Russian Soldiers, Athletes Are Turning to Paganism, Top Church Leader Says

People take part in an ancient pagan ceremony celebrating the summer solstice near the village of Glubokovo, east of Moscow, on June 24, 2017. Russian athletes and soldiers are reportedly turning to pagan traditions. ANDREI BORODULIN/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's top Christian leader has warned that athletes and soldiers in the country are turning to pagan traditions.

"The church's inaction often turns the promotion of a healthy lifestyle into a revival of pagan cults, including a pagan attitude toward the human body," Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church said this week, according to The Moscow Times.

The patriarch added that "defenders of the fatherland, especially those who participate in dangerous military operations, need spiritual support" and that "nothing good will come" of increasingly trendy pagan beliefs.

The Christian leader also felt it necessary to remind everyone that "man cannot turn into an animal." He said this fact is "what always distinguished an Orthodox warrior from a pagan one."

Russian Patriarch Kirill celebrates a Christmas service in Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow early on January 7, 2015 KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Patriarch Kirill said that the Orthodox church had not initially believed reports of paganisms growing influence. However, "a large body of information was collected" about the trend, leading to concern. Apparently, according to the patriarch, an increasing number of athletes are adopting pagan ways.

Although Russia has been mainly Christian for more than a thousand years, paganism never completely died out.

The Mountain Mari and the Meadow Mari were two traditionally pagan ethnic groups identified by Russian leaders during the Bolshevik Revolution. Although many had converted to Christianity from the influence of missionaries, with the revolution, all religion was forbidden. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, these groups have been reclaiming their Christian and pagan heritage, The New Yorker reported in 2016.

Prior to Christianity, the ancient Slavs, whom many modern-day Russians are descended from, practiced their own form of paganism, believing in several divine beings. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a 12th-century account of the state of Kiev (the capital of modern-day Ukraine) discusses seven Russian pagan divinities: Perun, Volos, Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl and Mokosh.

Slavic adherents worshipped idols in ancient temples, and human sacrifices were part of their religious practices. From Patriarch Kirill's words, it's hard to know which specific pagan activities he believes athletes and soldiers have adopted.

Christianity first came to Ukraine and Russia in the early 900s CE. However, 988 is the year officially ascribed to the start of region's acceptance of Christianity. In the year 950, the grandmother of the king Vladimir was baptized. She asked the German King Otto to send missionaries to her land, but they were initially unsuccessful.

Although Vladimir practiced paganism, he decided in 988 that Christianity was the best religion to unite all his people. According to legend, he chose Christianity over Judaism and Islam because he disliked those religions' dietary restrictions.