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Church divisions in Ukraine deepen after Putin ignores Easter truce

29 April 2022

Ukrainian Orthodox head puts pressure on Russian Church


Ukrainian soldiers enjoy a break from the fighting to bring Easter food for a blessing in front of an Orthodox monastery in Kharkiv at the weekend

Ukrainian soldiers enjoy a break from the fighting to bring Easter food for a blessing in front of an Orthodox monastery in Kharkiv at the weeke...

THE Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), has called for the removal of the Russian Orthodox presence in his country. His hardened stance was prompted by the refusal of President Putin to agree a truce for the celebration of Easter, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow charge to the Russian people to make their country “invincible”.

“The Ukrainian state is fighting to protect its territorial integrity and defending its information space,” Metropolitan Epiphany said. “This is why we must also talk about protecting Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful from Russian influence. . . As long as the Moscow Patriarchate has a large structure here, it will give Putin hope that he enjoys support.”

Metropolitan Epiphany was speaking as Russian forces intensified their campaign in the south and east of Ukraine, and as the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, during a visit to Moscow on Tuesday, called unsuccessfully for ceasefire talks.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s position in Ukraine was a “canonical anomaly”, the Metropolitan said, and he warned that Moscow-linked Orthodox clergy wishing to join his independent Church would have to “atone for the guilt” of Patriarch Kirill.

The leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, on Monday accused Russian occupiers of using captured factories as “concentration camps” for Ukrainians, and of employing execution, deportation, and forced recruitment into the Russian army. They were, he said, “dumping thousands of people” in mass graves at the besieged sea port of Mariupol.

AlamyA server during the Easter Day liturgy in the Greek-Catholic church in Nadyby, Ukraine. The liturgy was held on Sunday morning, not at midnight, because of the military curfew. The church has served as a shelter for dozens of refugees from the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia regions

“The attackers believed they could capture Ukraine in three days, but failed to grasp its people’s strength, resistance, and will to live in God-given freedom,” said Archbishop Shevchuk, whose Eastern-rite Church is in communion with Rome.

Russia rejected calls from Mr Guterres and other world leaders for a truce in the war, which has left tens of thousands dead and at least 12.3 million people internally displaced or seeking refuge abroad.

On Tuesday, Western defence ministers discussed increased military aid for Ukraine with the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, who predicted, after visiting Kyiv with the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, that Ukraine could win the war if properly supported.

Fresh missile strikes were reported this week, however, on Ukraine’s central Poltava region, together with further shelling of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Dnipro, and other cities.

Addressing Ukrainians on Monday, President Zelensky accused Moscow of grossly violating the Orthodox Easter spirit by continuing to attack his country’s population centres. “Russia was offered an Easter ceasefire — but the Orthodox world has seen Easter means nothing for the Russian invaders,” he said in a televised message.

Meanwhile, as more Russian Orthodox parishes announced their secession to Metropolitan Epiphany’s jurisdiction, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, warned that two draft laws to outlaw the Moscow-linked Church risked “dividing Ukrainian society”.

“We will deal with everyone after our victory, seeing how they behaved during the war,” the politician told the RBC-Ukraine agency on Monday. “This war is a borderline situation, which tears away veils and shows who is who — whether patriots, or pro-Russian politicians. Society is able to see who is for Ukraine, and who has other intentions.”

And, in a commentary this week, the Religious Information Service in Ukraine said that the Moscow-linked Church remained, despite criticism, “one of the most powerful and effective public institutions providing humanitarian support for the Ukrainian army and displaced persons”. Its leader, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), had invoked God’s blessing on Ukrainian soldiers at the start of the Russian invasion, he said.

Metropolitan Onufriy said last week that his Church was ready to organise an “Easter prayer procession” to the Azovstal industrial plant, in Mariupol, which is still holding out against Russian troops, to help to evacuate civilians and “remove wounded military personnel and bodies of the dead”.

This week, Pope Francis told an Argentinian newspaper that he had called off a possible visit to Kyiv and a projected June meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Jerusalem. Speaking to pilgrims in Rome on Sunday, he deplored the war’s escalation, and said that he was saddened that the “mortal roar of weapons” was being heard louder than “bells announcing the resurrection”.

In a separate message to Patriarch Kirill, the Pope said that the whole “human family” felt “crushed by violence, war, and so many injustices”, and urged the Patriarch to become a “true peacemaker”, so that “the great Easter passage from death to new life in Christ may become a reality for the Ukrainian people”.

In a televised sermon on Monday in the Cathedral of the Dormition, in the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill said that Russia’s actions were “directly related to preservation of the Orthodox faith” among its people, and warned “those who, by tradition and by the faith of our ancestors, belong to the Orthodox Church” that they should now “return to the spiritual home” and safeguard their country’s “true independence and freedom. . .

“Our people must especially rally around the city of Moscow, the historical centre of all Russia. As long as we are united and strong, keep faith in our hearts, and are inspired by our predecessors’ great example, Russia will be invincible,” the Patriarch said.

“Victory is not always just a physical victory, a victory of the weapon with which the warrior meets the enemy. But it is always a victory of the spirit — and, today, many would like this spirit to disappear, by sowing confusion, creating new idols, and drawing attention to new pseudo-values.”

The Patriarch called for prayers that God would keep Orthodox Christians strong in defending “the freedom and independence of our Fatherland . . . as it stretched out through a thousand years of history”, and in maintaining “our land, our people, our Church, authorities, and army”.

In Ukraine, many churches were closed overnight for fear of attacks. Metropolitan Epiphany said that the country’s Christians were celebrating the festival “immersed in pain, grief, tears, suffering, destruction, violence, and death brought to our peaceful land by Russia’s army”.

He recalled that Russian forces had executed hundreds of civilians while occupying the “thriving peaceful suburbs of Kyiv”, and had turned Mariupol “into twisted ruins and graves for thousands of slain innocents. . .

“No one with blood on their hands may hold the chalice or shepherd’s staff,” he said. “The Orthodox community should condemn not only these crimes, but also the words and actions of Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, who supported the war against Ukraine from his pulpit and led those who trusted him as their shepherd to their deaths.”

The Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, confirmed last week that the European Union was considering adding Patriarch Kirill to its list of sanctioned Russian officials. This was dismissed on Sunday as a “rejection of common sense” by Vladimir Legoyda, from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Church, Society and Media Relations.

Among claims and counter-claims, President Putin’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights circulated evidence abroad last week of alleged “crimes by Ukraine’s armed forces and nationalist battalions”, including the torture and execution of Russian prisoners of war, and the “forcible closure” of Orthodox churches.

Ukraine’s Russian-born elected Ombudsman for Human Rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, accused Russian troops of deporting 490,000 Ukrainian civilians, a quarter of them children, to Russia, from “filtration camps”.

In a report on Monday, the Religious Information Service accused the Russian Orthodox Church of assisting the forced resettlement programme by making church premises available, and said that emails had been obtained proving top-level clergy involvement.

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