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Welby interviewed: ‘This is a just war, and the Ukrainians will hold out for a just peace’

02 December 2022

At the end of a three-day visit to Ukraine — what he described as a ‘show of solidarity’ in the face of Russia’s ‘illegal, unjust, and brutal’ invasion — the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to Jonathan Luxmoore

Lambeth Palace

Archbishop Welby visits the “Bridge of Hope” in Irpin on Friday, destroyed by the Ukrainians to stop the Russian advance on Kyiv, and which formed a perilous escape route for civilians during that failed advance

Archbishop Welby visits the “Bridge of Hope” in Irpin on Friday, destroyed by the Ukrainians to stop the Russian advance on Kyiv, and which formed a p...

Jonathan Luxmoore: You returned to Kyiv on Friday, after visiting Bucha and Irpen, both sites of atrocities against civilians under Russian occupation. What impressions have you been left with?

Justin Welby: I can best answer with a few short sentences, since the situation is much more complicated than it looks. Firstly, in terms of what’s happening on the ground, we’ve seen how the continuing bombings and attacks are affecting civilians very badly.

Secondly, we’ve seen the absolute horror of what was done in Irpen and Bucha with the Russian occupation, with the killing of civilians and its impact on the population.

Thirdly, the resolution and resilience of virtually all Ukrainians seems extraordinary, and this means this war may go on for much longer than one might have hoped.

It’s very hard to see the Ukrainians suddenly deciding they want to stop. They are quite determined to get a just peace, which must mean a ceasefire and withdrawal by the Russians. And they’re not going to be bullied or pushed — quite rightly — into negotiations before they’re ready.

So, those would be my headlines. And my final observation concerns the enormous work which the Church, in its global sense, is doing here, working closely in many partnerships. At the seminary which we visited today in Irpen, they’re feeding 150 people with full-scale lunches every day, and taking out 1200 meals every week. And that’s just one place at one point.

JL: There are suggestions that the Russians are trying to undermine popular morale by destroying Ukraine’s power grid and civilian infrastructure, assuming this will weaken the population and force people to give up. Is this having some impact?

JW: I haven’t been here long enough to determine morale. But certainly the determination seems as high and strong as it ever was.

JL: You also met members of Kyiv’s small Anglican community. How is the community holding up after so many have had to leave?

JW: They are still functioning, although probably in single figures now; still meeting every week and holding services. We went to the lovely Lutheran church which the community rents, and that was very moving. They are a very impressive bunch of people.

JL: You also met Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), who heads Ukraine’s new independent Orthodox Church, and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Greek Catholics, who puts out a message to the nation every day, rallying people and trying to help. How important are the voices of Churches in this situation?

JW: The impression I get is that they are really very important. I also met an army chaplain today, who had literally just got back from the front line after coming under heavy shell fire. And it seems to me that the Church is gaining enormous credit.

The head of the seminary used a wonderful phrase when he told me about how they’ve had to re-evaluate their missiology. “To be credible,” he said, “we’ve realised we must carry the same scars as the society to which we minister.”

JL: There have been serious moves this week to ban Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, with a bill to this effect in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, apparently gaining support from President Volodymyr Zelensky. This looks set to become a big issue over the coming weeks.

JW: I haven’t seen what the President said, though I’d be happy to talk about it once I’ve had a chance to study the matter. Certainly, the person we met yesterday from the branch of the Orthodox Church which is Moscow-facing was extremely hostile to Moscow. But I haven’t seen what’s being proposed, and I think it’s a matter for the Ukrainian people and their parliament. This is a democracy.

Lambeth PalaceArchbishop Welby and his party (right of photo) meet Ukrainian church leaders in an air-raid shelter in Kyiv on Thursday evening

JL: Russia’s Patriarch Kirill has given very direct, public, and persistent support for this war from the outset. Can we still speak to him? Indeed, can we and other Christian communities ever speak to him again?

JW: I think we can, if he’s willing to speak. But the message he would get is not one he would like very much. It would be that this war, started illegally with no justification, has had evil consequences flowing from its start, which are indescribably horrible in terms of the deaths of many, many civilians and soldiers. None of this was necessary.

But the war has also had consequences for Russia itself, in tens of thousands of soldier deaths. The universal view outside Russia is that what Kirill needs to do now is to seek peace and pursue it. I’m not sure he will want to hear that message.

JL: You’ve said that Ukraine cannot have a peace imposed on it. But it seems many people here are now worried that Western countries, including the United States, will tire of the war and put pressure on Ukrainians to give up the territory which Russia has already occupied.

JW: Well, imagine that you’re out walking one evening, and you come across someone being mugged. I don’t think they would greatly appreciate it if you said “Ok, why don’t you give him your wallet but hang on to your watch?” Ukraine is resisting with enormous courage — and we don’t want another 1938 Munich settlement, in which the international powers act over the heads of people who are suffering the greatest.

To be durable, sustainable and just, peace and reconciliation can only come from the parties in the conflict, and enforced peace is very seldom a lasting peace. So it’s not in our interest — it’s certainly grossly immoral — to seek to enforce a peace on someone.

I don’t think there’s any suggestion at the moment that Western powers like the US would enforce a peace on Ukraine. They might talk to President Putin with the intention of making clear how there could be some progress, but not by turning to the Ukrainian government and people and saying: “You need to give something up.”

It’s quite right to seek to end a war. That must happen. Wars are uncontrollable and deeply cruel, and I don’t have words to describe some of the things — such as the mass grave in the snow — which we’ve seen here.

I can’t imagine what it will mean to face the winter here. It’s bitterly cold today, but nowhere near as cold as it’s going to get. And what will you do if you’re in your 70s with no electricity and heating, or a parent with a newborn infant?

But these are very resilient people, and I don’t find anything in the words of Christ which says we should put aside our support for someone suffering on the grounds that their oppressor is very powerful and violent.

Yes, if someone asks for your coat, you should give him your cloak as well. But that’s a decision for the person being asked. Jesus isn’t saying someone else can come along and tell you that since you’ve been asked to go one mile, you will now go two miles.

JL: Given the resilience and determination you’ve witnessed here, do you sense that Russia can actually be defeated, at least in the sense of having to withdraw from the whole of Ukraine?

JW: I’m not a soldier of any kind at all, and I’ve no means of judging. But what we can also see is the extraordinary determination and courage of the Ukrainian army. So who knows? You’d have to ask a military man about this. But the way to peace is through a ceasefire and withdrawal. And that would change the facts on the ground instantly and amazingly.

JL: From Ukraine’s point of view, should we think of this as a just war according to the Christian criteria?

JW: Yes.

How can Western Christians, and Anglicans particularly, living in relative comfort and safety a long way away, help in this situation?

JW: There are things we need to look at in the Church to see how we can be more generous in finding ways of helping. We can give Ukrainian Christian communities better access to buildings, help those hosting Ukrainian refugees, and do something to give them a good Ukrainian Christmas.

Indeed, there are plenty of things we can do, and we’ll be talking next week about giving financial support for agencies which are particularly effective here. But we need above all to lament and cry out to God in prayer for a just and sustainable end to this war.

JL: And how do we come to terms with the kind of evil we are witnessing, which has caused such distress to so many people?

JW: We start Christmas at midnight with the great reading about the light that comes into the darkness which the darkness has not overcome. The answer to this evil lies in goodness, generosity, and holiness in the lives of Christians, which bring light and hope to the world.

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