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Ukrainian orthodox clerics conduct a religious service at the St Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv on March 6.Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press

Michael Coren is an Anglican priest whose latest book is The Rebel Christ.

There’s a lot of nonsense being written at the moment about the religiosity of modern Russia, and the role of the Orthodox Church in President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. While we can’t be sure of the Russian despot’s precise motives, the idea that this catastrophe is somehow the fault of theological imperialism is far-fetched – and yet that’s exactly what’s being suggested by some newly minted experts on the region.

Mr. Putin, they claim, is devout. They say that he sees Kyiv as the Slavic Jerusalem because it’s where Christianity began in the region and that he is still angry about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s 2019 declaration of independence from its Russian Orthodox sibling – even though that decision was supported by Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the nominal head of the international Orthodox Church. In response to this support, the Russian church largely separated itself from the greater Orthodox world and there are effectively two rival Orthodox churches operating in Ukraine.

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Forgive the pun, but it’s all somewhat Byzantine. I first discovered that back in 1988 while co-writing a CBC documentary to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Ukraine. The situation is even more historically complicated because Kievan Rus – the ancient state that was Christianized in 988 – is the name of the land from which Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all originated. But the region is far from what it was and that’s the entire point.

Mr. Putin has certainly increased the influence and profile of the Orthodox Church but Russia itself isn’t a particularly observant nation. More than 80 per cent of Russians may claim to believe in God but few attend church: A mere 10 per cent spend their Sundays in worship, which is low even by European standards – and much lower than in the U.S.

As for Mr. Putin’s personal piety, accounts vary. His mother was a devoted believer and his own sense of Russian identity is likely deeply woven into a sense of Orthodoxy, which is true for many of his compatriots. It’s tempting to say that Christians don’t command armies that kill innocent people but that would be callow in the extreme. Whatever the case, it’s extremely unlikely that the war is purely a holy crusade for Kyiv. This is more about NATO than the New Testament.

It’s worth remembering, too, that even Joseph Stalin, a former seminarian but a convinced atheist, curtailed his venomous persecution of the church in 1943 in an effort to increase patriotic fervour against Nazism.

The Russian Orthodox Church itself appears divided on what is happening. In an almost unprecedented display of defiance, more than 250 Orthodox clerics issued a statement in which they called for Ukrainians to “make their own choices by themselves, not at the point of assault rifles and without pressure from either West or East.” The letter continued: “We call on all opposing sides for a dialogue because there is no other alternative to violence. Only an ability to hear the other side can give us hope to get out of the abyss our countries were thrown into several days ago. Let yourself and us all enter the Easter Lent in the spirit of faith and love. Stop the war.”

But Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, remains a firm supporter of Mr. Putin whose rule he once described as a “miracle of God;” in those words, he speaks for a number of his fellow clerics. In his latest sermon, he argued that the war was about decaying Western values and shockingly claimed – not for the first time – that Pride parades served as a kind of litmus test. For the priestly class, the wounds left by the Soviet Union’s suppression of religion will never fully heal and any leader who subsidizes their new cathedrals and prays in their churches will always be revered.

Christian nationalists in the West, meanwhile, have long applauded Mr. Putin for his socially conservative policies and support for what they regard as traditional family values. Franklin Graham, son of Billy and one of the world’s leading right-wing evangelicals, praised him for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” As Fox News commentators and their crass comrades like to say, Mr. Putin is the antithesis of woke – and that, they conclude, is a direct product of his faith.

That does a disservice to the Orthodox Church, with its many centuries of beauty, sophistication and suffering. It’s flawed, often overpoliticized and sometimes chauvinistic, but it’s also profound and diverse. To reduce it down to American slogans is numbingly banal.

In the days to come, the church – one of the few nationally respected institutions left in Russia – could listen to fellow Christians in Ukraine and even to overtures from the Pope and play a positive role in ending the madness. Many of its members are certainly praying so.

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