independent in 2019.