Symbolically, the World Council of Churches (WCC) makes a lot: when representatives of 352 churches from 120 countries meet in Karlsruhe in September for the eleventh general assembly, the impression can arise that the association, which mostly deals with non-binding resolutions, represents a worldwide faith community. This community symbolism can become a problem in Karlsruhe.

Because the community includes the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Cyril I. He described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a defense of “traditional Christian values” and a “metaphysical struggle” and claimed after the start of the war that Russia had never attacked another country.

Cyril recently presented the head of the Russian National Guard fighting in Ukraine, General Viktor Solotov, with an icon of Mary in a Moscow cathedral and said: “May this picture inspire young soldiers who take the oath and take the path of defending the fatherland.” Should the church led by this man, whose top staff includes close Putin confidants, be welcomed in Germany in late summer and be able to spread their propaganda to 5,000 participants?

This is unimaginable for the authors and signers of an open letter that WELT has received and is addressed to the WCC general secretary Ioan Sauca and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). “The hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church,” the letter says, “with its legitimacy for war and the rejection of individual, inalienable human rights, creates an intellectual and spiritual basis for an autocratic state power with revisionist and dictatorial traits. With their blessing, a war of aggression is being waged.” Since the latter “is also being waged with ideological means”, the Moscow leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is “an essential part of the Russian war machine”.

The letter, which is to be published on Friday, was initiated by Ellen Ueberschär, long-time general secretary of the German Evangelical Church Congress, then board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is close to the Greens, and today board member of the Berlin Stephanus Foundation, and Katharina Kunter, professor of contemporary church history in Helsinki.

According to the authors, the first signatories include the former head of the Stasi records authority, Marianne Birthler (Greens), the former Prime Minister of Thuringia Christine Lieberknecht (CDU), the GDR civil rights activist Markus Meckel (SPD) and Petra Bahr, regional bishop of the Evangelical Church in Hanover.

The letter called for the WCC central committee to “carefully consider how to suspend the Russian Orthodox Church’s membership of the WCC” at its June meeting. Furthermore, “the WCC and the EKD must communicate transparently” “how the war against Ukraine and the conduct of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church should be addressed at the general assembly in September and how the priority of the victim perspective should be preserved”.

This victim perspective must also be guaranteed by the fact that the WCC “gives a special place” to all Ukrainian churches that are independent of the Moscow Patriarch at the assembly. An explicit exclusion of the Russian Orthodox Church is not required – but that all connections resulting from membership are severed until further notice.

Accordingly, the demand is directed at the EKD that “a moratorium for any bilateral dialogue at church leadership levels between the EKD and the Moscow leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is pronounced”. Instead, contacts with churches and religions in Ukraine should be intensified: “We expect that the EKD will focus on the suffering of the people in Ukraine in its public communication and be less concerned about the bad image of Russian Orthodoxy.”

The latter can be understood as a tip against EKD currents, which condemn the Russian war of aggression as well as the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church, but do not want to dismiss them.

The Bavarian state bishop and former EKD council chairman Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who condemned Kyrill’s positions, said to Bayerischer Rundfunk: “We need bridges, we need contacts”. Today’s EKD Council Chairwoman Annette Kurschus called Kyrill’s justifications for the war “hard to bear”, but has not yet called for a break in relations.

A WELT request to the EKD about its position towards the Russian Orthodox Church in the run-up to the Karlsruhe meeting remained unanswered on Thursday. For the Roman Catholic Church, which is not a member of the WCC, Pope Francis has canceled a meeting with Cyril planned for mid-June, but has also made no break.

The heads of the Vatican and the EKD could give food for thought that their positions are close to that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: His right-wing nationalist government made sure on Thursday in Brussels that Kyrill was included in the EU’s new sanctions package, contrary to the demands of the other member states has not been placed on the sanctions list.

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