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Division with fractions

17 April 2015

The complexity of Ukraine must be recognised, writes Christopher Hill

THERE are no simplistic or partisan answers (either political or ecclesiastical) to the crisis in Ukraine, which the Churches have been following with anxiety and prayer.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) have kept a watching brief: the Secretary of the WCC has visited Moscow; I have been listening to Constantinople. There has been a WCC delegation to Ukraine (News, 27 March), of which I was a member. These reflections are, however, personal. 

AS I travelled to Kiev, I reflected on the diversity of Ukraine, and on the divisions between its Churches.

The majority of Ukrainians follow the Orthodox tradition, which is itself divided. In western Ukraine, what is sometimes called the Greek Catholic Church is strong. Following Polish and Lithuanian influence, from the late 16th century a significant number of Orthodox believers came into communion with Rome, without losing their Eastern liturgy and spirituality. This meant that they looked west rather than east - to neither Moscow (like the Russian Orthodox) nor Constantinople (like the Greeks). In Soviet times, these Ukrainian "Greek"' Catholics were systematically persecuted, even more than other Orthodox who also suffered terribly.

The larger Orthodox community in Ukraine has been part of the wider Moscow Patriarchate since the time of the Tsars. Nevertheless, Kiev remained its spiritual heart, by virtue of the first baptisms in "Rus" under Prince Woldomyr in the tenth century. There is the legend of the prince wanting to determine Kiev's religion, and sending out ambassadors. They went to the Western and Eastern Churches, and to Judaism, and to Islam. When they came to Constantinople, the liturgy in Hagia Sophia was so numinous that without hesitation they recommended Orthodoxy (good liturgy can be missional in a big way!).

Over the centuries, there developed the complex of monasteries known as the "Lavra of the Caves"; Kiev was compared by pilgrims to Jerusalem. This spiritual history is important in trying to understand the dismay of the Russian Orthodox Church when, after Ukrainian independence, part of the Church broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate to form a self-designated Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate). There is also a further, smaller Orthodox body that designates itself the Autonomous Orthodox Church.

Neither of these bodies is recognised by any other Orthodox Church. In addition, there are other Churches and denominations of Western origin; of special significance are the Hungarian-speaking Reformed in Transcarpathia, and the smaller number of German-speaking Lutherans, who are dispersed throughout Ukraine. And there are Tatar Muslims in the Crimea; and Jewish communities, especially in Kiev itself.

OUR delegation spent time with the majority Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OUC, in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate); the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations; and the Papal Nuncio. I visited displaced families; another member joined an aid convoy to the east.

We heard from the UOC of the difficulties that they face because of popular pressure (from one TV channel in particular) in favour of the self-designated Independent Orthodox Church; the party line is that "to be patriotic you must reject all things Moscow." Its head recently defended, uncompromisingly, the divine right to self-defence.

Changing jurisdiction is facilitated by the state law, in which only buildings and congregations are recognised rather than Churches as institutions. So a congregation with a real or imagined grievance can "swap" its parent church, subject only to the agreement of the local (secular) parish council.

This mechanism was devised in Soviet times, to divide and conquer. But, for the record, the majority Ukrainian Orthodox Church has twice stated its commitment to the integrity of Ukraine; and still exercises jurisdiction in the Crimea (rather than cede this to Moscow). It calls for peace. A priest who used inflammatory language about the present government of Ukraine, supporting the pro-Russian militias, has been removed from his parish, and is being investigated by the Church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church must be an essential part of any process of reconciliation, because it is the only large Church in both eastern and western Ukraine: it spans the political divide. The small Lutheran Church is also found in the east as well as the west; its bishop also courageously works for reconciliation between divided communities.

I heard at first hand of atrocities on both sides, from victims who had fled from the devastated cities in the east, homeless refugees in their own country, being cared for temporarily by a local Evangelical church. Since then, news has emerged of serious restrictions on Christian and Jewish groups in the Crimea (News, 10 April). 

A WISE observer spoke of the complexities of two Ukrainian economies. In the west, Europe and the euro are attractive, but in the east - the old industrial heartland of Ukraine - industry is still orientated to Russia and the old Soviet economy. In addition, east Ukraine contains large Russian-speaking communities. In the recent past, speaking Russian and nurturing that culture were not seen as un-Ukrainian; now they are, further dividing Ukrainians.

One real hope is the unity of the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations. All the Churches and faiths are active members; the divided Orthodox are here together. The state-sponsored Council was set up in Soviet days as an instrument of control; now, the Churches use its strength in speaking to the state.

Above all, the complexity of Ukraine - a Janus-like, double-facing country - has to be recognised. Simply laying blame unilaterally does nothing to help, although this is not to say that there are no villains (including certain billionaire "oligarchs").  e should pray for Ukraine and its Churches, that the Churches may be part of an ultimately peaceful solution - rather than simply reflect existing political and economic rivalries.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches.

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