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The pro-Putin preacher the U.S. won’t touch

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He is one of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent supporters — a man of the cloth who offers spiritual cover for the autocrat’s invasion of Ukraine, all while suspected of profiting from that connection and ties to Russia’s security services.

But Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has yet to be sanctioned by the United States, despite appeals by Ukrainian activists and others who see him as a destructive force in an already brutal war. The British and Ukrainians recently imposed sanctions on Kirill, while a European Union effort in early June was blocked by one country.

Kirill’s reputed wealth, friendliness with Putin and long-suspected ties to Russia’s spy and security outfits have drawn comparisons to the dozens of oligarchs whose Kremlin connections have led to a battery of U.S. sanctions in recent months. It’s his preaching, however, that detractors say is the biggest problem — but which also could be the very reason the U.S. hasn’t yet penalized him.

Kirill routinely urges his flock of millions to support Putin’s war effort, waving away any culpability over the invasion, while describing Russia’s opponents in Ukraine as “evil forces.” “We as a people have accepted the persecution,” Kirill said in a service over the weekend. “The feeling of love for the fatherland is growing and we see how our young guys are now defending Russia on the battlefield.”

In the days after the world learned about the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, Kirill attended a military church and commended Russians as “peaceful, peace-loving and modest people,” who will be ready to “protect our home” under any circumstance.

U.S. officials won’t say why they haven’t sanctioned Kirill, even as they insist they haven’t forgotten about him. “All options on [the] table,” a U.S. official said in an email. “We’re targeting higher value targets first.”

Some analysts and former U.S. officials, however, suspect Kirill’s case might be extra complicated because he’s a religious figure. Generally speaking, the United States avoids sanctioning religious leaders, in part out of concern that doing so could undermine America’s promotion of free speech and religious freedom. Biden administration officials also may be calculating that going after him could unnecessarily anger millions of faithful Russian Orthodox worshippers.

This is not a compelling argument for many Ukrainians watching their country being pummeled by the Kremlin. “As a chief cheerleader of the Russian regime, it is baffling that he has so far escaped sanctioning,” said Hanna Hopko, a former Ukrainian member of parliament.

American officials and politicians understand Ukrainians’ frustration, but some wonder if it’s worth going after Kirill when there are other Russians who could make for better targets. There’s also the possibility that sanctioning him could harden his support among Russians who could see the move as spiritual and cultural persecution.

“I’m not quite sure there’s any active interest in sanctioning a religious leader at this point in the United States Congress,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee on national security.

The American hesitation on Kirill comes as the conflict in Ukraine appears to be turning into a war of attrition with no end in sight. The Ukrainian calls for arms have become more dire, even as the United States and other Western nations continue to send advanced weaponry to the battlefield.

But after a flurry of initial, heavy sanctions on Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the United States has unveiled fewer such penalties in recent weeks.

In Brussels, the European Union recognized Kirill’s influence and considered him in a sanctions package. While the EU pointed to Kirill’s support of the invasion and propagandist behavior, Hungary objected, declaring the move to be “inappropriate” and against “fundamental principles of religious freedom.” Hungary’s sole dissenting voice won out, and Kirill was left off the blacklist.

The U.K. chose to sanction Kirill largely because of his rhetoric. “Patriarch Kirill has made multiple public statements in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the British sanctions list states. “He therefore engages in, provides support for, or promotes any policy or action which destabilizes Ukraine or undermines or threatens the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.”

Divine interventions

There are 15 self-governing Orthodox churches led by nine patriarchs who operate as a leadership council within the Orthodox Church, a Christian denomination with an estimated 260 million followers worldwide. But Kirill’s influence outweighs other patriarchs, as he represents a membership of around 100 million faithful within Russia — making it the largest jurisdiction in Orthodoxy.

Kirill’s apparent connection to the Kremlin has enhanced his influence, and he clearly enjoys good relations with Putin in particular.

“It is gratifying to know that under your guidance the Church is engaging in fruitful interaction with the state, making a tremendous contribution to promoting traditional spiritual, moral and family values in society, educating the younger generation, and strengthening concord and mutual understanding between people in these trying times,” Putin wrote in a letter to Kirill during Orthodox Easter.

The two leaders have long been connected. Kirill’s rise to the patriarchy in 2009 is not without Soviet-era mystique. Once known by birth name Vladimir Gundyayev, Kirill started his post-educational career with an appointment to represent the Russian Orthodox Church at the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1971. He shot through the ranks, and by 1975, was a member of the organization’s central and executive committee before turning 30. He would continue to rise through the church through much of the mid-1970s and ’80s, culminating in his post as chair of the Moscow patriarch’s external relations department in 1989.

But reportedly tied to his professional success was the suspicion that Kirill had been an agent of the KGB — a shady relationship that has put his rapid success into question. The KGB post also coincides with the early career of Putin, who joined the agency in 1975 and reportedly spent time in New Zealand posing as an undercover shoe salesman, and later an undercover translator in East Germany. As both would reach the pinnacle of their fields, their connection and political alignment would only grow.

When members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were arrested and sentenced for a protest performance against the church and its ties to Putin inside a cathedral in 2012, Kirill advocated against leniency.

Not long after, intelligence and security officers with the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, were in attendance at a construction site for a new church near Moscow’s FSB building alongside Kirill. At the ceremony, head intelligence officer Viktor Ostroukhov was quoted by the Moscow Times as saying his armed officers stand united with the church and are concerned at attacks on the “Christian way of life.” As if to further symbolize the connection, the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces dedicated to Russia’s military victories was consecrated in 2020.

Then there is the “open secret” that the Kremlin operates out of the church to send agents abroad.

“Everybody knew of the department of the church full of agents and you cannot do that if you didn’t secure some approval from the very top: Kirill was a part of this system,” Russian investigative and national security journalist Andrei Soldatov told POLITICO, shortly before being placed on the Kremlin’s federal wanted list. “It was a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Years prior, Soldatov added, the FSB and the church’s relationship solidified when several Catholic priests were expelled from the country on suspicion of spying, leading activists to believe the Orthodox Church pushed the state to crack down on religious competition and dissent. Another Catholic priest was kicked out of Russia in mid-April, after his visa was revoked for unexplained reasons.

The Russian Orthodox Church has continued to grow since Kirill’s election to the patriarchy. Despite waning participation at church service, more than 150 Russian Orthodox dioceses have sprung up and nearly 10,000 more clerics have joined the patriarchate since 2009, according to a 2019 report from the church.

Kirill may have a large and observant flock, but he’s also been criticized by the public for displays of hidden wealth. In the 1990s, the Kremlin handed the Russian Orthodox Church a tobacco license to make a business off importing duty-free cigarettes. The operation — which reportedly netted upwards of $75 million — was run by the department of external church relations which was spearheaded by Kirill, leading some to believe it contributed to his personal piggy bank.

In 2012, Russian bloggers spotted Kirill wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch in an interview — a luxury that in theory was above his means. The church would try to obscure the public display of wealth by photoshopping Kirill’s sleeve over it but forgot to remove its reflection from the table. One 2020 investigation by Russian independent media outlet Proekt found nine properties in Russia worth millions were either owned by or linked to Kirill.

‘Putin’s altar boy’

Kirill’s statements and sermons largely avoided censure and international scorn before the war, but his fiercely patriotic stance and pro-Putin propagandizing have now pushed some religious leaders to condemn him.

Among those alarmed by Kirill’s latest actions is Pope Francis. After holding a virtual meeting with Kirill in May, the pope told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Kirill “cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy” and that they are not clerics of state, but of God.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who acts as the spiritual head and de-facto representative of Christian Orthodoxy, in a late-May interview with Greek state TV ERT1, said that “the Church of Russia let us down.”

“I don’t know how he can justify himself to his conscience. How he’ll justify it, how history will judge him,” Bartholomew said of Kirill. “He should react to the invasion of Ukraine and condemn the war as all the other Orthodox Primates did.”

The tensions pushed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to declare itself an autonomous faction, with the Ukrainian parliament passing a resolution to sanction Kirill.

The Ukrainian embassy in Washington declined to comment on whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government is pushing the United States to sanction Kirill.

Congress, the State Department and the White House have remained largely silent on the matter, puzzling some foreign affairs observers.

“I think it’s just sheer embarrassment that they don’t sanction him,” said Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “I imagine the reason is that Treasury authorities in the U.S. don’t want to get into an argument over religious qualifications and moral authority.”

The United States has sanctioned religious leaders in the past, but they didn’t necessarily land there because of their preaching.

One notable example is Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is a high-ranking Islamic scholar, but he’s also Iran’s supreme leader, and has been sanctioned by the U.S. for supporting terrorism and engaging in an array of destablizing actions in the Middle East.

The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other self-styled religious figures within the so-called Islamic State faced sanctions, but they were targeted by the U.S. for terrorism. In many of these cases, the sanctions are symbolic because the individuals don’t have assets in the United States nor do they tend to visit; still, the sanctions can have a chilling effect well beyond American borders as foreign banks and other institutions avoid doing business with the targeted individuals.

Analysts and former officials couldn’t think of many, if any, prominent religious figures who had been sanctioned for their faith-related work or words.

“The United States recognizes religious freedom as an inalienable right and is therefore committed to its preservation and advancement for all,” a State Department spokesperson said when asked for comment. “Imposing sanctions is a complicated process. The decision to sanction an entity or individuals must be seen as advancing goals and influencing outcomes effectively, but most importantly the sanctioned person must meet a certain criteria before the sanctions decision is made, as described in the relevant authority for that sanctions program.”

In other words, it can come down to whether the individual in question poses a threat, can be linked to state corruption or the funding of terrorism.

“The others were sanctioned because they were supporting terrorism operations and financing directly for it,” said Brian O’Toole, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. Treasury official who helped design U.S. sanctions packages. “If you can remove the ability to raise money then you need to do that because that helps the battlefield. It saves people’s lives. Sanctioning Kirill is probably not going to save anybody’s life.”

“If he was involved in some of the corruption that’s related to Putin, that might make him a more advantageous target from a policy perspective,” added O’Toole.

U.S. officials also consider how a sanctions move might lead the Kremlin chief to react. For instance, Putin’s long-rumored girlfriend Alina Kabaeva has made it onto international sanctions lists, including those of Canada, Britain and the EU. But the United States hasn’t gone after her, with some officials behind-the-scenes reportedly concerned that Kabaeva’s inclusion could hit too close to home for Putin, leading him to perhaps escalate the fight.

The Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S. has been relatively silent in the matter. Metropolitan Tikhon, Christan Orthodoxy’s highest-ranking clergy in the U.S. and Canada, sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill in March calling on him to “do what he can to end the war in Ukraine and the suffering and death of countless victims.”

But Kirill seems to have disregarded the advice.

“We do not want to fight with anyone, Russia has never attacked anyone,” Kirill told churchgoers in a May sermon. “It’s surprising when a great and powerful country did not attack anyone. It has only been defending its borders.”

America’s sanctions hesitation may be indicative of the way Washington understands religion. But in Russia, Soldatov argues, the lines between church and state aren’t just blurred — they’re almost indistinguishable.

“You can make an argument that the Russian Orthodox Church is state business; an ideological institution that provides an ideological argument for those who are in support of the war,” Soldatov said.