Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is deplorable. Many factors contribute to this war, as to any war, including economic or territorial gain, nationalism, revenge, civil discord and religion, to name a few. But another factor, one that is usually overlooked, is a government’s restrictions on religious freedom. And in the current conflict, the quest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be independent is also playing a role.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is no stranger to tapping into the soft power of the Russian Orthodox Church to reinforce his political and military power. And the church does not appear to be shy about tapping into the hard power of the Russian state to reinforce its social, temporal and even (in their view) spiritual power.

The Russian Orthodox Church views itself as the center and defender of the Orthodox Christian world, which at one time was synonymous with Christendom itself. In its view, there is a natural and divine synergy between the temporal power of the state and the spiritual power of the church, where both play a role in God’s plan for time and eternity. In some ways, this position is similar to pre-Vatican II Catholic thought where religious freedom was seen as opening the door to heresy, a threat not only to orthodoxy but also to the eternal destiny of souls.

Thus, religious freedom in Russia means only freedom for the Russian Orthodox Church and freedom from heresy and falsehoods as defined by that church.

This helps to explain why the Russian Orthodox Church encouraged and supported Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. While the Shia-leaning Assad regime committed atrocities against any who opposed it (especially Sunni Muslims), a number of the ancient, indigenous Christian communities of Syria found protection under the regime’s wings. As the Western world stood in opposition to Assad, Russia instead sided with the dictator who gave special favors and protection to Christians within the regime’s domain.

It also helps to explain why the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, reportedly defended the invasion of Ukraine in a sermon on Sunday.

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Serious religious dynamics are at play in Ukraine as well.

For years, Orthodox churches in Ukraine sought to be independent from the Moscow-based church. In 2019, Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople (a western-oriented Orthodox rival based in Istanbul), signed an official decree granting independence to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Combine this split along with a more secular, western-oriented Ukraine led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (of Jewish heritage), and the narrative of a western assault on the very spiritual heart of Orthodox Christendom seems plausible to the Russian Orthodox Church, and its VIP member, Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Orthodox Church is committed to bringing the independent Ukrainian branch back under a single patriarch in Moscow, in order to allow it to control the holiest sites of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world. Those interests and Putin’s interests overlap, as Orthodox chaplains bless and accompany the Russian troops into battle.

While religion is definitely part of this war, I would point out that it is not religion in general, but a government’s restrictions on religion and favoritism of religion that are predictors of whether a state will be predisposed to starting a war.

This was the subject of a 2007 research paper I co-authored (which led to a 2011 Cambridge University Press book). In the paper, Roger Finke and I argued that it is not religion itself that leads to violent persecution and conflict, but the level of social and government regulations on religion. This research helped to inform Pew Research Center’s study of government restrictions on religion as they relate to social hostilities involving religion.

That study showed that Russian is in a league of its own among countries in Europe when it comes to government restrictions on religion; in fact, it was the only country in the region to score very high.

Pew assigned 20 different measures on government restrictions, including the prohibition or limiting of public preaching, restrictions on proselytizing and foreign missionaries, restrictions on religious literature or broadcasting and prohibition or limitations on the wearing of religious symbols, such as head coverings for women and facial hair for men.

Russia scores poorly on most of the measures.

The sooner hostilities can be stopped, the better the chances are that religious freedom will not degrade further for both countries — and for other countries that are now being pulled into the fray. 

While Putin’s attack on Ukraine is shaking the world order, Putin’s new best friend, the People’s Republic of China, is the most religiously restrictive country in the world, according to the same Pew study.

One difference that may seem a ray of hope is that China has fewer social hostilities involving religion. However, the reason for this is ominous: China’s government restrictions are so pervasive and powerful that social dissent or uprisings are quelled forthwith.

While this does not predict that China will necessarily go to war, the data and the policies reflected by the data are nevertheless alarming — not only for the state of freedom of religion or belief, but for what the lack of these portend for China and the world.

As events in Ukraine continue to unfold, one other finding from our research speaks to this ongoing crisis. In addition to government restrictions on religious freedom leading to conflict, conflict itself reinforces religious persecution and violence, creating a cycle of violence in which deterioration of religious freedom becomes difficult to stop. Therefore, the sooner hostilities can be stopped, the better the chances are that religious freedom will not degrade further for both countries — and for other countries that are now being pulled into the fray. 

Brian Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Annapolis, Maryland.