THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has joined other faith leaders in a “friendship and solidarity” visit to Ukraine, to comfort war victims and help to sustain morale.
“The purpose is a very modest one: we simply want to affirm our solidarity with victims of this appalling war, and express thanks for the courage shown by the Ukrainian people, in the hope that we can at least let them know that they are not forgotten,” Lord Williams told the Church Times on Monday.
“We also hope to learn a bit about conditions for refugees in the area we are visiting, and more generally about how people on the ground are viewing the situation.”
Lord Williams was speaking before the visit on Tuesday to Chernivtsi, close to Ukraine’s western border with Romania, which is currently sheltering at least 70,000 refugees from the war, many in dire conditions, according to aid agencies.
He said that the initiative for the visit had come from the director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Israel, Rabbi Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein, with planning help from local government officials, but said that religious leaders would not be guests of the Kyiv government.
“We’re travelling primarily in a personal capacity, though I am going with the knowledge and support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and informally representing him,” Lord Williams said.
“We intend to meet local religious leaders, who will share in the planned event. But we are keen not to be seen as parachuting in with our own ideas and agendas at the expense of local experience.”
The visit was taking place as Russia masses tens of thousands of troops for a fresh offensive in eastern Ukraine, after being pushed back with heavy losses from areas around the capital, where Ukrainian officials say the remains of more than 1200 dead civilians have been found over the past week.
It also followed weekend visits to Kyiv by Boris Johnson; the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen; and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who also travelled to the town of Bucha.
AlamyThe President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, lights a candle in a church near a mass grave in Bucha, last Friday
A statement by the Elijah Interfaith Institute said that Lord Williams would be joined by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, president of the London-based Council of Christians and Jews, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Nikitas Lulias of Thyateira & Great Britain, as well as by the RC Franciscan Order’s Minister General, Brother Massimo Fusarelli, and Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders from various countries.
The coalition said that a public meeting with refugees and faith representatives would be live-streamed “across Ukraine and around the world” from Chernivtsi’s previously closed main theatre, “with homage to the bombing of Mariupol”. The meeting is the initiative of James Sternlicht, founder of the Peace Department, and Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein.
Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein said of the visit: “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time ever that an interfaith delegation has undertaken a mission of friendship and solidarity, in entering a country at war. This is all the more remarkable considering the high level of religious representatives.”
The visit came after comments made by Lord Williams in an interview on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 3 April, backing calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the World Council of Churches because of its stance during the war in Ukraine.
In his Church Times interview, Lord Williams, who is a Russian speaker and an expert on Orthodoxy, said that he had received “generally sympathetic” responses from listeners, including Russian Orthodox Christians in Britain, among whom “anxiety about isolation” was growing.
He said, however, that he had been “rightly reminded” that the Moscow Patriarchate should not be identified “with the whole spectrum of Russian Orthodox jurisdictions” outside Russia, some of whom had criticised its support for the war.
“Anecdotal information suggests that a small but significant number of Russian clergy, especially in larger urban contexts where Western news still permeates, are deeply concerned and very unhappy with the patriarchal position, but apprehensive about speaking up, given the draconian sanctions threatened to anyone who questions the official Russian account of events,” Lord Williams said.
He continued: “The Patriarchate’s recent history of expansionist and triumphalist rhetoric and action in regard to other parts of the Orthodox world has already alienated many. In fact, the Church on the ground is far from monolithic: not everyone thinks that Russian Orthodox identity is bound up with national messianism and theocratic mythologies.”
Leaders of Christian Churches have made repeated appeals to Patriarch Kirill to condemn the war and urge a ceasefire since Russia’s invasion on 24 February (Comment, 18 March; News, 8 April).
In his latest sermon on Sunday, in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, however, the Patriarch called on Russians to “unite around the authorities in this difficult time for our Fatherland”, to gain “true solidarity and the ability to repel external and internal enemies”.
Preaching on the Orthodox feast of the Annunciation, on 7 April, he said that “dangerous processes” were occurring in Ukraine, as “the enemy of the human race provokes internecine strife between brothers, members of the same Church, belonging to the same Orthodox faith”.
The Patriarch said that satanic “external forces” sought to destroy and divide “the spiritual unity of the Russian land”, and that Russians were now fighting to preserve the Orthodox faith in Ukraine and protect its people from “schisms and divisions”.
“We must pray first of all for preservation of peace in the Ukrainian land and preservation of our Church’s unity, so that the Orthodox Church does not suffer damage, and above all so no false teachings violate its sanctity,” the Patriarch told his Moscow congregation.
He continued: “There is nothing more vile, terrible, and disgusting than the provocation of internecine strife — but very often people under strong pressure from propaganda, lose their life orientation and are so caught in the devil’s net that they cannot distinguish truth from lies and are ready to act at the instigation of the evil one.”
Lord Williams said that he still hoped that a ceasefire might be arranged for 24 April, the Orthodox Easter, following the Julian Calendar, so that “the feast of feasts should not be overshadowed by the horrors of shelling and slaughter”.
“I’m reluctant to make predictions about what will happen until I’ve seen and heard more on the ground: no one knows what, if anything, short of the obliteration of Ukrainian national identity, President Putin regards as negotiable,” he said.
“At present, the chances seem to be of a drawn-out, inconclusive conflict, claiming more and more lives on both sides. The question is whether the point will come when some in Russia decide that the price, internally and externally, of the aggression is impossibly high. I hope and pray so; but it won’t come quickly.”
A recording of the event with faith representatives and refugees can be watched here.
This story was updated on 13 April.