Rome (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.”
In March Kirill Patriarch Kirill 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.