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Church leaders appeal for Christmas peace in Ukraine

22 December 2022

Bloodshed is an ‘open wound for humanity’ says Conference of European Churches

Alamy

Figures of presidents Zelensky and Putin in a pizzeria: part of a nativity scene made entirely of pizza dough on display last week in Naples

Figures of presidents Zelensky and Putin in a pizzeria: part of a nativity scene made entirely of pizza dough on display last week in Naples

CHURCH leaders in Europe have appealed for a Christmas peace in Ukraine, despite continued ground fighting and missile attacks, as the country’s two rival Orthodox Churches exchanged bitter remarks over their conduct during the war.

“The ongoing bloodshed in Ukraine is an open wound of humanity, over which dark shadows of war have continued to spread, risking to widen even further,” the Conference of European Churches said in a joint Christmas message with the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community.

It continued: “May the Peace of Christ bring calm to the rattling of weapons and comfort to mothers weeping for their children (cf. Matthew 2.18), who had to die because of some selfish interests.”

The message was published as Kyiv, Kherson, and other cities came under fresh missile and drone assault over the weekend, and the Ukrainian government accused Russia of planning a fresh ground offensive for early 2023, despite recent military setbacks.

It said that the thoughts of European Christians were with those forced to flee the “brutal military invasion” initiated nine months ago, and that Churches hoped the Christmas message could inspire “all parties, with the help of the international community, to open themselves up to dialogue and negotiation for a just peace”.

The Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church marked the fourth anniversary of its independence in Kyiv’s St Sophia Cathedral with a message of thanks to members and well-wishers.

“The true local Church of the Ukrainian people has been able to establish its unity and identity in a short time, developing its structure and gaining support — all of this prepared us to serve during the severe trials brought by a pandemic and full-scale Russian aggression,” said the Primate, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko). His Church was given a “tomos of autocephaly” by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, in December 2018 (News, 8 February 2019).

Metropolitan Epiphany said: “Despite all challenges facing the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, both external and internal, despite attempts to devalue and destroy the achievements of our unification council, despite the fact that some Orthodox remain under the spell of Moscow myths, fearing our own sobriety and freedom, we are moving forward, growing and strengthening as a Church open to everyone.”

In a TV address on Sunday, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that power supplies had been restored to nine million Ukrainians since fresh Russian strikes against the civilian infrastructure on 16 December, but warned that “all possible defence scenarios” were being prepared, amid reports that Russian troops had massed on the border with Belarus.

Moscow again ruled out any pre-Christmas withdrawal of its invading forces, as deaths and injuries were reported from shelling in Russia’s border region of Belgorod.

In a weekend message from the besieged cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that his countrymen had “a right to Christmas joy, even in conditions of war”. More Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities in Rivne, Zhytomyr, and elsewhere announced plans to celebrate the Western Christmas, as well as the 7 January Eastern festival, after recent authorisation by their respective Churches.

Archbishop Shevchuk said that some Ukrainians had chosen to return to their wrecked homes in recaptured areas, despite the absence of light and heating, and that Christmas celebrations would be “important for surviving such dramatic times”.

Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, continued searching monasteries and places of worship belonging to the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, the UOC, as bills to outlaw parishes maintaining loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate continued their passage in the Kyiv parliament.

Addressing more than 470 clergy at a Kyiv diocesan meeting, the UOC’s leader, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), said that followers faced “a new challenge”, in the face of “tireless informational and provocative pressure”, in seeking to “preserve the purity of Orthodox faith”.

Conditions had “changed significantly”, however, he continued, since the “death and destruction” brought by Russia’s invasion on 24 February, making the Church’s survival possible “only through dissociation from the Russian Orthodox”.

He continued: “From the first day of the invasion by Russian troops, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church condemned this military aggression and called for an end to the bloodshed — yet the voice of our Church has unfortunately remained unheard, together with its appeals to Patriarch Kirill for assistance in ending the armed confrontation.

“The clause that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church has been removed from our Charter, not only establishing its administrative independence but also assuring its separation from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Church Primate is not a member of the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod, and Russian Orthodox council resolutions are not binding on the Ukrainian Church.”

The claims were rejected, however, by Archbishop Yevstratiy (Zoria), the spokesman for the independent OCU, who said that Metropolitan Onufriy’s UOC was still refusing all dialogue, and treating the OCU and Patriarch Bartholomew as “enemies”.

Meanwhile, another OCU Metropolitan, Oleksandr (Drabinko), said that incriminating pro-Russian material allegedly found during searches of UOC premises was less important than “what remains in the heads and hearts” of UOC members.

“This cleansing of grain from chaff should have happened earlier — we thank God and the Ukrainian services that it is happening today”, Metropolitan Oleksandr told Ukraine’s Channel 24 TV last weekend.

“Ukraine will not be able to liquidate the structure of the UOC completely, and this is not necessary. What is necessary, in the spirit of Christian love and Christ’s evangelical teaching, is to treat those who have fallen tolerantly. Circumstances provide the impetus for people’s actions — and after victory, we will have a completely healed society.”

Meeting in Kyiv, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations set out plans to assist the needy over winter, by offering “heating points” and housing for the internally displaced, as well as assistance in finding missing people.

The Council, grouping all main Churches and faiths, also discussed Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, including the importance of judicial reform, religious freedom, and legal equality.

Meanwhile, the Vatican Nuncio in neighbouring Belarus, Archbishop Ante Jozic, told the official Belta news agency that he believed Minsk could become a centre for “negotiations and agreements”, after the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists last week that Rome still hoped to “offer a platform where the parties could meet and start a dialogue without preconditions”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry told the Tass agency that it had received a Vatican apology for late-November interview remarks by the Pope, in which he blamed current cruelty in Ukraine on “troops not of the Russian tradition”, such as Chechens and Buryats.

The Ministry’s spokesman, Maria Zakharova, said that the message had reaffirmed the Holy See’s “utmost respect for all the peoples of Russia, their dignity, faith and culture, as well as for other countries and peoples of the world”.

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