ROME — The European Union plans to sanction the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in its next round of measures to punish Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU diplomats said Wednesday, opening a new religious front in Europe’s sanctions regime.
The proposal, which must be approved by the 27-member bloc, drew immediate criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church, which also lashed out Wednesday at Pope Francis for his recent comments about Patriarch Kirill.
Kirill, the head of one of the largest and most influential churches in Eastern Orthodoxy, has justified Russia’s invasion on spiritual grounds, describing it as a “metaphysical” battle against the West and its “gay parades.”
Three EU diplomats with direct knowledge of the discussions said negotiations to add Kirill’s name to the EU list of sanctioned individuals were continuing Wednesday. If approved by EU members, Kirill would face travel bans and a freeze of assets, joining 1,093 individuals, including Putin and oligarchs, as well as 80 entities already subject to the punishing measures.
In a statement Wednesday, the Russian Orthodox Church vowed the sanctions would never intimidate Kirill and would just prolong the conflict.
“Patriarch Kirill comes from a family whose members have been subjected to repression for decades for their faith and moral standing during the days of militant communist atheism, and none of them were intimidated by the prospect of imprisonment and repression,” church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda said in a statement on his messaging app channel. “You have to be completely unaware of the history of our church to think that it’s possible to scare its clergy and believers by putting them on some kind of lists.”
He added that the measure would only delay the prospect of peace “for which the Russian Orthodox Church prays on the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch in every liturgy.”
Kirill has echoed Putin’s unfounded claims that Ukraine was engaged in the “extermination” of Russian loyalists in Donbas, the breakaway eastern region of Ukraine held since 2014 by Russian-backed separatist groups. And in his most recent published remarks, he denied Russia had even launched the invasion.
“We don’t want to fight anyone. Russia has never attacked anyone,” he said Wednesday at the end of a Divine Liturgy at the Archangel Cathedral in Moscow, according to a text of his remarks on the church website. “It is amazing that a great and powerful country never attacked anyone — it only defended its borders.”
The pope has tried to keep a dialogue open with Kirill, given the Vatican’s longstanding efforts to heal relations with Russian Orthodoxy. Francis and Kirill had a videoconference call March 15, and were due to meet for a second time next month in Jerusalem, but the meeting was called off on the advice of Vatican diplomats.
Francis told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Tuesday that Kirill spent the first half of their 40-minute videocall reading from a piece of paper justifying the invasion.
““I listened and told him: ‘I don’t understand any of this. Brother, we are not clerics of the state, we cannot use language of politics, but that of Jesus. For this we need to find the paths of peace, to stop the firing of arms.’”
He added that Kirill “cannot turn into Putin’s altar boy,” a dismissive term used by a top U.S. Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop.
In a statement Wednesday on its website, the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign relations office said it was “regrettable” that Francis “chose the wrong tone” to convey the content of the conversation during the interview.
“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,” the statement said.
The statement then said that Kirill had used the call to explain the origins of the conflict, citing attacks on Russian speakers in Ukraine dating from 2014 and NATO’s eastward expansion.