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Church tensions simmer in Ukraine

07 March 2014


On guard: a man, believed to be from the Russian army, outside a Ukrainian military unit near Simferopol, in Crimea, on Tuesday

On guard: a man, believed to be from the Russian army, outside a Ukrainian military unit near Simferopol, in Crimea, on Tuesday

AS RUSSIAN troops continue to blockade military bases in the Crimean peninsula, Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow in the Russian Orthodox Church, has written to the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine, urging them to push for peace.

"The blood of our brothers shed in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities is the fruit of hatred that members of the opposition from various quarters have allowed the enemy of the human race to grow in their hearts," he said in a letter sent on Sunday.

"No one living now in Ukraine should feel like a stranger in his own home, no matter what language he speaks. We cannot allow the further polarisation of society or increasing violence against civilians." He said that the Church should ensure that "the entire population" had their "rights and freedoms" protected, "including the right to participate in making crucial decisions".

His words were condemned, however, as "unworthy" and "evil" by the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. In a press statement, the Church said that Patriarch Kirill's statement did not contain "a single word condemning the flagrant interference of Russia in Ukraine's internal affairs, military aggression, or inciting separatist sentiment".

The statement also questions Patriarch Kirill's insistence that the Ukrainian people must determine their own future: "Is not the government of Russia and its President [putting] public pressure on Ukraine to give up the European way of development? That was the root cause of all the current tragic events."

The statement says: "Ukraine has no hatred for the Russian people and Russia as a nation. . . We are grateful for the support of all those Russians who, fearing reprisals, have expressed condemnation of aggression. We thank everyone in Russia who sincerely prays for peace in Ukraine."

 In response to the Kiev Patriarchate's statement, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church has appealed to its faithful to stand guard on churches in Ukraine "for fear that the schismatics, under the self-proclaimed head of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret Denisenko, may take these by force", Archpriest Nikolai Balashov of the Church's external relations department, said.

He went on: "The reasoning behind taking these churches by force is that the monks of the Moscow Patriarchate will allegedly take all the holy relics and values away to Russia. Such claims are absolutely unfounded, but the believers remain on duty round the clock to defend their shrines."

Patriarch Kirill said: "As we are praying for an end to the strife amid the fraternal people of Ukraine, we urge everyone to understand that the path to civil peace in Ukraine rules out any religious stand-off, or introduction of discord in churches or monasteries."

The Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, told the country's magazine Credo that Ukrainians must be prepared to die to defend their country.

"It is obvious that military intervention has already begun. Our people and our country are currently in danger. We must stand up for our country, to be ready, if necessary, to sacrifice our lives in order to protect the sovereign, free, independent, and unified state."

The West must be careful of responding in the way that others might expect, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, said on Wednesday. The Bishop, who is currently supporting the Kiev Patriarchate's attempt to find premises for a church in London, said: "We aren't in a very strong position to be able to say that nobody should interfere in the affairs of another state, bearing in mind our track record on Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Libya." Diplomatic communications with Russia should be kept open, and "any reconciliation, any solution, must be brought about together.

"The Churches ought to be able to contribute to that rather than seeing themselves simply as the voice or the mouthpieces of the politics that they themselves are inextricably involved in."

He called for a solution in which "Ukraine can continue as one complete state, but at the same time respecting the different traditions and political elements that come together to make it as a whole."

A senior foreign-policy adviser to the Archbishops' Council, Dr Charles Reed, said that the Churches of Europe should be pressing "for a policy which tries to bring together Russia and NATO to work together."

In an analysis on his blog (ethicalcomment.wordpress.com), he wrote: "We really must find someone or some way of galvanising the Ukraine Churches into a similar co-operative mindset. Outside south-west India, there is nowhere where there is greater fragmentation and mistrust between the Churches. The division between the Churches and the competing jurisdictions and rites underlines just how fragmented Ukraine has become.

"We, too, should admit our own failings here. We have allowed the reconciliation work of the Churches that was at the heart of the post-1945 ecumenical movement to slip off the agenda as we jostled unceremoniously for a seat at the table in Brussels."

He suggested that now was a "good time for the Conference of European Churches to reach out again to the Russian Orthodox Church, and to develop, however painful the process, a more inclusive pan-European ecumenical engagement with the institutions of Europe".


DIPLOMATIC efforts to lower the tensions were increasing this week. In a press conference on Tuesday, President Putin insisted that the armed soldiers who were blockading military bases in the Crimea were local self-defence forces rather than Russian troops. He warned, however, that while Russia had "no need" to deploy armed troops to Ukraine at the moment, "the possibility remains." He said that "such a measure would certainly be the very last resort."

The United States' Secretary of State, John Kerry, was due to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for talks in Paris on Wednesday. The two were in France for a prearranged international conference discussing Lebanon.

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, was scheduled to attend, and it was expected that this could lead to the first high-level direct contact between Russia and Ukraine since the conflict began.

The US has warned Russia that it might impose financial sanctions if the crisis continues.

European heads of government were planning to meet yesterday in Brussels to discuss the possible implementation of EU sanctions. Already, the British Government has joined others in saying that it will not attend any of the Paraympic Games, which are starting today in Sochi. Prince Edward, Patron of the British Paralympic Association, has pulled out of the event, on the advice of government ministers.

Should Patriarch Kirill reprimand President Putin? 

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