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Open doors give hope, Ukraine cleric tells EU

22 December 2023


The European Council president, Charles Michel, talks at a press conference about opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova during an EU summit in Brussels, on Thursday of last week

The European Council president, Charles Michel, talks at a press conference about opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova during an EU...

THE European Union’s decision before Christmas to open accession talks with Ukraine, amid fears of dwindling Western support for its struggle against Russia’s invasion has been welcomed by church leaders.

“It’s been very important for Ukrainian society, tired and sickened by the disaster of war, to feel solidarity from European countries,” the Primate of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, said in a national message on Monday.

“Obviously, there’s still a long way to go before our people’s European dream is realised. But these open doors provide moral support for us today — a source of comfort that Ukrainians are not left alone in their struggle for freedom with the stronger Russian aggressor.”

The Archbishop was responding to last week’s confirmation at a Brussels summit that EU leaders would open membership talks with Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova, and grant candidate status to Georgia.

The accession invitation, he said, had helped “send a light of hope” in the run-up to Christmas, which will be celebrated for the first time by most Ukrainians on 25 December, in line with the Western dating system.

Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), the Primate of the Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church (OCU), which is currently marking its fifth anniversary, also welcomed support for his country’s continuing struggle against Russian attempts to appropriate its “historical heritage, past, and identity”. He counted on Europeans to face up to the “common threat to the entire continent from Russian aggression”.

“We are talking about fundamental things — will our Ukrainian people and the rest of modern Europe be able to protect the achievements of freedom, or will the Russian evil empire and other totalitarian regimes return us to past realities,” Metropolitan Epiphany told church representatives during a visit to Finland.

“Although we are suffering, we know we are defending truth, freedom, and Ukraine’s future as a free European state. We are also protecting peace for Europe and the world, since the aggressor will go further if not stopped now, seeking to spread the black iron curtain of totalitarianism and terror across the European continent once again.”

The unanimous EU decision, which was scorned in Moscow, came as the Ukrainian armed forces admitted to downsizing military operations because of a lack of ammunition and equipment, and as anxiety grew about the diversion of Western attention by conflict in the Middle East and forthcoming election cycles.

It was welcomed, however, by President Zelensky as “a victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens”, and was described by the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, as a “very powerful signal” that Europe was “on the side of Ukrainians”.

The president of the Brussels-based RC Commission of EU Bishops’ Conferences, Bishop Mariano Crociata, said that the EU move, which was accompanied by a 12th package of sanctions against Moscow, had delivered a “strong message of hope”, and would also be strategically important for “stability, prosperity, and peace”.

Patriarch Elias II of Georgia, whose country was invaded by Russia in 2008, also praised the move, in a weekend statement, as a reward for “great efforts and determination” by governments and people, while the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, told a World Refugee Forum in Geneva that “solidarity and love” were “not an option, but a commandment for Christians”.

Ukrainian officials were reported to be conducting pre-Christmas safety checks at churches, amid fears that many would again be unable to offer services, especially close to the front line.

A new survey by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute suggested that public confidence in President Zelensky and Ukraine’s government and parliament had fallen over the past year, but remained strong in the country’s military and security services, as well as in Ukraine’s churches.

In a statement commemorating its December 2018 formation at a Kyiv unification council, Metropolitan Epiphany’s OCU said that it had “achieved establishment as a single, autocephalous local Church”, thanks to Ukraine’s independence, but also claimed “historical and canonical durability”, and “deep roots” from apostolic times.

In a weekend message on social media, Metropolitan Epiphany said that the OCU had been “open, truthful, and close to everyone”, providing a “spiritual shield” for Ukrainians while “increasing and growing stronger”.

In his Helsinki speech, Metropolitan Epiphany said that Moscow believed that Ukrainians merely “form part of a great Russian people”, and that the Moscow Patriarchate had encouraged President Putin’s regime to believe that Russia was now “the world centre of Christian civilisation”.

“Although they live with us in the same time-frame, they are mentally trapped in the Middle Ages: the cruelty and violence with which Moscow acts in Ukraine, the genocide and state terror carried out by Russia against the Ukrainian people, remind us of the cruelty of Europe’s past religious wars,” Metropolitan Epiphany told Finnish religious leaders.

“If Ukraine were to suffer defeat, the aggressor would move on, targeting the neighbouring countries of Europe next. . . This is why we now need all possible help and support. By supporting Ukraine, Europe protects its future, its freedom, and peace.”

The Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, said at the weekend that it had placed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, under his real name of Vladimir Gundyaev, on its wanted list, for “encroaching on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability”. Moscow’s Investigative Committee said, however, that it would also take steps to arrest Ukrainian SBU and Interior Ministry officials for “criminally prosecuting” the Patriarch.

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