Ukraine's honorary patriarch, Filaret, has compared the fight against invading forces from much larger neighbor Russia to the battle of David versus Goliath, predicting Ukraine's struggle will ultimately end in victory, just like the biblical tale.
"We are confident that Ukraine will defeat Russia because God is with Ukraine, not with Russia. God is with truth, not with untruth. God is with David, not with Goliath. Ukraine is David and [its victory] will be a victory not only for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe and every peaceful country," Filaret, once a senior clerical leader of the Soviet-era Russian Orthodox Church, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in a recent interview.
Filaret's comments come amid Ukrainian claims that its military has made some progress, gradually pushing Russian forces away from the city of Kharkiv as fighting continues in the east and south of the country. Russia's invasion, now in its 77th day, has been widely condemned globally, including by the UN General Assembly.
More than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine after Russia launched the biggest ground invasion in Europe since World War II on February 24, with 5.7 million of them now in neighboring countries, according to the UN as of May 5.
'Path Of Untruth'
Filaret, 93, also took aim at Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, who has given his blessings to President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked aggression. "Let this image inspire young soldiers who take the oath, who embark on the path of defending the fatherland," intoned Kirill as he handed a gilded icon to General Viktor Zolotov -- who is now in charge of the Russian invasion -- during a service at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in mid-March.
Patriarch Kirill has embarked on the path of untruth, everything he says is a lie. But we must walk the path of truth, because God is with truth.
Kirill, 75, sees the invasion as a bulwark against a decadent West. At the same time, he has insisted that "Russia has never attacked anyone."
"Kirill says white is black and black is white. Russia attacked Ukraine and he says Russia didn't attack. Is that true? It's obvious to anyone that it's a lie. And [hence] Patriarch Kirill has embarked on the path of untruth, everything he says is a lie. But we must walk the path of truth, because God is with truth. And where there is God, there is victory, too," said Filaret, who was excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate after he broke his Kyiv Patriarchate away from Moscow in 1992.
Filaret also took issue with recent remarks by Roman Catholic Pope Francis in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, including that NATO "barking" at Russia's door may have led to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
"I will state that NATO will not attack Russia, and that Russia should not be afraid of a NATO attack. Just like Ukraine will not attack Russia, but Russia can not only attack Ukraine, but its neighboring states as well. We see proof of that today. Is there a war in Ukraine? Yes, there is. Who started it? Did Ukraine attack Russia? [No], Russia did. Is there a war on Russian territory? No, it's on Ukrainian territory. So, who is guilty then? Russia is; it's the aggressor country that is invading its neighbors."
In the interview with the Italian daily, Francis also cautioned Kirill against serving as "Putin's altar boy" but said he had offered to meet the Russian leader in Moscow while ruling out for now a visit to Kyiv.
"I think the pope wants to appease Moscow, so he decided he wants to first visit Moscow and then Ukraine. But for us that doesn't make much of a difference, as the people nevertheless support peace and that's what Ukraine is seeking as well," Filaret said. "So we, the Vatican and Ukraine, are on the same page in that regard. They are for peace, and we are for peace, too. It is Russia that wants war."
Changing The Faith
Russia's large-scale assault has proved a boon to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) with its influence growing, Filaret told RFE/RL.
In 2019, the OCU was officially recognized by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople -- the spiritual head of Orthodox Christianity's 300 million-strong worldwide community. It heralded a historic break with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), ending more than three centuries of Russian spiritual and temporal control of the dominant faith in Ukraine.
Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the creation of the new church would "go down in history" as the day Ukraine "finally received [its] independence from Russia."
Kirill, who claims Ukraine as an indivisible part of his spiritual jurisdiction, severed ties with Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarch who acts as a first among equals in the Orthodox world.
Filaret, whose secular name is Mykhaylo Denysenko and who was born in 1929 in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, predicted the Moscow-linked church's influence in Ukraine will ultimately evaporate. "In the future, Ukraine will have one Orthodox Church, a Ukrainian one, and the churches [currently under control] of the Moscow Patriarchate will be part of that church, which won't be connected with the Russian Orthodox Church," he said.
"This is the future that shall come to pass for Ukraine, it's inevitable. Why am I so confident of this? Because Ukraine has become an independent state and an independent state should have an independent church...just like Romania, Serbia, [and] Bulgaria do. There is no other path," added Filaret, who was passed over for the top post in the new church for Metropolitan Epifaniy while Filaret was given the new title of "honorary patriarch."
The OCU in late March reported that 28 communities in nine regions had officially switched from the UOC-MP to the independent OCU since the start of Russia's invasion.
Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers, roughly divided between the UOC-MP and two other Orthodox churches, including the independent OCU.
Filaret expressed hope that Orthodox Christians at home and abroad would unite behind Ukraine.
Of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 100 million are in Russia itself, and some of those abroad are in unity with Moscow. But the war has strained those relations.
"We are asking all Orthodox people and churches to pray to God so that peace shall come upon Ukraine, so that the truth prevails, which will be Ukraine's victory.... It is defending not just itself, but the whole of Europe and other countries that are neighbors of Russia, because Russia is a country that during its entire history, all it did was to claim lands for Russia," Filaret explained.
"For them, Georgia, Central Asia are also 'Russian lands.' They think it all belongs to Russia. So when other peoples are helping Ukraine, they are helping themselves as well."