Orthodox Church suspends priest for openly backing Ukrainian conflict

(Photo: REUTERS / Sergei Gunyeev / Ria Novosti / Kremlin)Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrive for the meeting with Russian Orthodox church bishops in Moscow February 1, 2013. As troops loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin were seizing control of Crimea in March 2014, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow had deduced that an "internal political crisis" in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity.

The Russian Orthodox Church has placed a priest under suspension for blessing a group of fighters to be deployed to eastern Ukraine by telling them to fight off government troops who he described as "fascist scum."

The priest, identified as Vladimir Zaytsev, had been videotaped on March 12 giving a blessing to about 50 fighters during a send-off ceremony as some of the troops waved flags of the two pro-Russian regions who wanted to break away from Ukraine.

"Fight against the fascist scum if needed, and I think it will be necessary," Zaytsev was heard as saying in the video, referring to Ukrainian government forces. "Don't be afraid of anything."

During the year-long conflict both sides have accused each other of being fascists.

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In a statement, local diocesan authorities said that Zaytsev was suspended until Easter because of his remarks clearly "contradicted the position of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding what is happening in Ukraine."

The diocese likewise sought to clarify the purported blessing that the priest gave, explaining that it should not be taken as "blessing for carrying out a fratricidal war," The Moscow Times reported.

Church officials have yet to decide if it should further punish the priest, saying that authorities would decide what to do with Zaytsev, whether to reinstate him to the priesthood or not, after Easter.

Since the conflict broke out in April last year, more than 6,000 people have been killed in battles between Ukrainian government troops and separatist fighters aligned with Russia.

Moscow has denied sending arms and troops to support the pro-Russian rebels, explaining that any Russian fighters operating in the area are merely volunteers.

Although the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, has been seen as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he insisted publicly that all military action in Ukraine should be halted.

The patriarch is also avoiding any public comment supporting the action of the rebels.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate under Kirill and both churches belong to the World Council of Churches.

"As the majority church in Ukraine...and having officially declared and reiterated its commitment to the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine, the UOC has a special capacity and leadership responsibility in this regard," the WCC in a March 20 statement.

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