The head of Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church on Tuesday branded Russians who fail to serve their country as “internal enemies” and described patriotism as the “greatest virtue”, the RIA state news agency reported.

Patriarch Kirill is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and has strongly backed the war in Ukraine, in which tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions more driven from their homes.

“Today our prayer is for our fatherland, that the Lord may protect it from external and internal enemies, from all those who do not associate their lives with Russia, who are ready to make money in Russia, but have never been ready to serve the fatherland,” RIA quoted Kirill as saying in a sermon.

“We must inculcate in people, including through church preaching, love for the fatherland, which is the greatest virtue,” he said in the sermon, delivered at the Cathedral of the Archangel inside the Kremlin compound in central Moscow.

Kirill did not elaborate but his remarks appeared partly to target Russians who have dodged the draft, sometimes moving abroad to avoid being called up to serve in what Putin calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Putin has often used the Orthodox Church and its rich traditions to help foster a sense of national pride and patriotism among Russians. He attended an Easter service last week, holding a lit candle and crossing himself several times.

Putin, strongly backed by Patriarch Kirill, casts Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as a defensive pushback against what they see as an aggressive and decadent West that is bent on destroying Russia and its culture.

Ukraine says Russia is waging an unprovoked war of aggression aimed at seizing land and crushing its independence.

The 14-month war has deepened divisions among the world’s Orthodox Christians and caused many Ukrainians to break with the Moscow Patriarchate headed by Kirill and switch their allegiance to the relatively new Kyiv Patriarchate.