Fr. Gintaras Sungaila: A response to OrthoChristian.com

 

Priest Gintaras Sungaila with the award

Recently an article was released on OrthoChristian.com with a title "U.S. State Department honors defrocked Lithuanian clergy". It's not surprising that this website spreads the Russian point of view and often it is a useless enterprise to argue with propaganda, but having in mind that some of my American Orthodox friends read this website I have decided that it is worth to publish a commentary about the article and explain why it is false. Keep in mind, that even the title itself is not accurate, even if you believe everything the Moscow Patriarchate says – out of 9 awarded clergymen half (four clergymen) were never defrocked by anyone.  

The "schismatic activity"

It is true that everything has started from a conflict of seven clergymen with the local metropolitan Innocent of the Moscow Patriarchate. But, again, one of those seven is still a clergyman of the Moscow Patriarchate (!). The context has changed numerous times since 2022, but the Russian propaganda keeps playing the same record for two years straight.

The focus exclusively on what happened in April 2022 is not productive, but if we turn to that time, the narrative immediately falls apart. Back then the initial seven Lithuanian clergymen (five priests and two deacons) were accused of the "schismatic activity", only four of them were dismissed from their duties (and not suspended yet). While those who were dismissed did not serve, the other three "schismatics" continued to serve as clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church in their respective parishes, commemorating patriarch Kirill during the services (!). 

On Easter 2022 those three clergymen went to their respective parishes to serve and commemorate patriarch Kirill while at the same time on the doors of every church of Lithuania there was a copy of metropolitan's letter proclaiming them to be "conspirators" and "schismatics". I myself already did not serve but went to a Divine Liturgy to my parish, where Fr. Vladimiras Seliavko (who was still not dismissed) served the Liturgy commemorating patriarch Kirill as required by the Russian tradition. Furthermore, a few days before he was proclaimed a "schismatic" the same Fr. Vladimiras Seliavko received an award from metropolitan Innocent signed by patriarch Kirill – a cross with decorations, one of the highest honors in the Moscow Patriarchate.

I would like to point out, that one of the seven "schismatics" still remains in the Moscow Patriarchate. He just couldn't bear the campaign of defamation and lies started by the diocese, so he simply decided to walk away from the service in the Holy Church and stay silent. But the diocese conveniently forgot, that "one of the schismatics" didn't join the new jurisdiction even after it was created, although according to the diocese the seven "conspired" exactly for that purpose. Of course, in reality, there was no "conspiracy" to join or create anything.

All of the seven clergymen in April 2022 remained in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate and haven't made any attempt at contacting any other Orthodox jurisdiction. After the first five clergymen (priests) were suspended, they followed the procedures of the Church and although they did not agree with the decision, the clergymen did not serve the Divine Liturgy or any other service. After we have been defrocked by patriarch Kirill, we also did not wear cassocks or give blessings, waiting for the appeal to be reviewed by the Ecumenical Throne, according to the canons of the Council of Chalcedon. Our first contact with the Ecumenical Patriarchate was the appeal after the unjust punishments.

So, the clergy did not refuse to commemorate patriarch Kirill (except Fr. Vitalis Dauparas, who did it once and when got metropolitan's blessing for that) and did not serve any services without the blessing of metropolitan Innocent. They also did not contact any other Orthodox Church or organize uncanonical communities and not all of them even switched jurisdictions in the aftermath. So what was the "schismatic activity"? It was criticism of patriarch Kirill and the general stance both of the Russian Orthodox Church and its local diocese in the face of the war. 

All the claims of the "schismatic activity" are simply repeated by the diocese, but there is no actual evidence for that. 

It was really easy for the Ecumenical Throne to approve the appeal, because not only we did nothing wrong, but also the "depositions" were made with numerous violations of norms and procedures. It was uncanonical both in form and in content. 

The "anti-war" position of the diocese


The article on "OrthoChristian" says that the diocese has condemned the war but that is a sophism. Of course everyone is "against war", even patriarch Kirill, but what is meant by that? The official spokesman of the diocese of the Russian Church in Lithuania bishop Ambrose has stated in the media: "I told the Patriarch [Kirill] that some of his statements cause confusion in our society, but the Patriarch says that he has never openly supported the war". So they never spoke out against the position of patriarch Kirill, they are "against war" just like patriarch Kirill "is".

When the spokesman of the diocese was asked who is to blame for the war in Ukraine he said, that "it is the whole humanity". When he was asked to which country does the Crimea belong to he said that he is "bad at geography". Our Lord Jesus Christ has said: "Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil" (Mt 5:37). Instead the diocese is not being straightforward and plays the word games just like metropolitan Yevgenyi of Estonia (Moscow Patriarchate) and many other clergymen of that jurisdiction.

Currently the diocese is so caught up in the falsehoods, that they publically deny that they are a part of the Moscow Patriarchate and tell that they are an independent "Lithuanian Orthodox Church" (while they are just an ordinary diocese of the Russian Church without any special status). 

The abstract "condemnations of war" were used as a failed attempt to distract the society from the core of the conflict. The conflict has started not as a semantical discussion regarding the formal statements about the war – althought most of the statements came in the aftermath – the subject which the dissident clergy criticized was the instrumentalization of the Russian Orthodox Church for political purposes of the Russian Federation which is still denied by the diocese. That is what unites the initial Lithuanian clergymen with the Belarusian and Russian clergymen who joined them in Lithuania later.

In case of the war in Ukraine this instrumentalization happens through so-called "ideology of the Russian world", preached by patriarch Kirill and used to justify the Russian aggression against Ukraine. We condemned this ideology and naturally the official spokesman bishop Ambrose came out in the Lithuanian media defending it: "The Russian world is a cultural, religious, culturological and spiritual concept, and when we talk about it, we are referring to a spiritual tradition, obviously linked to our Church. We are talking about the Orthodox religion, about Russian writers who, for example, wrote a great many important works in the 19th century. Thanks to Dostoyevsky and others, many people came to think about God in general and became Christians - some Catholic, some Orthodox. That concept also includes composers who are believers, who were believers, and who expressed their love for people and for God through their works, through the cherubic song. This concept is certainly not political. It is a certain expression of civilization."

That is exactly the idea of the Russian world proclaimed by patriarch Kirill. Note, that according to the bishop it is not only an "expression of civilization" but also a "spiritual concept". According to patriarch Kirill, the "Russian world" consists of the Orthodox faith, the Russian language and culture ("a Russian, a Tatar, a Ukrainian, a Georgian... can belong to the Russian culture") and a common historical memory and vision of the future ("Our ancestors created and developed Rus' together and defended it against foreign invaders"). It is a "separate civilization". According to the Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church, this Church is not limited by territory, but unites "Orthodox Christians who voluntarily join it and live in other countries". It unites all those who confess this "spiritual concept" of the "Russian civilization". This concept was used to justify the Russian aggression and depict Russia as a victim. 

The center of the "Russian world" is the "Holy Rus' ", which, according to the patriarch and the prayer he commanded to read in all the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, was "attacked" by the "foreign enemies". The patriarch went so far, that he said that the sins of those Russian soldiers who will die in the battlefield defending the "Holy Rus' " against the "foreign enemies" will receive the forgiveness of sins.  Of course, even this outragous claim did not bother the diocese of Vilnius and Lithuania, but they were preoccupied with declarations about the abstract "war" and accusing us of "schismatic activity". 

The clergy who does not fit the narrative at all

Beside one of the initial seven clergymen who contradicts the narrative by remaining in the Moscow Patriarchate, there are also three more priests who were not part of the initial conflict. Two are from Belarus, one is from Russia.

The Belarusian priests condemned the instrumentalization of the Church in 2020, before the full-scale Russian aggresion has started in Ukraine, when the violence broke out in Belarus against the peaceful protestors who protested against the falsification of the presidential election. Some of the people who did not even protest were beaten and killed by the police. The political regime requested the support of the Church and the Church did support it – while peaceful people stayed in prisons and in hospitals, the Church turned back on them. Abbess Gavriila even baked a cake for the police and invited all the protestors "to repent and ask forgiveness of president Alexander Lukashenko". The only bishop who dared to speak against the unprovoked violence, archbishop Atremyi of Hrodna, was soon deposed from his position.

Our Belarusian priests were among those who did not stay silent and helped the suffering. They visited the imprisoned, helped the beaten, consoled their relatives. For this they were persecuted both by the state and the ecclesiastical authorities and had to flee their country. Some of their fellow priests ended up in prison.

Naturally, when patriarch Kirill started justifying the war in Ukraine, they saw in it the same instrumentalization of the Church for the political purposes and condemned it too. They could not have participated in unexistent "schismatic activity" in Lithuania because they were not involved in this local conflict at all, but they did condemn the ideology of the "Russian world" and the instrumentalization of the Church as well. They were not suspended when they joined the Exarchate and they have not been defrocked. 

The same applies for the deacon from Russia, who signed a public collective letter against the war and at the time he joined the Exarchate was not suspended and also had a letter of canonical release. He fled to the European Union with a humanitarian visa because he was in danger in Russia.

The Exarchate for all of its faithful is a shelter where they can find Orthodoxy uncontaminated by the political ideology and free from ethnophyletism. Together we stand against the instrumentalization of the Church, against the war in Ukraine and against any religious justification for this war.   

Conclusions

Our story has nothing to do with the mythological "schismatic activity". Many priests have been repressed by the Russian Church for their anti-war position in all over the world. The Moscow Patriarchate has defrocked Fr. John Koval, Fr. Alexey Uminsky, Fr. Cyril Hovorun, it has suspended Fr. Iakov Vorontsov, Fr. John Burdin and many more for their stance against the justificiation of the war. History will remember all of them as those who stood up against the instrumentalization of the Church for the political goals of the Russian Federation and as those who were against any forms of ethnophyletism. The Orthodox Christians of the Eastern Europe is now at the crossroads and they have to choose between the "Russian world" and the Orthodox Christianity free of politics. Let us pray that after the war the Russian Church itself will realize the evil of the politization of the Church and will renew itself. 

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