By Delia Gallagher, CNN
Pope Francis warned the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, not to become “Putin’s altar boy,” he said in an interview this week.
In his strongest words to date against the pro-war Patriarch, Francis also slammed Kirill for endorsing Russia’s stated reasons for invading Ukraine.
“I spoke to him for 40 minutes via Zoom,” the Pope told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Tuesday. “The first 20 minutes he read to me, with a card in hand, all the justifications for war.”
“I listened and told him: I don’t understand anything about this,” said the Pope. “Brother, we are not clerics of state, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus.”
“The Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy,” the Pope said.
Francis said the conference call with Kirill took place on March 16, and that both he and the Patriarch had agreed to postpone a planned meeting on June 14 in Jerusalem.
“It would be our second face-to-face meeting, nothing to do with the war,” the Pope said. “But now, he too agrees: let’s stop, it could be an ambiguous signal.”
The Russian Orthodox Church said the Pope’s comments were “regrettable,” in a statement Wednesday.
“It is regrettable that a month and a half after the conversation with Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis has chosen the wrong tone for conveying the contents of the conversation,” said the Department of External Relations of the Russian Patriarchate.
“Such declarations do not contribute to establishing a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church which is particularly necessary at this time,” the statement reads.
Also on Wednesday it emerged that the Patriarch is among the individuals who will be included in the proposed sixth round of European Union sanctions against Russia, according to two sources who have seen the full documents.
The proposed draft has been sent to the corresponding ambassadors for review, the sources said.
At this stage names can be taken off or added at member state discretion, an EU Commission source said.
Russian Orthodox Church Spokesman Vladimir Legoida said the sanctions were out of touch with “common sense,” reported Russian state news agency TASS.
“The more indiscriminate [these] sanctions become, the more they lose touch with common sense and the harder it becomes to reach peace, which is what the Russian Orthodox Church prays for at every service with the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch, and assistance to all those affected by the Ukrainian conflict, only serve to affirm his words,” Legoida said in a Telegram post on Wednesday.
“Only those completely ignorant of the history of our Church can seek to intimidate its clergy and believers by compiling some lists,” Legoida said.
In March the Patriarch said that the conflict was an extension of a fundamental culture clash between the wider Russian world and Western liberal values, exemplified by expressions of gay pride.
Experts say that Kirill’s comments offer important insights into Putin’s larger spiritual vision of a return to a Russian Empire, in which the Orthodox religion plays a pivotal role.
But the hardline stance of the Russian patriarch is costing him followers.
In March the Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam announced it was severing ties with the leader, joining a growing number of priests and churches who are abandoning Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
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CNN’s Anastasia Graham-Yooll, Luke McGee and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.