The war between Russia and Ukraine is also playing out in the religious domain as well. For the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, headed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, regaining Ukraine is perhaps even more pressing than for Putin. Ukraine has been independent of Russia for thirty years; the separation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Church has existed only since 2019, when the Ukrainian church was granted independence of the Russian Church by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the global Orthodox Church in Istanbul (Constantinople).  For Moscow Patriarch Kirill, a staunch supporter of Vladimir Putin the war offers the possibility of "restoring unity" in the church, which for the Moscow Patriarchate would mean the end of the Ukrainian Church's independent status. In a February 27, 2022 sermon Kirill gave voice to these sentiments: "Today we also need unity - the unity with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. We are aware of the difficult circumstances encountered today by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate [the Ukrainian Church that recognizes the authority of Moscow]. I especially prayed today for His Beatitude the Primate and certainly for the whole episcopate and all the faithful people of Ukraine; and I call you to lift up these prayers too. God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand."
Kirill, in the sermon, also channeled Putin's message that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were one country: " May the Lord preserve the Russian land. When I say 'Russian', I use the ancient expression from 'A Tale of Bygone Years' - “Wherefrom has the Russian land come”, the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples. That the Lord may protect the Russian land against external enemies, against internal disorders, that the unity of our Church may strengthen and that by God’s mercy all the temptations, diabolical attacks, provocations may retreat and that our devout people in Ukraine may enjoy peace and tranquility - these are our prayers today."
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow with Vladimir Putin in 2017 (Source: Valaam.ru)
Metropolitan Epiphanius, head of the rival independent Ukrainian church replied to Kirill accusing him of being under Putin's thumb:
"For the fourth day, the unprovoked full-scale aggression of Russia, the state whose Orthodox Church you head, continues against Ukraine. As a result of the war started by the leadership of your country, millions of people are suffering, hundreds of thousands of children, women, and the elderly have been forced to seek a safer refuge, fleeing their homes. Every day, our fellow compatriots are forced to shelter for hours during the shelling of our cities by Russian troops. Soldiers and civilians are dying.
"Unfortunately, it has become clear from your previous public statements that keeping the goodwill of Putin and of the leadership of the Russian Federation is much more important to you than caring for the people living in Ukraine, some of whom considered you to be their 'shepherd' prior to the war. Therefore, it hardly makes sense to appeal to you to do something efficient in order to immediately curb Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
"However, I still remain hopeful that at least in relation to your own fellow citizens, most of whom are Orthodox Christians, in relation to your "flock," you will find the spiritual strength to demonstrate humanity and care.
""I'm talking about more than three thousand dead Russian servicemen, whose bodies remain on Ukrainian soil. The leadership of our country has already appealed to the International Red Cross to facilitate the return of the bodies of the Russian military to their homeland, so that their relatives and friends can say goodbye to them and bury them. Unfortunately, no response has been given by the Russian side so far.
That is why, I appeal to you, as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to show mercy at least to your fellow citizens and flock. If you cannot speak publicly against aggression, then at least bring home the bodies of Russian soldiers, whose lives have become the price for advancing the ideas of the 'Russian world,' created by your and your president..."
Metropolitan Epiphanius (Source: Orthodoxtimes.com)
Kirill encountered pushback also from within his own church. Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev, who criticized Kirill for causing a split within Orthodoxy by severing its ties with Constantinople after it became clear that it supported the independence of the Ukrainian church from Moscow. Kirill effectively forbade Russian Orthodox parishioners from attending services in churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Now Kuraev assailed Kirill's veiled political messaging on behalf of the war that sought to exacerbate religious differences. He wrote:
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"A circular letter from the Moscow Patriarchate offers a new collection of petitions for this season and for Ukraine instead of the previous prayers against Coronavirus.
"It contains the following paragraph,
"'Those foreign tongues, covetous of war against Holy Rus', [God,] ban them, and overthrow their plans.'
"It can be assumed there will be no prayer that the 'thirst for war' should leave the heads and minds of our leaders. Only the 'foreign tongues' could wish for war (is this an allusion to Zelensky's Jewish roots?).
"But the statement contained in this prayer is fully clear: the foreign peoples (peoples, not just their leaders) desired war. What’s more this is not the war against Putin's Russian Federation, but in fact against 'Holy Rus'. Belarus and Ukraine are members of this geopolitical entity, which exists solely in Patriarch Kirill's head and sermons, (hence it is obvious that the 'foreign tongues' cannot refer to the Ukrainians).
"The patriarch is inculcating in the parishioners' minds the thesis that 'our countries' have external enemies. Furthermore, these enemies are warring with us due to religious differences. Accordingly, the current war in Ukraine is presented as aggression by these 'foreign tongues.' And Russia, as it turns out, is at war with these satanic foreign tribal forces there. Thinking of the hypothetical hostile intentions of these "foreign tongues" should help obscure the memory of whose armored columns actually crossed the borders of sovereign Ukraine."
"The following is the lament of my Moscow seminary classmate, Archpriest Vladimir Rovinsky of Rivne,
"'Russians! Orthodox! Stop the war!
"'I buried my son today. Yes, my son! What else can I call the young warrior, who died defending me, my Orthodox flock, his mother, wife, and daughter from your bloody invasion?
"'Understand, each death of our sons, will rally us even closer together.
"'If you've have come to "liberate" us, go away, we'll take care of our own problems.
"'If you came to solve your problems, then you are "in trouble" and have only multiplied them.
"'Our dead sons, the elderly and children that you killed, will rest in their own land. We will give them our due honor!
"'How will you bury your sons?
"'Where will they find peace?
"'What honor shall they have?'"
Andrey Kuraev (Source: Vesti.ru)
 Bbc.com, January 5, 2019.
 Patriarchia.ru, February 27, 2022.
 Echo.msk.ru, February 27, 2022.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7721, Russian Theologian Andrey Kuraev: There Is An Attempt To 'Smear' The Ukrainian Conflict Over The Entire Ecclesiastical World, October 22, 2018.
 Echo.msk.ru, March 4, 2022.