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Church leaders trade rival claims in Ukraine and Russia

17 June 2022


The funeral of the head of the Kyiv Department of the Ukrainian Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs, Volodymyr Prymachenko, who died near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, on 5 June. The funeral was held at St Michael’s Cathedral, Kyiv, on Tuesday

The funeral of the head of the Kyiv Department of the Ukrainian Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs, Volodymyr Prymachenko, who died near Bakhmut, in...

THE Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church (PCU), Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), has predicted that a united Orthodox Church is “only a matter of time” in his country, as members of the central committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) debated requests for Russian Orthodox representatives to be barred from the forthcoming Assembly.

“As head of Ukraine’s local Church, I’ve clearly highlighted the crimes of Patriarch Kirill, and his shameful blessing of the Russian army in killing innocent Ukrainians — a shepherd with blood on his hands cannot hold a shepherd’s staff and eucharistic chalice”, Metropolitan Epiphany told Ukraine’s New Voice agency on Sunday.

“When the Russian invasion began, many hierarchs, clergy, and believers realised it was impossible to stay in the Moscow Patriarchate’s Church, and began joining our PCU with their parishes. We stand ready to start a dialogue and write the latest church history together.”

The Metropolitan made the offer as savage fighting continued in the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk for control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, and as President Zelensky appealed again for more powerful weapons, accusing Russia of targeting 2600 cruise missiles at his country since its 24 February invasion.

Leaders of WCC member Churches denounced the Russian leadership’s “unjustified and illegal military aggression” as a violation of God’s will, and urged immediate negotiations as “the only morally acceptable path forward”.

They said that the war looked set to escalate a global food and climate crisis, but also reaffirmed that the ecumenical movement’s hopes for peace would not be served by “division and exclusion”.

“We re-emphasise the WCC’s critical importance as a platform for encounter and dialogue among the churches and communities most directly impacted by this war,” said the declaration, co-signed at the weekend by the acting general secretary of the WCC, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, and Orthodox and Protestant leaders from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Romania, and Sweden.

A final decision on Russian Orthodox participation at the WCC’s plenary, which begins at Karlsruhe, in Germany, on 31 August, was expected by the end of the WCC’s central committee meeting today.

“Nevertheless, we strongly reject the apparent instrumentalisation of religious language by political and church leaders to support an armed invasion of a sovereign country,” the declaration said. “We cannot see this as anything other than fundamentally contradictory to our common understanding of core Christian and ecumenical principles.”

On Tuesday, Moscow announced a travel ban on 29 British media figures from the BBC, ITV, and other outlets, for “biased assessments fuelling Russophobia”, in addition to dozens of MPs and public figures already barred from Russia in retaliation for Western sanctions.

The Primate of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Svietoslav Shevchuk, accused Russian forces of imprisoning and torturing volunteers who helped to evacuate civilians from the destroyed port of Mariupol, and urged foreign governments and firms not to profit from goods seized by occupying forces.

”There’s no doubt the war started by Russia against Ukraine is colonial in nature: they are again trying to make Ukraine a colony in very heart of Europe, through a colonial war accompanied by murders, rapes, and robberies,” Archbishop Shevchuk said.

“Russia is exporting and selling everything that can be looted from Ukraine on the international market. So I appeal to the international community, to the consciences of people worldwide, not to buy what is plundered. Otherwise, you will become complicit in crimes committed by the occupiers.”

More Orthodox parishes were reported to have switched allegiance to Metropolitan Epiphany’s PCU from the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as the regional council in Lviv became the latest to demand a “complete ban” on the UOC, referring to its clergy’s collaboration with Russian forces and connivance in “undermining the territorial integrity, unity and statehood of Ukraine”.

Church observers said that last week’s decision by the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod to transfer three dioceses in Crimea to direct Moscow Patriarchate jurisdiction (News, 10 June) would put pressure on the UOC to maintain ties with Moscow after it reaffirmed its independence in a 27 May declaration.

Speculation continued over the 7 June demotion of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox church’s foreign relations director, who was to have headed a large delegation to the WCC plenary.

In an emotional farewell address on Sunday in his Moscow church, the Metropolitan said that the life of all clergy included “promotions and demotions”, and that he had been assured that his sudden departure was “not associated with any shortcomings” in church institutions under his 13-year direction.

“All I heard was that this move was required by the current socio-political situation,” Metropolitan Hilarion told his congregation, according to the TASS news agency. “The road had made a very sharp turn. I didn’t fit in, and I ended up on the side of the road. But that’s better than driving into a ditch, with my car rolling over and exploding.”

Church sources said that the Metropolitan, who was replaced in the foreign-relations post by Metropolitan Anthony (Sevryuk) of Korsun & Western Europe, had not been present at the Holy Synod session that announced his removal, and that it was likely that his new appointment as Bishop for Hungary, in charge of just 15 clergy, had been sought by the Kremlin because of his lack of support for the Ukraine war.

In an interview with the Polish Catholic Information Agency, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s representative in Kyiv, Archimandrite Michael Anishchenko, said that Orthodox Christians had been “”unable to believe it” when Patriarch Kirill “blessed Russian military actions” at the start of the war, and that he was glad that most Orthodox Churches were now offering charitable help to Ukraine.

The notion of a Russian sphere, or Russki mir, espoused by the Patriarch, although not “concretely defined”, lay “outside any Christian ethics” and appeared comparable to “the ideology of Nazism and Fascism” in claiming “one people’s superiority over others”.

In an address in Rome on Sunday, the Pope urged Christians not to allow “the passage of time to temper their grief and concern” about Ukraine. And, in a message on Tuesday for the RC Church’s World Day of the Poor, he said that the conflict had been complicated by “direct intervention of a superpower, aimed at imposing its own will in violation of the principle of the self-determination of peoples.

“Once more, reciprocal extortionate demands made by a few potentates are stifling the voice of a humanity that cries out for peace,” he said.

“We think of the deportation of thousands of persons, above all young boys and girls, to sever their roots and impose another identity on them. . . How many others remain in the war zones, living each day with fear and a lack of food, water, medical care, and, above all, human affections?”

Speaking on Sunday at the Trinity-Sergius monastery, in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill said that “external forces” were “persistently trying to break the unity of Russia, sow hatred and enmity between brothers, devalue historical memory, and cancel our common spiritual and cultural heritage.

“Difficult times have come, and the state is doing everything to protect our country from the misfortune of external and internal conflicts,” the Patriarch said. His text was published on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website.

“As long as there is a single Russian Orthodox Church uniting Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries in its canonical sphere, there is still hope that a terrible internecine war will not destroy Russia as a historical and spiritual phenomenon.”

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