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Orthodox Churches trade accusations, as war continues in Ukraine

20 May 2022

Autocephalous Church rejects claim its foundation helped to provoke invasion


A man surveys the rubble of a destroyed building in a village that lies between the cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson, in Ukraine, on Sunday

A man surveys the rubble of a destroyed building in a village that lies between the cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson, in Ukraine, on Sunday

LEADERS of Ukraine’s rival Orthodox Churches have exchanged bitter accusations, as fierce fighting continues in the country’s eastern Donbas region and along its southern coast.

The Synod of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (PCU) declared on Tuesday: “No oaths or obligations to the Moscow Patriarchate have any force in Ukraine, since the very existence of a Russian Orthodox jurisdiction in our country represents a canonical anomaly. . .

“Church unity and Orthodox independence from Moscow’s influence will be integral to Ukraine’s victory in the current war for freedom and independence. So we should act now, not some time in the future, making decisions and not vague promises.”

The 13-member Synod was responding to claims made last week by bishops from Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, the UOC, that the foundation of a new Church in 2018 had helped to provoke the Russian invasion.

The Synod said that the Moscow-linked Church, led by Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), had continued, “contrary to truth and the law”, to call itself the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, although its representatives had long “promoted, disseminated, supported, and propagated” the ideology of a Russian sphere of influence, or Russki mir, which had provided the “foundation and key justification” for Russian aggression.

“One of the main creators, inspirers, and propagandists of this fascist ideology, now dominant in Russia, is the head of the Moscow Patriarchate; it was and remains the basis for the occupation of our land, murder of our citizens, and destruction of our cities and villages, as well as for attempts to destroy our statehood and very identity,” the PCU Synod, chaired by Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said.

“Yet these hierarchs cannot find courage in their public statements to condemn the ideology, or the actions of their patriarch. . . They stubbornly and consistently decline to see the real cause of the Ukrainian people’s suffering.”

Invading forces continued attacking targets this week in the Chernihiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa districts, as Russia and Ukraine accused each other of stalling on possible peace talks.

Concerns were expressed for the safety of wounded Ukrainian fighters who had been evacuated from Mariupol’s giant Azovstal steelworks to Russian-controlled territory, as the port city finally fell after an eight-week siege.

Meanwhile, Western military exercises continued in the Baltic, as Finland and Sweden made formal applications to join NATO, and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stepped up arms deliveries to his Ukrainian counterpart, President Zelensky.

In its statement last week, the UOC’s governing Synod said that Ukrainians had been “courageously defending themselves”, as “the flames of war pierced the heart of every citizen,” and that it had “immediately condemned” Russia’s aggression and called repeatedly for negotiations.

The Synod said that 14 of its 53 dioceses, along with their 5500 clergy, had already suffered from the hostilities — but it was confident that Ukraine would “survive and maintain its statehood”.

Local governments across the country, however, had taken “illegal decisions” to ban its communities, the Synod said. The Synod also said that Ukrainian parliamentarians were backing Bills to outlaw the Church, in what would amount to an “act of national suicide”.

The Synod blamed the “erroneous religious policy” of Ukraine’s previous government under President Poroshenko, as well as the “destructive ideology” of the newly formed PCU.

Members of the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, have accused the UOC Synod, however, of “inciting religious hatred” and “justifying the war”, and said that they would debate its claims that President Putin’s decision to invade was provoked by the new PCU.

In its declaration on Monday, the PCU Synod said that the Moscow-affiliated UOC had still not condemned the Russki mir ideology, or collaboration by pro-Russian clergy.

It said that the PCU was “open to all” and wished to create a single, united Church, but that the UOC had not responded to its “numerous calls” for dialogue.

“Do you still not understand that the reason for Putin’s order to fight against our people is the very existence of independent Ukraine, its statehood and sovereignty, and its successful democratic development?” the PCU Synod said.

“The change of jurisdiction by Moscow Patriarchate communities in Ukraine does not result from a mythical ‘incitement to hatred’, but from a completely objective process, based on a conscious expression of will by its former parishioners and clergy.”

In a report on Tuesday, Russia’s Association for Religious Freedom accused Ukrainians of vandalising and burning down Moscow-affiliated churches, and attacking their clergy and parishioners, and said that at least 30 parishes had been forcibly transferred to the new PCU.

Speaking last weekend in neighbouring Poland, however, the PCU’s spokesman, Archbishop Evstratiy (Zorya), said that his Church had expanded rapidly since its creation in 2018, and now had 7000 registered parishes — compared with the Moscow-affiliated Church’s 11,000 — with 60 bishops, 4500 priests, and 120 monasteries.

The proportion of Orthodox Ukrainians declaring allegiance to the new Church had risen from 30 to 53 per cent since Russia’s invasion, he said, and 70 per cent now favoured a complete break with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Preaching on Sunday, the PCU’s leader, Metropolitan Epiphany, urged Ukrainians not to despair or lose hope against a “strong, insidious and ruthless enemy”. They could be confident, he said, that their “fight for freedom, truth, and goodness”, however long, would “surely win with God”.

Meanwhile, the Primate of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, welcomed the successful defence of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, and other cities, in a weekend message, but warned that Ukraine was now also the world’s most heavily mined territory, with tens of thousands of hectares already needing to be made safe.

Nine out of ten Ukrainians would “fall below the poverty line” if the war dragged on, he said, referring to United Nations data. He believed that Russia’s “real goal” remained “genocide of the Ukrainian people”.

During a meeting on Tuesday in Moscow’s Federation Council, Patriarch Kirill called for the observance of humanitarian law and avoidance of civilian casualties. He said that he was certain that Russia would “make the necessary efforts” to bring about a “long-awaited and lasting peace”.

He also said, however, that divisions among “peoples of historical Russia” had been “artificially provoked” for centuries by “external hostile political forces”, and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution had resulted from “the expansion of Western teachings about a new structure of social and political life”.

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