“The Fundamental Commandment is ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, There Shall be No War.” The Case of Priest Ioann Kurmoyarov

Oct 20 2022

Hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Ioann (Dmitry) Kurmoyarov was detained in St. Petersburg and charged under the criminal article for public dissemination of false information about the Russian Armed Forces. Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for this charge. The following is his story.

Who is Ioann Kurmoyarov?

Dmitry Kurmoyarov was born in 1968 in the region of Perm. Because Kurmoyarov’s father was a Soviet military officer who was often transferred from one region of the USSR to another, he and his family would later move to Belarus, and then to Ukraine. At the time of Kurmoyarov’s arrest, he was a resident of St. Petersburg. Kurmoyarov is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), an alternative to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). It was in 2011 that Dmitry Kurmoyarov was tonsured as a monk by the name of Ioann. In the same year, Father Ioann received his PhD in theological studies from the Orthodox Theological Institute in Chernivtsi.

Kurmoyarov was active on his social media, with his earliest posts on Facebook dating back to2014, following Euromaidan and the change of power in Ukraine. Father Ioann wrote extensively about church issues, although political topics remained in a prominent focus. He referred to the war in Donbass “civil”, criticized Euromaidan and some Ukrainian politicians.

Kurmoyarov also denounced the shutdown of Russian television channels in Ukraine.

After moving to Russia in 2017, Father Ioann accepted a position as Associate Professor at the Novosibirsk Theological Seminary, where he taught theology for two years. At the same time, Ioann actively posted on Facebook and in 2017 he created a YouTube channel Orthodox Virtual Parish. On social media, Father Ioann criticized the reality of modern Russia, including the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Father Ioann became notorious for his systematic criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces in Moscow (which he dubbed “pagan temple”) for featuring of NKVD officers, Yuri Gagarin, other secular characters, and Soviet symbols. As direct retribution for this criticism, in the summer of 2020, Kurmoyarov was banned from conducting services, wearing a cassock and cross, teaching, and preaching in church. This ban was imposed due to “inconsistency” within the title of a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Father Ioann tried to find another place of service since the ban was technically only valid for two months, but he could not secure employment due to derogatory references issued by the Novosibirsk Diocese.

Father Ioann tried to sue the diocese to get reinstated in the service, but so far these attempts have been unsuccessful. He later moved to St. Petersburg, joined the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), found a secular job at a security company, studied music, and continued to be active on social media. Kurmoyarov did not give up his criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces. In December 2021, he even filed a lawsuit against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asking to prosecute him for insulting the feelings of worshippers. The suit was related to this particular church. During this time, independent media outlets such as Snob and Dozhd interviewed Kurmoyarov which boosted his popularity.

Case Background

Father Ioann condemned the “special military operation” in Ukraine two days after it began in a video titled “Why Putin will not win this war”. Father Ioann later released many more videos criticizing the military’s actions, however his video “Who will be in hell and who will be in heaven”, which was posted on March 12, 2022, attracted particular attention from law enforcement. In the video, Kurmoyarov comments on Putin’s statement that “we as martyrs will go to heaven, and they will just croak.” Father Ioann commented that, instead, only peacemakers will go to heaven “and the one who unleashed aggression, well, he won’t be in heaven, no matter how hard he tries”.

The authorities didn’t react to the published video immediately, however, according to Father Ioann’s brother, Alexander Kurmoyarov, some action was anticipated. “We discussed the situation with these videos and so on, in principle, we were ready for the arrest, we expected it, we assumed that some pressure from the authorities would be. We thought that they would summon us, talk to us. He thought that if the persecution were to be very aggressive, he would be pushed out of the country somehow, or he would leave on his own, but we didn’t make any specific plans. He was going to stay in Russia and live here,” said the priest’s brother.

In April, Father Ioann was stripped of his priestly ministry by a decree of Patriarch Kyrill, who stated that the “former hieromonk Ioann (Kurmoyarov) was actively engaged in media activities in support of the nationalist regime in Ukraine, forming false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation, and the schismatic organization of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR).”

The Arrest and Criminal Case

On June 7, 2022, law enforcement officers searched the home of Ioann Kurmoyarov, known as Father Ioann, and confiscated equipment, two icons, a wooden cross and a cassock. The man was detained and charged under “e” part 2 article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. According to the ruling of the investigating authorities, Kurmoyarov was charged, because of four of his video uploads to the social network VKontakte. In the videos, Father Ioann expressed his views on the war with Ukraine. Linguists, who conducted an assessment of the videos, concluded that Kurmoyarov “expresses ‘knowingly false information’ about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”.

In his videos about the war with Ukraine, Father Ioann criticizes Russian aggression from the standpoint of the Christian doctrine. A popular segment of his was a video where Father Ioann stated that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine will go to hell, not heaven. “In heaven turn out to be ‘blessed peacemakers’, ‘peacemakers’ you know what the problem is? And those who unleashed aggression — they will not be in heaven,” the priest says in the video.

Kurmoyarov’s YouTube channel features not only his own videos, but also videos by other authors, such as reposts of the Popular Politics channel, which was created by associates of Alexei Navalny, as well as Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz. Here are just some of the titles: “Putin and Repression in Russia: Who is the Real Traitor of the Motherland?”, “Why Does the Kremlin Propaganda Make Russians Hate Ukrainians?”, “About 40,000 Residents Dead in Mariupol!”, “The Patriarch Blessed Aggression Against Ukraine!”, “Why Did Putin Start This War?”

On June 8, 2022, Judge Tatyana Alkhazova of the Kalininsky District Court of St. Petersburg ordered Father Ioann was to be held in jail. The session was held without the participation of Kurmoyarov’s defender, lawyer Leonid Krikun, despite the fact that he had been notified of the investigation during his entry into the case the same morning. The prosecutor, on the contrary, assured the lawyer that the trial would take place only on June 9, 2022.

Kurmoyarov pleaded not guilty in the “military fakes” case, noting only that “he may have seemed harsh in his statements to some,” but they were “only evaluative, with reliance on the Gospel.” “I am a Christian pacifist. In my videos I insist that the basic commandment is ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ there should be no war. I’m not talking about extremism. I’m for peace! — Ioann Kurmoyarov said at the trial. — I didn’t blame everything on Russia. I was talking about the two sides where people were dying. The accusations are far-fetched. My position is that everyone should stop the war and everyone should sit down at the negotiating table.”

The clergyman also assured the court that he posed no threat to society and had no intention of going into hiding. However, the court granted the petition of the prosecution and sent Kurmoyarov to custody until August 6, 2022.

Under a new Russian law, Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for “knowingly spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces”.

On June 10, 2022, attorney Krikun was not able to locate his client in pre-trial detention center-1 (Kresty-2) where he was supposed to be held after the June 8, 2022 trial. Father Ioann was also not located in pre-detention center-6 (Gorelovo), nor at the temporary detention center, where they reported that he “had already departed.”

It was not until June 14, 2022, that Leonid Krikun found his client in SIZO-1. The lawyer fears that his client may have been subjected to torture: “I have a strong conviction that the behavior of the prosecutor Luzhetsky on the first day of ‘work’ with Father Ioann, his hints to me that he would continue exercising pressure against the accused, as well as the absence of Father Ioann for his defense counsel in all institutions of the SPbFU, point to the use of unauthorized investigation methods and attempts to cover the tracks of this crime”. According to the lawyer, the prosecutor previously said that “despite all his efforts Father John does not want to admit guilt,” and asked the lawyer to “work” with him, promising to add mitigating circumstances to the case.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Ioann Kurmoyarov as a Political Prisoner?

Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial came to the conclusion that Ioann Kurmoyarov is a victim of political persecution.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills, but as riders, by amending others that had already passed their first readings) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws penalize calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, “discrediting” them, as calls to obstruct their usage. These laws were approved by the Duma and signed by President Putin on the same day. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. Memorial attorneys firmly believe that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as the basic principles of law.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.

The Memorial emphasizes that the restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code hold no ground.

Restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by par. 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.” Even under martial law, the law cannot impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.

De facto, the norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.

The aforementioned features of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation establish its unlawful nature and cannot be applied in good faith. For instance, the circumstances surrounding the adoption of this article into the Criminal Code—immediately following the start of the armed aggression against Ukraine—along with the rhetoric of officials who encouraged its adoption and, more importantly, the circumstances surrounding its application alongside state military propaganda—exclude such good faith. In an environment where only official Kremlin-affiliated sources are deemed as those purveying truthful information and assessments—justifying the war of aggression, denying facts of civilian deaths as a result of Russian strikes and war crimes committed by Russian forces and even prohibiting calling events that from any perspective constitute war “war”, the application of this article of the Criminal Code, which is by its nature illegal, is also extremely unconscientious and unlawful.

Based upon the provided information, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” asserts that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is illegal, was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.

Memorial also notes that this is not the first time Father Ioann (Kurmoyarov) has been persecuted for expressing an opinion. In the summer of 2020, after criticizing the Church of the Armed Forces, he was suspended by the Archbishop from the ministry for two months due to “non-compliance with the title of clergyman of the Russian Orthodox Church”. Father Ioann was also stripped of his position as Associate Professor of Church Theology in the Novosibirsk Seminary.

On April 1, 2022, by decision of Novosibirsk diocese and decree of Patriarch Kirill, Father Ioann was stripped of his rank for his public position against the war with Ukraine. Father Ioann is currently ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia under the omophorion of Metropolitan Agafangel. This is a non-canonical Orthodox association that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2007. The residence of the head of this church is in Odessa.

The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners and Memorial continue work of the liquidated HRC Memorial. According to the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner”, Memorial finds that the criminal case against Ioann Kurmoyarov is politically motivated and aimed at involuntary termination for his critiques on the changes of the nature of public activities, of authorities, and of his thoughts about society at large, most particularly the consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority. Father Ioann’s incarceration is in violation of his right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the human rights organization believes that the persecution of individuals for their anti-war stance is related exclusively to their political views and the exercise of their freedom of expression.

Because of these circumstances, Memorial recognizes Ioann Kurmoyarov as a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

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