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Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All-Russia in a Sunday sermon preached on 25 September 2022 has stated that Russian soldiers who die in battle in the war against Ukraine will be forgiven their sins.

In his first televised sermon after the Russian government issued call up orders for 300,000 military reservists, the Russian Orthodox leader said: “Many die in the fields of fratricidal war. The Church prays that this battle will end as soon as possible, so that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war.”

“But at the same time, the Church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to fulfill his oath… goes to do what he is called to do and if someone dies in the performance of that duty, then he has undoubtedly committed something that amounts to a sacrifice. He will have sacrificed himself for others. And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins committed by such a man.”

Critics of the Russian Orthodox leader have noted the Orthodox Churches do not teach the doctrine of plenary indulgences found in Roman Catholicism, or jihad as taught by Islam. 

In the Catholic Code of Canon Law (can. 992) and in the church’s Catechism (n. 1471): “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.

A believer can gain an indulgence for performing certain prescribed works or under certain conditions. The believer must be under a state of grace, whereby they have an interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, and have sacramentally confessed their sins. Indulgences can be earned for oneself or for the dead, but not for another living person.

Orthodox commentator Rod Dreher argues: “This concept is alien to Orthodox Christianity. This Russian Orthodox church website explains briefly what indulgences are, and how they are contrary to Orthodox spirituality.”

“Where is Jesus in this,” Dreher asks. “By the patriarch’s reasoning, an atheist soldier who nevertheless goes into Ukraine in fulfillment of his duty, and dies, can go to heaven. I would not want to rely on that rationale before the judgment seat of Christ. I mean, look, a German soldier fighting under Nazi leadership might be doing so not because he believes in Nazism, but because he feels a loyalty to his country, and to the oath he swore to defend it. If he dies in battle, are all his sins wiped away because of the sincerity in his heart?”