Russian hymns fill the blindingly white cathedral. Its lofty walls, unadorned and awaiting frescoes, echo the recorded melodies. Outside these sacred confines, beyond the iron gates and the police tape, lies Paris–a different world from the one inside. A hostile world since February 2022, when Putin invaded Ukraine and anti-war protesters took to the streets, marching down Quai Jacques Chirac towards what some call the Kremlin on the Seine.

The Cathédrale de la Sainte-Trinité is one of seven Russian Orthodox churches in the French capital. These churches offer spiritual sanctuary to the tens of thousands of Russians living abroad in Paris as well as to other Orthodox believers, such as the Ukrainian diaspora. La Sainte-Trinité was inaugurated in 2016 after the plot, a stone’s throw away from the Eiffel Tower, was controversially bought by the Russian Federation, outbidding a giant Saudi mosque.

Even far away from the front line, these expatriates remain confronted by the war raging back home. The sermons of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, one of Putin’s biggest supporters, reach beyond the borders of Russia and reverberate in Orthodox churches around the world. In Paris, clergy and congregants are torn between the pro-war preaching from above and the Western anti-war sentiment that surrounds them.

“Half of our parish is Ukrainian. Now maybe a third, because part of them left,” Hieromonk Irénée Gribov said candidly while sitting at a small table in a corner of the imposing cathedral. His congregation is diverse, he added, both in terms of nationality and political beliefs. According to him, parishioners include Ukrainians who oppose the war and those who support the Kremlin, as well as Russians on either side of the divide. “We as priests should be available for all these groups,” he said. 

Archpriest Nicolas Rehbinder, rector of a Russian church in the 15th arrondissement, the Église Cathédrale des Trois Saints Docteurs, said that his church now counts more Ukrainian worshippers than before the war. “There are a lot of Ukrainians that are Russian-speaking and that are close to Russia,” he explained. “Half of Ukraine is Russia, so they are Russians.” 

“But that’s politics,” he added, shaking his head. Both priests stressed that they prioritize their spiritual duties over politics, which isn’t exactly in their job description.

Yet the Moscow Patriarchate–the pinnacle of the Orthodox hierarchy–has taken a different approach. Patriarch Kirill ardently defends Putin’s policies and has urged clergy to pray for a Russian victory in what he frames as a holy war. Priests who oppose this view have in some cases been defrocked, reassigned, or even criminally prosecuted.

Although Hieromonk Irénée said that the Russian Orthodox Church does not have “the dogma of infallibility,” stressing that believers are allowed to disagree with the Patriarch of Moscow, very few Parisian churches have openly condemned the Russian invasion.

“We are in a situation here, abroad, where Russian churches claim that they do not support the war,” said Priest Mark Mintenko, who manages the sole Ukrainian Orthodox church in the Paris region. “But despite that, during their services, they pray for their country and their army.”

Officiating out of Notre-Dame des Apôtres, a Catholic Church in Villejuif, just outside the Paris beltway, the priest has welcomed Orthodox Ukrainians for Sunday mass since the onset of the war. The parishioners, many of whom previously attended Russian Orthodox churches, appealed to the Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv for guidance. Responding to their pleas, he dispatched Priest Mark in October 2022 to pray, quite literally, for the victory of Ukraine.

On Sunday morning, Orthodox families gradually fill the unassuming Église Notre-Dame des Apôtres. Most of them are late, but so is the priest and his acolytes are still in jeans as they light the candles. At first glance, the scene could be confused for a Catholic mass, if it weren’t for the headscarves, the wafts of incense, or the crafty iconostasis, which will be dismantled again after the service.

Vladyslav, a young Ukrainian, is one of the church’s regulars and has been attending for more than a year. Before that, he visited various other Orthodox churches, from Romanian to Serbian and even Russian. “God is everywhere, in any church, and the label “Russian” is not necessarily relevant,” he said. 

However, he believes that it is important for the church to position itself regarding the war. “I think that the war might be a sin and that the church has to condemn it.”

Mariana, who has just moved to Paris from Western Ukraine, shares his opinion. “Politics is a bit outside of church,” she said, “but of course, we cannot escape it because we live in this environment.” While she condemns the war, she believes the church should focus on its primary responsibility, explaining the Gospel.