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Church leaders in Ukraine call for national unity

by Michael Bourdeaux

AP

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Face-off: an Orthodox priest prays in front of riot police near protesters' barricades in central Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday

Credit: AP

Face-off: an Orthodox priest prays in front of riot police near protesters' barricades in central Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday

WHEN Orthodox priests take to the streets, as in Ukraine, or officiate at funerals, they always make good photos. Their robes are colourful, and their faces are bearded. There have been many such photos in the papers this week, but much less about what they have been saying.

Ukraine has no fewer than three separate branches of the Russian Orthodox Church: the largest under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate; the second, the Kiev Patriachate, in opposition to it; and a much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, abolished, like the Kiev Patriarchate, under Stalin, but revitalised in the past 20 years.

Divisions run right through Ukrainian society. At their most obvious, the Russian-speaking east is more sympathetic to the Kremlin, while the Ukrainian-speaking west was the trigger for Ukrainian independence in the first place. The divisions run right down the middle of Kiev, centrally situated and seat of the government. Officially, the capital is Ukrainian-speaking, but not everyone knows the language.

At a meeting predominantly of clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate in Odessa (southern Ukraine, on the Black Sea coast, a Russian-speaking area) last Saturday, the call was for moderation, but also national unity: "We especially encourage local élites - political, cultural, intellectual, social - do not rock the boat in which you sit. Do not think that the current conflicts are careless political games. Be aware that we are one family and that we live in the same home - Ukraine."

Last Sunday, the head of the Kiev Patriarchate, Patriarch Filaret, gave an impassioned interview, in Ukrainian, to Channel 5 TV, in which he repeatedly called for peace, moderation on all sides, and dialogue, backed up by prayer. The interview included excerpts from an open-air prayer service to illustrate his point. Both Churches are opposed to any form of violence.

In contrast with the pro-Russian government, western Ukraine is strongly nationalistic. Its large Greek Catholic Church (Eastern Rite, under the authority of Rome) is currently under pressure from the government. Yet, here, too, the highly respected Bishop Borys Gudziak has echoed the sentiments of the Orthodox Churches, stating that different faiths are working together, holding regular joint prayers, and priests are providing pastoral care on Independence Square.

Protestants have always been strongly present in Ukraine. On 17 January, a meeting in Kiev brought together leaders of Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, and other Churches. Here, too, there were moderate voices, but also some more outspoken ones. An Evangelical church leader, Dr Sergiy Tymchenko, reported back from the front line and said: "The barricades on Independence Square touched my heart. I saw the birth of a new nation there. People were ready to fight for their freedom and give their lives for the sake of others."

All were united, though, in calling for Protestants to become actively involved in exercising civic responsibility.

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