Dutch Archpriest Theodoor van der Voort cannot understand Patriarch Kirill


Eastern Europe

René Zeeman, RD

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill serves in Moscow during an Orthodox Easter service on 23 April 2022. Photo Alexander Nemenov

The Russian Orthodox Archpriest Theodoor van der Voort cannot understand why the head of his Church, Patriarch Kirill, is supporting President Vladimir Putin in the war against Ukraine. "I got to know him as someone who has an eye for people. What is happening now is incomprehensible."

Dutch Van der Voort (72) was upset when Kirill supported the war in a sermon because humanity supposedly needed to be saved from sinful and secular Ukraine. "I cried. Kirill has disappointed me so much. How can someone with his reputation, background and spiritual baggage go wrong? What possessed him? I can only guess."

The European Commission has proposed to the European Council to place 75-year-old Kirill on the sanctions list. If the proposal is accepted, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) leader will be among the senior officers of the Russian armed forces.

How do you feel about Kirill's inclusion on the sanctions list? "There are many stories about his Rolex watch and wealth, but I keep out of that. Let's not forget: Russia is Russia; it is not Western Europe. Some wealthy people would be honoured to give a Rolex to the Patriarch. He may also have received the watch from someone requesting: 'Pray for me, Holiness. And here you have a souvenir from me." All these things are possible. I just want to say: I keep out of all the stories about what he owns in terms of money and so on because I don't know."

Alena Alshankaya, a researcher for the ROC, characterises Kirill as a "pastor of the Russian people" on the one hand and an "effective church manager" on the other. Do you agree with this characterisation? "As Patriarch, Kirill possesses superiority and enjoys respect within the Church. He has greatly increased the number of bishops. Of course, there are people among them who support him through thick and thin. He is by no means a stupid person either.

But I do not understand what is happening now in Ukraine. In the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, there is a hall where the flags of the countries belonging to the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate are displayed. There is also the flag of Ukraine. If a war breaks out in the territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, you can expect a church dignitary to want to end that war as soon as possible because it is people from your Church who are fighting amongst themselves. It is not a skirmish that is taking place. You see upheaval and destruction in Ukraine. It cannot be that Kirill does not know that. I am putting this on the record a little bit, but on 6 March, on the occasion of Forgiveness Sunday, he said: "You in Ukraine now have some problems with the military operation, but on the other hand, you are now free from the gay parade." It is understandable that, as a church, you do not want to know anything about the gay parade. But it does not kill people. And does that justify ruthless military intervention?

"We must do something for the Ukrainians".

Theodoor van der Voort (72) is an Archpriest attached to the Peter and Paul parish in Deventer. He is subject to the Patriarchate of Moscow, of which Kirill is Patriarch. The Archpriest is against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He is not "anti-Russian, but what is happening here is unacceptable."

The war has not caused any problems within his congregation. Van der Voort: "Fortunately not. Our treasurer is a Russian. He said, "We must do something for the Ukrainians." So we held a fundraising event. One woman who disagrees with our position doesn't come anymore. In our Church, Ukrainians received here in Deventer, and surroundings come. In Amsterdam, the Church was defaced. That did not happen to us. We received cards and flowers, also from the local churches, to encourage us."

This article was translated by CNE.news and published earlier by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on 14 May 2022.

Under the guise of protecting Orthodox tradition, Putin is attacking Orthodox brothers in Ukraine. What is Kirill's position on this? "In Ukraine, more than a hundred bishops belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. They are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Kirill himself has ordained a large number of these bishops. In January, he was still standing at the altar with some bishops. Now he just lets them fall. The bishops see the refugees coming, the faithful being mutilated, and their churches being destroyed. It is unimaginable that Kirill ignores this so easily."

You know Kirill personally? "From 1974 to 1977, I studied in Leningrad at the spiritual academy of which Kirill had become rector. I spoke with him regularly. We had a good relationship. I met him twice when I worked for the Roman Catholic relief organisation Kerk in Nood (Church in Distress) in Russia from 1995 to 2000. Once I met him during a ministerial meeting that he chaired. He did that perfectly. He summarised the reports that were read out. Then it was: "Fathers, let us pay attention to these points in the coming years. Next report."

In November 2019, Van der Voort attended a service in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Kremlin, where Kirill was also present. A clergyman stepped up to Van der Voort during communion and told him to come and see the Patriarch for a moment. Kirill said, "Father Theodore, I looked at you a few times during the service. Are you feeling well?" Van der Voort indeed did not feel quite right. Then Kirill said, "When you get home, please go to the doctor and have your blood pressure measured. We have to serve the Church together for a few more years."

Van der Voort can still marvel at it: "During the service, there were sixteen bishops and about forty priests standing around Kirill, yet he had an eye for me. He was paternal and concerned. He had eyes for people. Who am I? A priest on the periphery. And now this. When I see how he cared for me, then the suffering in Ukraine must have touched him.

Are the Russian Orthodox Christians in Russia behind the war? "The icons here in the Church in Deventer are the work of a painter from Kostroma, a place northeast of Moscow. The man has since died, but I am still in contact with his wife. She has been completely brainwashed. On 9 May, she sent me an app to congratulate me on Victory Day. "We in Russia are liberated from the fascism that has now taken root in Ukraine,' she wrote. I won't argue with that because it makes no sense. "

Are the Russian Orthodox clergy on Kirill's side? "The majority probably are. You can't be sure because people are careful to express themselves. That is the end of it. There was an open letter soon signed by Russian Orthodox priests in Russia and Ukraine. They referred to God's call to Cain: "Where is your brother Abel?" What is happening at the moment is, of course, fratricide. The signatories were called to the carpet: "Withdraw your signature!" Some did, but priests have also fled to Western Europe."

How do you assess the relationship between Putin and Kirill? According to some experts, Kirill follows Putin, but the reverse is not excluded either; that is, Kirill leads the way. "I don't know. On the day that Kirill showed this fatherly concern for me, he got into Putin's car at the end of the afternoon to lay flowers together at a certain statue. He then informed us that in the car, he would tell Putin that "as a church, we should keep more distance from the state, because as a church we have our responsibility. The one thing we must never do is alienate ourselves from the people.

What Kirill would say to Putin was something that I had brought up in discussions with representatives of the Patriarchate a few months earlier. That was on the occasion of the transition of our archdiocese to the Moscow Patriarchate."

Will Kirill have said that to Putin in the car? "Probably not. Putin is not an easy gentleman, of course. People who are disagreeable with him disappear into camps or are poisoned. On the other hand, he can't just cast aside the Patriarch."

You said that the ROC has its building in the Kremlin. Then the Church is very close to the state. "Indeed. We must not forget that the state has given much to the Church. Orthodox religious education has been introduced as a scientific discipline at the university. The relationship is warm. I have nothing against that, but you have to keep the right to say, "Watch out, this is going awry." You have to keep your responsibility and your freedom. That is difficult in Putin's Russia."

Van der Voort initially thought Putin was not doing so badly. "Until it became increasingly clear that flatterers surrounded the Russian president. If someone is no longer inclined to experience criticism from his associates and only allows himself to be applauded, at some point, he will go wrong. I have even read that Putin is no longer clear about what is happening in Ukraine. People are afraid to confront him with it."

Is the state using the ROC, or is the reverse the case? "The ROC is one of the few bodies covering almost the entire former Soviet Union and is therefore of interest to the state."

His mother is said to have had Putin baptised in secret. That makes you think. Is he religious? "That is possible. In the nineties, I was in the penal colony of Magadan, a remote area near the Bering Strait, where there used to be many notorious penal camps. There, the bishop told me that during his time in Moscow as rector of the university church, he had experienced knocking on the door at night. A guard opened the door to see who was there. It turned out to be Colonel Putin who had come to light a candle for his sick mother. Is it true? Perhaps it is. If it is not true, they want to show it anyway: He belongs to the Church."

Kirill's backing is important for Putin? "If Kirill withdraws his support, Putin will have a big problem."

Then the question is, with what motives does Kirill support Putin? "Maybe they know something about Kirill with which they are blackmailing him. It could be that Kirill is pulling the ideological cart and that Putin is following nicely behind because it suits him. Anything is possible.

In this connection, I remember a statement by President Jimmy Carter's security adviser, Zbigniew Brzeziński. He said in the second half of the 1970s that the ROC was the greatest danger to the United States. If the ROC is indeed the driving force behind the war against Ukraine, he has been proved right."

Do you see it that way yourself? "No, I don't know. I have puzzle pieces, but they don't fit together very well. That's the annoying thing. In the meantime, what is happening remains terrible. You can only pray for a quick and happy ending. Although Putin will also be praying, but for victory."

This article was translated by CNE.news and published earlier by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on 14 May 2022.



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