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(CNSNews.com) – The head of the Russian Orthodox Church is under fire for his support for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but the World Council of Churches is responding cautiously to calls to expel it.

In a sermon on Sunday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow urged Russians to rally around “the authorities,” saying that once that happens, “there will be genuine solidarity and the ability to repel enemies, both external and internal.”

The 75-year-old patriarch has long been viewed as not just close to Putin, but an influential abettor to his political and strategic ambitions.

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In a homily on March 9, Kirill suggested that outside enemies were setting Russians and Ukrainians against each other in a “disgusting and vile” campaign designed to weaken Russia.

“Where the devil is, there is always a lie. Even today – what a huge amount of lies are being spread! There was even such a newfangled word ‘fake’ as a synonym for lies. But this is an ordinary devilish lie, because it is lies that are used today to deepen the gulf between two peoples, to make them enemies.”

Kirill’s stance on the invasion of a neighboring country – where millions follow the Orthodox faith – has prompted criticism from within the denomination and the wider Christian community.

In early March the acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Ioan Sauca, appealed to him in an open letter to “intervene and mediate with the authorities to stop this war, the bloodshed and the suffering.”

But in a letter of response, the patriarch echoed the Kremlin’s line about the origins of the conflict in Ukraine, citing NATO’s eastward expansion, attempts by the West to drive Ukraine and Russia apart, and painting Russian-speakers in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine as victims of government abuses.

Some prominent Christian leaders have called on the WCC to expel the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), among them a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

“When a church is actively supporting a war of aggression, failing to condemn nakedly obvious breaches in any kind of ethical conduct in wartime,” Williams told the BBC, “then other churches have the right to raise the question and challenge it, to say, unless you can say something effective about this, something recognizably Christian, we have to look again at your membership.”

The head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Elpidophoros, was quoted as telling a meeting last week, “From the words and actions of Patriarch Kirill, we can conclude he has made the same bargain with Putin and his cronies” as the religious leaders of the day made during the trial of Jesus, when they told Pilate “We have no king but Caesar.”

But in a statement Monday on the WCC website, Sauca – himself a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church – sounded a cautious note on calls to expel the ROC, highlighting the need for “reconciliation.”

“It would be very easy to use the language of the politicians but we are called to use the language of faith, of our faith,” Sauca wrote. “It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, demonize; but we are called as WCC to use a free and safe platform of encounter and dialogue, to meet and listen to one another even if and when we disagree.”

After a virtual meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill in mid-March, the Vatican said in a statement the conversation had focused “on the war in Ukraine and on the role of Christians and their pastors in doing everything to ensure that peace prevails.”

It said that the pope, in agreement with the patriarch, said that “The church must not use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus.”

‘A church without Putin’

The patriarch of Moscow is viewed as the highest authority in Orthodoxy by many Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe, although that status has traditionally been accorded to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I.

Against the backdrop of political tensions between Russia and Ukraine, in 2018, rival Orthodox Church bodies in Ukraine united and chose a new head, formalizing a split from the oversight of the patriarchate of Moscow.

The new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed after the patriarchate of Constantinople approved the granting of autonomy to the church in Ukraine.

Recognizing the symbolism of the development, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the new institution “a church without Putin” and “a church without Kirill.”

Since the move, which sparked a schism between the Moscow and Constantinople patriarchates, there are two major Orthodox bodies in Ukraine, the new OCU, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Moscow Patriarchate (UOC/MP), which continues to fall under Kirill’s authority.

Even within the UOC/MP, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused deep divisions.

More than 320 UOC/MP priests, as of Tuesday, have signed a petition accusing Kirill of having “repeatedly made public statements that contained de facto support for the Russian Federation’s aggressive actions against Ukraine.”

The petition, initiated by an archpriest in the city of Dnipro, calls on Orthodox primates to consider whether Kirill’s public statements align with the Bible and church doctrine – “and, if this doctrine is condemned, bring Patriarch Kirill to justice and deprive him of the right to hold the patriarchal throne.”