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A conflict mirrored in Churches

by
07 March 2014

Christians in Ukraine are inevitably part of the struggle there, says Jonathan Luxmoore

AP

Pro-Russian activists: with their icons, outside Sevastopol, in the Crimea

Pro-Russian activists: with their icons, outside Sevastopol, in the Crimea

AS THE military occupation by Russian forces in Crimea threatens to plunge the region into war, the conflict is reflected in differences between Churches in the country - rifts that could reopen, as each is drawn into identifying with the rival sides.

In a joint declaration last weekend, while world leaders urged Moscow to draw back, the Council of Churches and Religious Organisations in Ukraine appealed for solidarity and prayers. It vigorously rejected "Russian propaganda" that Ukraine had been taken over by extremists. No one was being harassed "on the basis of language, nationality or religion", the Council insisted. Any claims to the contrary were intended to "incite hatred" and justify Russian aggression.

The declaration was signed by the Council's 20 member bodies, which include Christians, Jews, and Muslims. There was, however, a notable absence - the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. As the conflict forces Christians to assert their loyalties, it may well find itself in the most difficult position.
 

UKRAINE has long been divided between a traditionally Orthodox east, which habitually looks towards Russia, and a largely Catholic west, which feels closer to Western countries.

This made President Viktor Yanukovych's shock withdrawal last November from an agreement with the European Union, the event that sparked the crisis, a crucial development for Churches, too.

Those who talk of some stark Orthodox-Catholic divide are, however, oversimplifying the situation. While most of Ukraine's 46 million inhabitants claim no religious affiliation, Orthodox Christians have made up about one third of the population since independence in 1991.

These are, however, divided between the large Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, whose 12,000 parishes account for two-thirds of Orthodox Ukrainians, and two smaller rival denominations, mostly concentrated in the west of the country: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Neither of these is recognised by Orthodox leaders abroad.

Ukraine is also home to small Protestant Churches, including Lutherans and Baptists, and a thriving, historically rooted Muslim minority. Meanwhile, Greek and Roman Catholics together account for about a tenth of the population. Of these, the more numerous Greek Catholics, known pejoratively as "Uniates" by Orthodox leaders, were persecuted with particular savagery after their Church was outlawed under Soviet rule in 1946.

Athough counting barely a third of all Ukrainian citizens as active members, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches between them have been particularly influential, not least in shaping public opinion and Western attitudes to the country.

Long before the latest conflict, Catholic leaders had criticised President Yanukovych's authoritarian style, including his failure to hand back church properties that had been seized under Soviet rule. Visiting Brussels a year ago, they also backed closer links to the EU, and were joined by Protestant leaders and the two smaller Orthodox Churches.

EU ties have, however, been opposed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Patriarch Kirill I came to Kiev to give President Yanukovych a special blessing at his inauguration in 2010.
 

CHURCHES have played a prominent part in recent events in Ukraine. The Greek Catholic Church, which uses the Eastern Rite but is loyal to Rome, was forthright in its support for the anti-Yanukovych protests, whereas the smaller Roman Catholic Church was more cautious, speaking out only as the president's authority waned. The two independent Orthodox Churches also backed the protests.

Meanwhile, despite its Russian orientation, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate also bowed to the inevitable, and accepted that President Yanukovych could not remain as head of state.

When the riot police killed protesters in Independence Square in Kiev last month, the Church's Holy Synod condemned the government's "criminal actions". And when President Yanukovych fled, it denied as "complete nonsense" media stories that he was hiding at Orthodox monasteries in his native Donetsk.

"If you've any love left for us, the Ukrainians, stop calling us fascists, Nazis and nationalists, even in private conversations - these words kill," the Church's spokesman, Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko, wrote on Facebook. "If we are members of the one Orthodox Church, if you think Kiev is the mother of Russian cities, do not inflame us - just pray for us and listen to us."

The Church's acting head, Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky, urged President Vladimir Putin in a letter last Sunday to avoid a "fratricidal struggle between nations", reminding him of his professed Orthodox faith.

The Patriarchate's fabled Marian icon, "Softener of Evil Hearts", a symbol of Russian hegemony, was paraded on Sunday in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, accompanied by a church and government delegation from Moscow.
 

THE Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, however, last week denounced Patriarch Kirill's "cunning, deceitful words" about church unity, noting how Russian Orthodox leaders had traditionally been ready to use state power to impose their control.

The Acting President of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, held a special meeting with church leaders last week, in which he thanked their members for "being with the people in the most difficult times" (News, 28 February). He also promised to hold regular talks with them in the future.

As military hostilities build up, however, one outcome could be that the patient ecumenical efforts of two decades may now unravel. Pro-Russian Orthodox Ukrainians will be stirring up resentment if they allow their spiritual loyalties to be turned against their own country and its hard-pressed leaders.

Jonathan Luxmoore is a journalist who reports from Warsaw and Oxford.

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