Patriarch urges soldiers to defend 'peace-loving' Russia amid Ukraine campaign

(Reuters) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church held a service for Russian soldiers on Sunday in which he called on them to defend their country "as only Russians can" as Moscow continues its military campaign in Ukraine.

At the lavishly decorated Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces opened two years ago in Kubinka outside Moscow, Patriarch Kirill told a group of servicemen and servicewomen that Russia was a "peace-loving" country that had suffered greatly from war.

"We absolutely do not strive for war or to do anything that could harm others," said the patriarch, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

"But we have been raised throughout our history to love our fatherland. And we will be ready to protect it, as only Russians can defend their country."

Kirill, 75, has previously made statements defending Moscow's actions in Ukraine and sees the war as a bulwark against a Western liberal culture that he considers decadent, particularly over the acceptance of homosexuality.

His support for the military intervention, in which thousands of soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed, has angered some within the Orthodox church at home as well as in churches abroad linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

At his sermon on Sunday, Patriarch Kirill said he also felt concern for the people affected by the armed conflict.

"All these are people of Holy Russia," he said. "They are our brothers and sisters."

Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a special operation to degrade its neighbour's military and root out what it called dangerous nationalists. It depicts Ukraine as a potential bridgehead for the Western NATO alliance and a direct threat to Russia.

Ukraine and the Western countries supporting it reject that as a baseless pretext for a war of aggression. Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance and the West has imposed sweeping sanctions in an effort to force Russia to withdraw its forces.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey)