By Andrew Osborn
(RockedBuzz via Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Saturday praised the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow forces fighting in Ukraine in an Orthodox Christmas message designed to rally people behind his vision of modern Russia.
The Kremlin released Putin’s message after the Russian leader attended an Orthodox Christmas Eve service alone inside a Kremlin cathedral rather than join other worshipers in a public celebration.
In his message, accompanied on the Kremlin website by an image of him standing in front of religious icons, Putin made it clear that he sees the Russian Orthodox Church as an important stabilizing force for society at a time he described as a historic confrontation between Russia and the West on Ukraine and other issues.
“It is deeply gratifying to note the tremendous constructive contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations in unifying society, preserving our historical memory, educating youth and strengthening the institution of the family,” Putin said.
“Church organizations give priority … to the support of our warriors taking part in the special military operation (in Ukraine). Such massive, complex and truly selfless work deserves sincere respect.”
On Friday, Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire for the celebrations, but Kiev rejected it as a ploy by Moscow to buy time and regroup, and Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire after the announcement.
Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, but the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine has angered many Ukrainian Orthodox believers and has fragmented the global Orthodox Church.
Of the 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 100 million are in Russia itself and some of those abroad are in unity with Moscow.
Others are strongly against it, however, and reject Moscow’s claim that its invasion on February 24 last year was a pre-emptive strike essential to defending its own security and that of Russian-speaking Ukraine.
Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox faithful, divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and two other Orthodox Churches, one of which is the autocephalous, or independent, Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
At a service on Friday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow criticized Ukraine for cracking down on the branch of the Orthodox church with long-standing ties to Moscow.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Tomasz Janowski)