As Moscow’s war on Ukraine reaches the six-month mark, a top leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada has echoed the Kremlin’s talking points on the conflict, insisting in a recent interview the unprovoked invasion was justified and decrying as “ridiculous” Canada’s sanctions on the church’s war-boosting patriarch.
Archbishop Gabriel of Montreal and Canada referred to Ukrainian forces as “neo-Nazi” and inspired by “demonic” forces, and said his parishes would continue to commemorate in services Patriarch Kirill, the church’s head.
Gabriel — whose birth name is George Chemodakov — is the Canadian head of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR), one of two branches of the Moscow-aligned denomination in this country.
His remarks underline that even some Canadians with ties to Russia embrace the Kremlin’s disinformation about the war and defend its actions, while various governments and human-rights organizations accuse Moscow of rampant war crimes.
“Russia was forced to take steps to protect itself from the neo-Nazis who were shelling civilians in Donbass for eight years, and continue to this day,” Gabriel told Pravoslavie.ru, a website dedicated to news about the church.
He portrayed Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 as a reaction to “Ukrainian nationalists who for many years were killing peaceful citizens… They don’t act in a Christian way but at the instigation of demonic powers — there is no other way to call that absolutely barbaric, reckless nationalism they profess.” “
In fact, Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region were responding to a declaration of independence by armed, Russian-backed separatists there in 2014. Moscow sent its own forces into the region and illegally occupied the Crimea — all parts of sovereign Ukraine — touching off an eight-year conflict that culminated with Russia’s full-scale invasion six months ago.
And the Kremlin signaled initially that it planned to not just conquer the Donbas but occupy Kyiv and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government, before its advance on the capital was repulsed.
Although President Vladimir Putin and his supporters have referred to Ukraine’s government and military as Nazi or neo-Nazi, far-right parties failed to win any seats in the last parliamentary elections and the president is a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust. A small unit of the Ukrainian military — the Azov Regiment — has neo-Nazi origins, but that extremist element has reportedly been much diluted, as even LGBTQ groups lend the unit support.
But in an interview with the National Post Tuesday, Gabriel stood by his earlier comments and said that the Western media and governments have obscured the truth about what is happening in the region.
Orthodox spiritual leader says Russian church has ‘disappointed us’ over Ukraine
EU targets Russian Patriarch Kirill in new round of proposed sanctions – diplomat
Patriarch urges soldiers to defend ‘peace-loving’ Russia amid Ukraine campaign
Ukraine repeatedly violated treaties in the 2014-22 Donbas war, while NATO moved ever closer to Russia’s borders, issues that Western countries failed to resolve, he said.
“You’d think that the West would listen and come to some sort of terms with Russia on these issues because we’re talking about a potential nuclear war,” said the archbishop. “I would venture to say the war was not started by Russia; it was started by the West.”
He also said civilian attacks blamed on Russians were actually perpetrated by the Ukrainian military to undermine Moscow’s image, a common refrain from Russia for which there is little if any evidence.
The archbishop’s remarks earned a stiff rebuke from the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly.
“Mr. Chemodakov’s comments are unacceptable and they should be denounced for what they are: Russian disinformation,” said spokesman Adrien Blanchard. “The fact is that Russia is fighting a war of choice against Ukraine and Russian forces are committing atrocities on a massive scale.”
“We cannot let the Putin regime escape international accountability by spreading lies.”
The Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa suggested strong action be taken.
“Such statements by (one of) Putin’s cronies is just another proof that these people should be banned from Canada,” said an embassy spokesperson. “That is the only way to stop the lies.”
A Ukrainian-Canadian activist was also unimpressed.
The Russian Orthodox Church was a willing participant in the “colonial” suppression of the Ukrainian identity and statehood under the czars and Soviets, said Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
“That leaders of the (church) currently support Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine and spread Russian propaganda and disinformation is not surprising.”
One ROCOR church in Toronto has for years actually raised money for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine, set up by Russian-backed separatists, said Rev. Alexander Laschuk, executive director of the University of Toronto’s Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies.
But he said such stances are not universally held by Russian Orthodox congregants in Canada.
“I know many Ukrainians have stopped attending the (Toronto) parish or stopped shopping in their church goods store as a result,” said Laschuk.
“Overall, this is a very difficult time for Orthodox unity in general. Many Orthodox Christians in Canada are having serious crises of faith watching the Russian Orthodox Church bless troops going into Ukraine to rape and pillage.”
Patriarch Kirill, long close to Putin, has indeed been one of the strongest backers of the invasion, blessing generals and other Russian soldiers. Although Moscow is the aggressor, Kirill has called it a war to “defend the Fatherland” against decadent Western forces, while promoting “Russkiy Mir,” the notion of a Russian homeland that includes Ukraine and Belarus.
That idea, in fact, is “one of the ideological foundations of this war,” asserted a petition by 320 Orthodox priests in Ukraine, who said Kirill should be deposed.
Last month, the Canadian government included the patriarch on a list of 29 individuals being sanctioned for spreading disinformation, with Joly saying “the Russian propaganda machine must answer for its lies.”
But Montreal-based Gabriel — a native of Australia granted a Russian passport in 2009 — told Pravoslavie.ru that Kirill was just stating his opinion and that sanctions by Canada and the United Kingdom only “politicize this issue.”
“In a word, I would say this is ridiculous,” the archbishop said about the sanctions. “All this corresponds to the Russophobia that currently holds sway over the West.”
Gabriel said that “unfortunately” some Ukrainian-Canadians had left Russian Orthodox parishes since the war began. But none of the 30 or so ROCOR churches here have requested that they stop commemorating Kirill during services, he said in the interview. Such splits with Moscow have occurred among Orthodox churches in Europe.
While ROCOR has allowed parishes to stop commemorating Kirill if they wish, the other Canadian group allied with the Moscow patriarch — the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church — has not done so, said Laschuk.
A spokesman for the Patriarchal Parishes could not be reached for comment.
Gabriel also said he has been subject to threats and that the Montreal police provided 30 officers and a SWAT team to protect his church during Easter services this year.