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WCC clears the way for Russian Orthodox at plenary, while condemning invasion of Ukraine

21 June 2022

PETER WILLIAMS/WCC

Members of the WCC central committee vote during one of the plenary sessions, on Thursday

Members of the WCC central committee vote during one of the plenary sessions, on Thursday

THE central committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has condemned Russia’s “armed aggression” and “illegal invasion” of Ukraine, and has invited the Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church to attend its meetings as an observer. But the way has also been cleared for Russian Orthodox leaders to attend the WCC Assembly this summer.

“Our hearts grieve that, after eight years of unresolved crisis and conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine, the Russian Federation launched an illegal invasion of its neighbour, a sovereign state — this tragic development represents a terrible failure of diplomacy, responsibility, and accountability to international law,” the committee said.

“We declare that war, with the killing and all the other miserable consequences it entails, is incompatible with God’s very nature and will for humanity and against our fundamental Christian and ecumenical principles, and we reject any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression.”

The statement was published at the close of a four-day meeting to prepare an agenda for the 11th WCC plenary, which opens in Karlsruhe on 31 August on the theme “Reconciliation and Unity”.

The Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, a theologian from the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, has been elected as the WCC’s new secretary-general.

The central committee’s statement said that Russia’s invasion on 24 February had inflicted “an appalling toll of death, destruction and displacement” on the people of Ukraine, where thousands of civilians had been killed, cities reduced to ruins, and more than 14 million people — a quarter of the population — forced to flee their homes.

There had been “many reports of atrocities which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity”, the statement continued, including “sexual and gender-based violence” and a “heightened vulnerability to human trafficking”. The conflict had also led to a “massive proliferation of weapons”.

“The effects threaten to tip many millions of already food-insecure people into famine around the world, to provoke widespread social and political instability, to destroy the post-World War II international security architecture, to provoke a new global arms race, and to accelerate our trajectory towards climate catastrophe,” the central committee said.

“We acknowledge and welcome the commitment of the Moscow Patriarchate — representing the WCC’s constituency in both Russia and Ukraine — to engage in encounter and dialogue under WCC auspices. . . Dialogue remains an obvious urgent necessity to address such a critical situation for the people of Ukraine, the future of the world and the ecumenical movement.”

Calls have mounted for the Russian Orthodox Church to be barred from WCC meetings, after unsuccessful appeals for Patriarch Kirill to condemn the invasion and urge a ceasefire and negotiations.

In March, the Church named a 23-member delegation team for the Karlsruhe plenary, headed by its foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), although its final composition remains unclear after Hilarion’s demotion in early June by the Church’s Holy Synod (News, 17 June).

In May, the Moscow Patriarchate welcomed the outcome of an inter-Orthodox consultation in Cyprus, in preparation for the WCC plenary, after its final report urged peace in Ukraine but made no mention of Russia’s invasion.

On 22-26 May, a team from the WCC and Geneva-based ACT Alliance, grouping more than 140 faith-based member-organisations, visited the Russian-Ukrainian border area around Rostov-on-Don, at the Moscow Patriarchate’s invitation, to view the Russian Church’s work with refugees from the war.

In an opening report to the central committee on 15 June, the WCC’s Orthodox acting secretary-general, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, said that the WCC, whose 352 member-Churches represent about 580 million Christians worldwide, had consistently denounced the conflict, while also maintaining contact and dialogue with Churches in Russia and Ukraine.

He said that the WCC had been asked in letters and messages to expel the Russian Orthodox Church because of its wartime stance, and said that he understood how anger and frustration could impel “immediate radical decisions”.

The WCC was created, however, as an “open platform for dialogue encounter, for discussion, and challenging one another”, Professor Sauca told the committee. “If we exclude those we do not like or agree with, with whom are we going to speak, and how can we advance to reconciliation and a lasting just peace?

“It would be very easy to use the language of politicians, but we are called to use the language of our faith. It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, and demonise, but we are called as the WCC to meet and listen, even if and when we disagree.”

Russian Orthodox leaders have severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Churches in Greece, Cyprus, and Alexandria for recognising Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, formally established in January 2019, and has threatened similar action against others accepting the new Church.

A WCC communiqué said, however, that the new Ukrainian Church had been invited to send two observers to the Karlsruhe plenary in recognition of its “strong interest in joining the WCC fellowship of member-churches”.

Three observers have also been invited from Ukraine’s ecumenical and interfaith Council of Churches and Religious Organizations.

In its main statement, the central committee said that it deplored the “illegal and unjustifiable war inflicted on the people and sovereign state of Ukraine”, as well as “systematic campaigns of disinformation that promote divisions and hatred”.
It said that “grave concerns” had been expressed among Churches about “any misuse of religious language to justify or support armed aggression, in sharp contrast to the Christian calling to be peacemakers”.

The statement urged all sides to respect international humanitarian law by protecting civilians, and exchanging prisoners of war and the remains of dead combatants, and called on Russian and Ukrainian Churches to “use their voices” to oppose the continuing destruction.

It asked Professor Sauca to lead a “pilgrimage of justice and peace” to Kyiv and Moscow to debate how church leaders could best push their governments for “an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations”.

It said that the inclusion of Ukrainian representatives at Karlsruhe would assist the search for peace, justice, dignity, and human rights.

“We affirm the WCC’s mandate and special role in accompanying its member-churches in the region, and as a platform and safe space for encounter and dialogue, in order to address the many pressing issues for the world and the ecumenical movement arising from this conflict,” the statement said.

“We affirm the obligation of members to seek unity and together serve the world, and urge members of the ecumenical fellowship in Russia and Ukraine to make use of this platform.”

Besides debating the war in Ukraine, the central committee also urged a new WCC commission to press for urgent action on climate change, and called on Churches to challenge sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment.

It also reiterated the WCC’s “constant call for an end to the occupation, and for equal human rights for all” in the Holy Land, and warned in a statement on Ethiopia that world attention on the war in Ukraine had detracted from needed responses to other humanitarian crises.

In a message after his election on 17 June, Professor Pillay said that the WCC’s task remained “not only to work towards visible Christian unity” but to also “uphold and champion the call for justice and peace”, and to “create safe spaces for honest, truthful and courageous conversations”, while also reaching out to Churches not participating in the WCC’s work.

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