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Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine: ‘We are fighting for our freedom’

09 September 2022

Orthodox delegates from Ukraine thank WCC for support during war with Russia

Albin Hillert/WCC

Professor Sergii Bortnyk (Ukraine) speaks during a thematic plenary focused on Europe, on Thursday of last week

Professor Sergii Bortnyk (Ukraine) speaks during a thematic plenary focused on Europe, on Thursday of last week

ORTHODOX delegates from Ukraine have thanked the World Council of Churches (WCC) for support during the current war with Russia, while attending the WCC’s plenary Assembly for the first time alongside Russian Orthodox representatives.

“Despite our ancient and unique Ukrainian Christian traditions, and the diversity of Christian denominations long existing here, Ukrainians have not had their own voice for decades — they talked about us without us,” said Archbishop Eustratius (Zorya), spokesman for the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (PCU).

“Russia continues, as it has for centuries, to use all the tools and rhetoric of colonialism to destroy us. But we are successfully fighting for our freedom, for our independent future.”

The Archbishop was addressing the WCC’s 11th Assembly, which opened in Karlsruhe on 31 August.

He said that thousands of civilians had been killed, and 15 million had made homeless, by six months of “unprovoked full-scale war”. He expressed hope that the WCC assembly would “find appropriate words and actions to continue witnessing to the truth”.

Meanwhile, a representative of the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), said that its governing council had declared for “complete independence” from the Moscow Patriarchate in May, but was still widely accused of being “too close to the Church in Russia”, and hoped for “more communication with other Christians” worldwide.

“Until now, our Church has not been directly represented in the World Council of Churches; while carrying on its ministry in the independent state of Ukraine, it was formally presented as part of the Russian Church,” Professor Sergij Bortnik, from the Theological Academy in Kyiv, explained.

“However, this is a war in which our enemies are trying to make us part of Russia again, with the idea of imperial greatness and a glorious past. . . The war has become important not only for the fate of individuals, but also for our Church in searching for a new status.”

Both Churches joined the plenary, held every eight years, at the invitation of the WCC’s central committee, which also rejected calls in June for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded for backing the Ukraine invasion.

The start of the Assembly, attended by about 5000 Christians from more than 100 countries, was marked by harsh criticism from the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who accused Russian church leaders of “joining in war crimes against Ukraine” and urged the WCC to condemn their “totalitarian ideology, disguised as theology”.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s director for external relations, Metropolitan Anthony (Sevryuk), told the Interfax news agency that President Steinmeier’s opening speech had contained “unsubstantiated accusations” that “completely ignored” the Moscow Patriarchate’s humanitarian efforts. The German President, he said, had used “rude pressure” to interfere in the WCC’s internal affairs.

The President’s criticisms were endorsed, however, by Christian leaders from Germany, including the former President of the Evangelical Church, Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who told the Assembly that all Christians felt a “terrible dilemma between the moral dubiousness of participating in the sin of war on one hand, and the need for effective resistance against an aggressor who brutally disregards minimum standards of international law and humanitarian rules on the other”.

The eight-day Assembly concided with continued Russian shelling and bombing of towns and cities in Ukraine, as well as with a Ukrainian counter-offensive to recapture southern areas around the occupied port of Kherson.

On his first visit to Greece this week, the Primate of the PCU, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), thanked local Orthodox leaders for “brotherly love and confidence”, when “neighboring people in the north, who received the light of baptism and heard the gospel preached from Kyiv, are now throwing their bombs and missiles at us”.
Preaching on Tuesday, however, in the Cathedral of the Dormition, in the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said that his patriarchate remained “an island of freedom in this stormy world”, while Russia had been assigned “a special role in history” to mount “a healthy spiritual resistance to all attempts to confuse good and evil”.

“The strength of modern Russia is capable of resisting many forces, including those fighting with God and with Christ,” the Patriarch said.

“We must be guided not by momentary political interests or human ambitions, but exclusively by the moral law that God has put into our souls. . . May the Lord preserve the Russian land, strengthening brothers now living in different states — Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus — in unanimity and awareness of our special responsibility for the common destiny, and thus for the fate of the world.”

In a speech last week, Russia’s ally, President Lukashenko of Belarus, said that Europe, “a satellite of the United States”, had been “punished by God” with “severe drought and terrible storms and floods”, and now faced “the most powerful food crisis in modern history”.

A draft resolution prepared for yesterday’s close of the WCC Assembly condemned “this illegal and unjustifiable war”, and called for an immediate ceasefire and “dialogue and negotiation to achieve a sustainable peace”. But it did not blame President Putin for the war, or criticise the Russian Church for backing the war. Instead, it urged “Christian brothers and sisters in the Russian and Ukrainian Churches to raise their voices and speak out”.

The five-page statement also deplored “the sharp increase in militarisation, confrontation and division” caused by the war in Europe, as well as the “new and increasing threat of nuclear conflict that would trigger a catastrophe of terrible and likely global proportions”.

Metropolitan Anthony was among five Russian Orthodox representatives proposed for a new 150-member WCC central committee, together with Orthodox delegates from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and from Albania, Cyprus, Greece, and Serbia.

At a weekend press conference, Archbishop Eustratius confirmed that his PCU had applied for full membership of the WCC and Geneva-based Conference of European Churches.

He said that his Church’s representatives were “ready to listen and speak” to Russian Orthodox delegates if they had “something Christian and sincere” to say, but not “if they want to repeat pro-Russian propaganda again, what we hear every day from the Russian media”.

The Archbishop said that Orthodox Ukrainians did not “see any real resistance to Russia’s aggressive and unjustified behaviour” in the Moscow Patriarchate. It was “not easy to start a dialogue with someone who completely rejects your right to exist”.

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