Dissenting voices hunted down in the Russian Orthodox Church

Dissenting voices

In the warring empire of the potentate, Vladimir Putin and the pontiff Patriarch Kirill, a priest who prays for peace is a perjurer.

He condemns himself to be treated as an apostate, the religious equivalent of a political traitor.

This is the extent to which Russia will go in silencing those within the Orthodox Church who have not whole-heartedly backed its invasion of Ukraine.

The latest victim of this systematic purge is a man named Ioann Koval.

This previously unknown priest in an ordinary parish – St Andrew’s in Lyublino, a district of Moscow – was suspended from the priesthood simply because he did not use his pulpit to call for more bloodshed.

What happened?

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow last September 25 instituted a liturgical invocation of his own invention: “Behold, the battle is being waged against Holy Rus’ to divide its undivided people. Rise up O God, for the help of thy people, and grant us victory by your power.”

He solemnly added this obligatory and bellicose supplication to the long anthology of his anti-gospel formulas.

Koval is involuntarily the living proof of this unity of Orthodox Slavs.

He was born in 1978 in the city of Luhansk in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

He studied piano and theology in Moscow, where he met and married his wife, a Russian who teaches literature. Koval, who is the father of five children, was ordained in 2004 and dedicated his ministry to patients in psychiatric hospitals.

He was then assigned as the second parish priest of Saint Andrew’s, and it was there that he began to publicly substitute the word “peace” for the word “victory” in the spirit of the Beatitudes.

A denunciation

A campaign against the priest began in January, likening him to Judas Iscariot.

A sacristan at the parish who is linked to a network of informers the patriarchate has set up, denounced Koval to the parish rector, Archpriest Victor Shkaburin, who is a Putin apparatchik and more a follower of military marches than monastic chant.

The wheels of clerical bureaucracy, an obsequious relay of the Kremlin, were then set in motion.

The cautious episcopal vicar, Archbishop Matfei Kopylov, phoned Father Koval and told him he was suspended.

The ban was put into effect on February 2nd by an order of Patriarch Kirill.

It was stated that the priest, who was guilty of who knew what would be brought before the ecclesial court.

At the end of March, under the aegis of the protopresbyter Nikolai Inozemtsev – rector of the Church of Our Lady of Kazan on Red Square – a disciplinary commission was sent to St Andrew’s to investigate.

What it actually did was collect a handful of hostile gossip and ignore the numerous testimonies that confirmed Koval’s pastoral dedication.

The stage was set for a remake of the Stalinist trials in the courtroom of the high priest of “all Russia”.

The sentence fell on May 11.

The five judges wearing sumptuous pectoral crosses voted unanimously against Koval.

The priest, not yet aware of the secret indictment, was summoned to appear.

But he aggravated his sentence by refusing to acknowledge his guilt.

He was defrocked according to the 25th Apostolic Canon.

This late and debated juridical code imposes deposition “if a bishop, presbyter, or deacon be found guilty of fornication, perjury or theft”.

Profession, not God, but Putin


According to the docile Archpriest Vladislav Tsypine, vice-president of the court, the recidivist offender “violated his oath of unconditional obedience to the Church hierarchy by expressing a political opinion incompatible with the priesthood”.

Vakhtang Kipshidze, the cynical spokesperson for the Patriarchate, added: “If a priest changes the words of the prayers according to his political preferences, the very unity of the Church is undermined.”

Is peace a subjective option for those who celebrate the Eucharist?

As the theologian Sergei Shapnin rightly notes: “In the Russian Orthodox Church, there may be but one ‘political preference’: that of Patriarch Kirill… which means all the clergy (to say the least) are bound to adhere to a single pro-Kremlin ideology.”

And this is to ensure that believers serve not God but Putin.

After so many other priests were unjustly dismissed in former Soviet or satellite countries, Ioann Koval can hope, if he manages to go into exile, to see his priesthood restored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In the meantime, Russia is gradually being drained of the spiritual resources that would allow it to resist today and to regenerate itself tomorrow.

This is the other side of the evil that we cannot underestimate.

  • Jean-François Colosimo is a French theologian and historian specialising in Russia and the Eastern Orthodox faith in which he was raised.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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