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WCC again urged to suspend Russian Orthodox, as conditions worsen in Ukraine

29 July 2022


The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow

DOZENS of Christian theologians and scholars have petitioned the World Council of Churches (WCC) to suspend the Russian Orthodox Church from membership, as divisions deepen over its Patriarch’s insistent support for the war in Ukraine.

“We are deeply troubled by this unjust war — the devastation of entire cities and villages, the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural and religious heritage, and the informational war promoting hate speech and disinformation,” the petition said. By the middle of this week, it had been signed by prominent Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican leaders from 15 countries. They included directors of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant theology faculties in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Romania, as well as senior clergy and professors from Britain, Greece, Italy, Poland, and the United States.

It continued: “An unjustifiable war which results in the unceasing shelling of countless settlements, the torture of civilians and prisoners of war, the rape of women and children, the killing of innocent civilians, the deportations, the separation of hundreds of thousands of children from their families and their deportation to Russia, the indoctrination of school children and their prohibition from speaking their native language — all these crimes are endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church and by Patriarch Kirill himself in the name of defending Christian values and the family.”

The petition was sent at the weekend to senior representatives of the Geneva-based WCC in advance of its 11th plenary assembly, which opens at Karlsruhe on 31 August with the theme “Reconciliation and unity”.

It said that the Patriarch had portrayed the war in sermons as an “eschatological combat” and a “metaphysical struggle” against evil powers, and had denied Ukrainian sovereignty while affirming the doctrine of a Russki Mir (Russian sphere).

It went on to say that Patriarch Kirill had rejected peace appeals by the WCC, and challenged the core Christian belief in a loving God by portraying Russia’s invading army as “deserving divine support”.

“In a shocking distortion of facts and values, Patriarch Kirill has identified the aggressor with the forces of good, demonising Ukraine and the West as the embodiment of evil. . . Waging war and conquering the territories of another state were thus presented as a work pleasing to God,” it continued.

“We call upon the WCC to suspend the membership of the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church], as long as it does not condemn in unequivocal terms the war against Ukraine through the voice of its highest authority, and as long as Patriarch Kirill uses his spiritual and political power to fuel the war.”

Calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to be suspended or expelled from the WCC, whose 352 member-churches represent about 580 million Christians worldwide, grew after Moscow’s 24 February invasion, amid unsuccessful appeals for Patriarch Kirill to urge a ceasefire and negotiations.

They were rejected, however, at a mid-June meeting by the WCC’s central committee, which said that it “acknowledged and welcomed” the Moscow Patriarchate’s commitment “to engage in encounter and dialogue under WCC auspices” (News, 24 June).

In March, the Russian Orthodox Church named a 23-member delegation, including nine Archbishops, for Karlsruhe, while in May, the Moscow Patriarchate welcomed the report of an inter-Orthodox consultation in Cyprus, in preparation for the plenary, which urged peace in Ukraine but made no mention of Russia’s invasion.

Britain and Canada have since imposed sanctions on Kirill, although parallel measures by the European Union were blocked in June by the Hungarian government (News, 10 June).

The sanctions were dismissed as a “foolish response” by Moscow’s Anglican chaplain, Canon Malcolm Rogers, in a letter to The Times on 23 June. They were attacked last week as “lawless” by Metropolitan Theodosius (Hanna), from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who insisted that Patriarch Kirill was “a supporter of peaceful dialogue.

“We perceive this kind of action as part of a bigger plan aimed at weakening the Orthodox Church’s role and authority, its spiritual mission in the contemporary world, and at eliminating the moral values that it preaches,” Metropolitan Theodosius said in a statement.

“By expressing our full support for the Russian Orthodox Church and its Primate, we confirm our categorically negative position regarding all provocations and illegal actions directed in their direction by the West. This Western power praises democracy and human rights, but at the same time supports same-sex marriage.”

The latest exchanges coincided with church condemnations of last weekend’s missile strikes on Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa, just a day after a United Nations-brokered deal to resume grain exports, amid warnings of worsening humanitarian conditions and a possible escalation in the war.

In a statement on Monday, Ukrainian officials said that 166 Orthodox and Protestant churches had so far been “completely or partially destroyed” by Russian forces, mostly in eastern provinces, along with RC, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship. Data from UNESCO indicated that 164 registered cultural sites had been wrecked, in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention.

Russian Orthodox representatives are reported to be reorganising church life, besides offering food, clothing, medicines, and financial aid in Ukraine’s embattled Donbas and southern regions.

Claims are also circulating that clergy from Ukraine’s new independent Orthodox Church, or PCU, are being deliberately targeted by invading troops, with a senior leader, Metropolitan Dimytriy (Rudyuk), telling Germany’s Die Tagespost weekly that at least six priests have been shot or beaten to death, making pastoral work “impossible” in occupied areas.

Speaking in Kyiv on Tuesday, the PCU’s leader, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), warned that “all methods” were being used to destroy Ukraine’s statehood and national identity, while Ukraine’s Greek Catholic bishops said in a weekend message that Russia’s aims were “clearly genocidal”, and called on the world to stop “numbly contemplating the barbarism”.

“Russia is fighting not against an army, but against a people, trying to satisfy its imperial appetites,” the bishops, whose Church combines the Eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, said.

“At a time when various Christian Churches are repentantly rethinking their historical role in colonialism and the practice of slavery, the Russian Orthodox Church conducts his faithful into the moral darkness of violence, aggression, and war crimes”.

In their petition, the theologians said that thousands of dead civilians had been buried in mass graves or left under ruins at Mariupol and other sites. It went on to say that Patriarch Kirill had refused to back a ceasefire even over Easter, and offered religious justifications for “a war involving non-Christian mercenaries fighting against a majority Orthodox country”.

It called on the WCC to ensure that all Ukraine’s churches were represented at the Karlsruhe assembly, and to avoid “siding with a Church that supports their annihilation”.

It also urged the WCC to heed expert advice on the situation, and to defend “courageous priests and believers” who had spoken out against the war in Russia by also inviting them to the assembly.

“Ecumenical relations do not equal diplomatic relations with the hierarchy of a particular Church, but need to take into account the faith, experience and suffering of the entire people of God,” the signatories added.

“Any Church that, instead of working for peace, heightens the causes of war, and instead of standing up to authorities who show no regard for human dignity and life serves their inhumane political agenda, gravely fails to fulfil its fundamental mission —- such an attitude is incompatible with values and principles that go with WCC membership.”

The WCC has invited Metropolitan Epiphany’s independent PCU to send two observers to the Karlsruhe plenary, alongside a further three from Ukraine’s ecumenical and interfaith Council of Churches and Religious Organisations.

In an opening report to the Central Committee in June, the Orthodox acting secretary-general, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, said that the WCC had consistently denounced the conflict (News, 17 June), and said that he understood how anger and frustration could impel “immediate radical decisions”.

“It would be very easy to use the language of politicians, but we are called to use the language of our faith,” Professor Sauca told the Central 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?”

Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church said that it would not be marking this year’s Baptism of Russia Day on Thursday, which is to be celebrated, on Patriarch Kirill’s instruction, by the mass ringing of church and monastery bells in his country.

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