KYIV, Ukraine — Standing in the cobblestone courtyard of a medieval monastery, with an icy wind whipping his black robes and artillery shells booming in the distance, Archbishop Yefrem is tormented by the war that is slowly engulfing his city.
But while Ukraine’s government is calling on every able-bodied male to defend the country against the Russian invasion, the archbishop sees things a little differently. Because Russians and Ukrainians are one people with one religion, he said, the Russian army is not an enemy. Believers in Ukraine should “pray for peace, not for victory.”
Launched by President Vladimir V. Putin to reassert Russian influence in the region, the war in Ukraine is also a contest for the future of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.
The Russian church — of which Archbishop Yefrem is a part — has made no secret of its desire to unite the branches under a single patriarch in Moscow, which would allow it to control the holiest sites of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world and millions of believers in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for its part, has been slowly asserting itself under its own patriarch, reviving a separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, after the independence of Ukraine in 1991.
If Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion, the Moscow church will all but certainly be ejected. If Russia wins, the Ukrainian church is unlikely to survive inside Ukraine.
Prizes in the struggle include holy sites such as the Monastery of the Caves, a sprawling complex of churches in Kyiv overlooking the Dnieper River, whose golden onion domes were glistening in the sun on a recent afternoon as artillery shells exploded across the capital. In the caves, in grottos, lie the remains of the earliest saints of Slavic Orthodoxy, control over which would symbolize pre-eminence in this branch of Christianity.
After Ukraine’s independence, the Moscow patriarchy retained access to the site, while the Ukrainian government formally owned it as a museum.
The branch of the church in Ukraine subordinate to Moscow also enjoys the loyalty of a majority of city, town and village churches in Ukraine, though the newly independent Ukrainian church has had success encouraging parishes to switch allegiance. Those efforts so angered Mr. Putin that he warned in 2018 that it could “turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed.”
Ukrainian political and religious analysts say the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine was deeply infiltrated by Moscow, and is regarded by many as a tool of Russian foreign policy. Last week, when an angry crowd threw a Russian preacher out of his church in western Ukraine, the police did not intervene.
Christian teaching has also become part of the battlefield. Priests loyal to Russia, in sermons recommended by their leadership on Sunday, emphasized pacifist gospels at a time when the defensive strategy of the country rested on mobilizing civilians to fight. Many Ukrainians viewed that stance as subversive or treasonous.
Archbishop Yefrem, a member of the Moscow church who celebrates mass at the Monastery of the Caves, said he had been urging believers to pray. “Only God can bring peace,” he added.
“If an enemy came, yes, we could fight,” he said, explaining his stance. “But this is a very important point about Ukraine. We are one people with the Russians and only the devil spread enmity between us.”
The independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has taken a starkly different view. In a televised sermon on Sunday, its patriarch, Metropolitan Epiphanius, soundly endorsed the resistance. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he said. “We pray and we act.”
Believers, he said, should defend the country. “Our heroic people are defending ourselves from the attack of Russia, which is throwing its soldiers and weapons at our villages and cities,” he said. “And every hour of our resistance inspires more and more people around the world to support Ukraine.”
For both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, the stakes on who wins the war are high and likely to shape the future of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine.
The Ukrainian church that was formed after independence was granted legitimacy in 2019 by the patriarchate in Constantinople, the senior authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, outraging Russian political and religious leaders. Parishes in Ukraine soon began switching their loyalties, and the Ukrainian church today counts about 700 parishes in the country, with 12,000 remaining under Russian influence.
“It is also one of the factors of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Ihor Kozlovsky, a scholar of religion at the Institute of Philosophy at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. “If our church would completely unite under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church then Moscow would lose its hegemony in the Orthodox world.”
Last week in western Ukraine, villagers furious about the Russia invasion ejected a Russian Orthodox priest from his church in Tsenyava, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
The crowd “barbarically took away the church,” Archpriest Georgy of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a telephone interview. “They knocked down the doors, pushed out the parishioners.” He said the crowd was armed with rifles. The priest called the police, but “no police arrived,” Archpriest Georgy said.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been walking a careful line in the conflict. Patriarch Kirill, the top church official in Moscow, made no mention in his Sunday sermon of the war that began three days earlier. The Moscow church’s top official in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, did condemn the invasion and in a video address asked Mr. Putin to halt it.
But the prayers read at the end of liturgy in parishes, which are coordinated by the leadership, encouraged only prayer and made no mention of resistance — or Russia, for that matter. “We pray for peace in Ukraine and that the enemy leaves our country,” the prayer at a Saturday liturgy said, for example, without clearly condemning Russia.
“They are natural collaborators of the Putin regime,” said Mr. Kozlovsky, the religious scholar, saying he was not surprised to see the church now undermining the civilian resistance.
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A critical city. Russia’s push to seize key Ukrainian cities accelerated on the seventh day of the invasion, with Russia claiming that its forces were in control of Kherson, though Ukraine disputed the claim. More explosions struck Kyiv, and the siege of the city of Kharkiv continued.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches arose from the conversion of a Kyiv prince, Prince Vladimir in Russian and Volodymyr in Ukrainian, to Christianity in 988. In one indication that Mr. Putin is animated by this history, after annexing Crimea in 2014 he erected a statue to Prince Vladimir beside the Kremlin walls in Moscow.
The Ukrainian church had been under Moscow’s jurisdiction since 1686, when, under pressure from Russia, it abandoned allegiance to Constantinople, until 2019, when it formally regained independence.
The churches share the same holy sites, perhaps the most important being the Monastery of the Caves and its catacombs holding the bodies of saints deeply revered in both Ukraine and Russia.
In this dim, ancient warren of tunnels — lit only by oil lamps — a few faithful turned out on Tuesday despite the war raging on the edge of the city. In silence, they genuflected before the coffins, or bowed and kissed them in the dark.
Marina Shuyeva, 37, a doctor, walked the snowy, stone paths, between the medieval brick walls, crying.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her son, she said, was trapped in a basement in the city of Kharkiv, which had been hit by Russian missiles on Tuesday. She said she knew nothing of his fate, and could do nothing for him but come to the caves to pray.
“Write the truth,” she said of the Russian troops moving in now on Kyiv, too, with satellite images showing a miles-long column of Russian tanks on a road leading to the city. “They are not saving us. They are killing us.”
Outside, monks in black robes strolled about. At a Russian service on the site, the faithful bowed their heads to the deep, harmonious tones of a choir of monks.
The Christian faith encourages nonviolence, said Darina Melnik, a 28-year-old former flight attendant studying at the Monastery of the Caves to become a nun in the Russian church.
“I think that people who really believe in God will not be violent,” she said. “I understand our men who want to defend our country. But the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
Of both the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fighting outside the city, she said, “I pray to save their souls. But we don’t know what victory looks like in God’s eyes.”