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Orban criticises EU plans to sanction head of Russian Orthodox Church

EU plans to impose sanctions on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church are an attack on religious freedom, says Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban. 

Patriarch Kirill, one of Vladimir Putin’s most fervent supporters, was put on a draft European Commission blacklist earlier this week. 

Orban, in an interview with Hungarian public radio on Friday, said he is against the move, calling it an “issue of religious freedom”.

EU ambassadors are meeting in Brussels on Friday to finalise a sixth round of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. 

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs earlier this week that the punitive measures would target the oil sector as well as people who act as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces.

She did not name Kirill but media reports said he is expected to be included. 

Kirill’s support of Putin and the war has already drawn condemnation. 

A Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam split with the Moscow patriarchate in March. The clergy said then that ” it is no longer possible for them to function within the Moscow Patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for our faithful” in a statement posted on Facebook

Pope Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra that he told Patriarch Kirill during a 40-minute long phone conversation in March that “we are not state clerics” and warned him against becoming “Putin’s altar boy”. He also said Kirill spent their call reading odd “justifications for the war.”

The Russian Orthodox Church criticised the Pope’s comments in a statement on Thursday as “the wrong tone to convey the content of this conversation”.

“Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which is especially needed at the present time,” it added.

The statement also includes Kremlin lines to justify its invasion of Ukraine, accusing “representatives of Nazi groups” in Ukraine of attacking Russian-speaking residents of the country and NATO for moving eastwards. 

The World Council of Churches, a worldwide Christian inter-church organisation, has meanwhile written twice to Patriarch Kirill since the beginning of the Russian invasion on 24 February. In their latest letter, dated 19 April, he was called upon “to intervene and mediate for a peaceful solution, for dialogue rather than confrontation, for an end to the fraternal blood shedding”.

“I am aware that it is not in your power and authority to stop the war or to influence those who have such powers of decisions. But the faithful are waiting for a comforting word from Your Holiness. They think that if you come out with a public statement and request, as the spiritual father of so many millions of Orthodox in both Russia and Ukraine, that might have an impact,” the organisation’s Acting General Secretary, Father Ioan Sauca, wrote.

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