Pope Francis has warned the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, not to become “Putin’s altar boy”, he said in an interview this week.
In his strongest words yet against the pro-war patriarch, Francis also criticized Kirill for endorsing Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine.
“I spoke to him for 40 minutes via Zoom,” the pope told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Tuesday. “The first 20 minutes he read to me, card in hand, all the justifications for war.”
“I listened to him and I told him: I don’t understand anything about it,” declared the pope. “Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus.”
“The patriarch cannot turn into Putin’s altar boy,” the pope said.
Francis said the conference call with Kirill took place on March 16 and that he and the patriarch agreed to postpone a meeting scheduled for June 14 in Jerusalem.
“It would be our second face-to-face meeting, nothing to do with the war,” the pope said. “But now he too agrees: let’s stop, it could be an ambiguous signal.”
The Russian Orthodox Church said the pope’s remarks were “regrettable”, in a statement released Wednesday.
“It is regrettable that a month and a half after the conversation with Patriarch Cyril, Pope Francis chose the wrong tone to convey the content of the conversation,” the Russian Patriarchate’s Department of External Relations said.
“Such statements do not contribute to establishing a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is particularly necessary at this time,” the statement said.
Also on Wednesday, it emerged that the patriarch was among those who would be included in the European Union’s proposed sixth round of sanctions against Russia, according to two sources who have seen the full documents.
The proposed draft has been sent to the corresponding ambassadors for consideration, the sources said.
At this stage, names can be removed or added at the discretion of the member state, a European Commission source said.
Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said the sanctions were not in line with “common sense”, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“The most blind [these] become sanctions, the more they lose touch with common sense and the more difficult it becomes to achieve peace, for which the Russian Orthodox Church prays at every service with the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch, and assistance to all those affected by the Ukraine conflict, only serve to affirm his words,” Legoida said in a Telegram post on Wednesday.
“Only those who are completely ignorant of the history of our Church can seek to intimidate its clergy and believers by compiling lists,” Legoida said.
In March, the patriarch said the conflict was an extension of a fundamental culture clash between the wider Russian world and Western liberal values, exemplified by expressions of gay pride.
Experts say Kirill’s comments offer important insight into Putin’s broader spiritual vision of a return to a Russian empire, in which the Orthodox religion plays a central role.
But the tough stance of the Russian patriarch is costing him supporters.
In March, the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam announced it was cutting ties with the leader, joining a growing number of priests and churches abandoning Moscow because of the war in Ukraine.