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Russian Orthodox Priest Faces Expulsion for Refusing to Pray for War Victory

FILE - A view shows Red Square with Lenin's mausoleum as the Russian flag flies on the dome of the Kremlin Senate building in Moscow, June 24, 2023.
FILE - A view shows Red Square with Lenin's mausoleum as the Russian flag flies on the dome of the Kremlin Senate building in Moscow, June 24, 2023.

A prominent liberal priest faces expulsion from the Russian Orthodox Church for refusing to read out a prayer asking God to guide Russia to victory over Ukraine.

In a verdict published on Saturday, a church court said Aleksiy Uminsky should be "expelled from holy orders" for violating his priestly oath. The decision was forwarded for approval to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church who strongly backs President Vladimir Putin.

The case shows how the church is clamping down on internal dissent as it throws its support behind Putin and his "special military operation" in Ukraine, now nearing the end of its second year.

The church court said Uminsky had broken his oath by refusing to read the "Prayer for Holy Rus" — an archaic name for Russia — that Kirill has made compulsory at church services.

"Behold, those who want to fight have taken up arms against Holy Rus, hoping to divide and destroy its united people," said the prayer first pronounced by Kirill on Sept. 25, 2022, seven months into Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Arise, O God, to help Your people and grant us victory through Your power."

Dozens of Russian Orthodox priests have been punished for challenging the Church's line on the war, for example, by reading out prayers for peace instead of victory, according to Christians against War, an online group that has documented their cases.

Uminsky was the most prominent casualty so far. He had served for 30 years as senior priest at the Church of the Life-Giving Holy Trinity in Moscow before being abruptly fired this month, just before Orthodox Christmas, in a move that paved the way for Saturday's verdict. He was renowned for his hospice work for dying children and adults, and led the funeral for former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 2022.

In an interview last November, Uminsky said that the language of war and the "special military operation" was "in no way compatible" with church liturgy.

He encouraged believers to seek out priests who "pray more for peace than for victory and understand that any victory is always a pyrrhic victory in these wars... In modern wars any victory is almost always equivalent to self-destruction."

Ksenia Luchenko, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the verdict against Uminsky was unsound because the prayer he was accused of refusing to read had not been considered and approved by the highest body of the Church, the Holy Synod.

She said his punishment was "evidence of Patriarch Kirill's usurpation of power in the Russian Orthodox Church and violation of its statutory documents."

Uminsky has not commented in public on his firing. The church court said the decision to expel him was taken in his absence after he failed to attend despite being summoned three times.

A total of 11,627 Orthodox believers have signed an open letter in his support since he was removed as priest of the Holy Trinity church and replaced by Andrei Tkachov, a vocal champion of the war.

They said the decision had caused them great pain and would deprive thousands of people of spiritual support.

"This is a great tragedy for many believers, for children's hospice patients, for hundreds of prisoners and thousands of homeless people."

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