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Patriarch Bartholomew refuses to renegotiate status of Ukrainian Orthodox Church

08 September 2023


Ukrainian schoolchildren sit in a classroom in Universytet station on the Saltivska Line of the Kharkiv Metro on Tuesday. Much teaching in the city is being carried out in underground stations, in case of Russian aerial attacks or bombardment

Ukrainian schoolchildren sit in a classroom in Universytet station on the Saltivska Line of the Kharkiv Metro on Tuesday. Much teaching in the city is...

THE Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, has ruled out renegotiating the status of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church in the face of Russian pressure.

“The desire for unity and co-operation has been destroyed by a new ecclesiology coming from the north: a new theology of war taught by the sister-Church of Russia, as it tries to justify an unjustified, unholy, unprovoked, diabolical war,” Patriarch Bartholomew said. He is traditionally recognised as “first among equals” by leaders of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.

He continued: “It was within the rights and duty of service of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to grant autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine with its 44 million people. We have no intention of subjecting the Patriarchate’s decisions and initiatives to judgment by this new ecclesiology.”

The Patriarch made the pledge for the start of the new Orthodox Church year, during a meeting in Istanbul with the Primate of the Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko).

He said that Russian Orthodox leaders had broken off communion when his Patriarchate recognised the Ukrainian Church’s independence in January 2019, but he would not bow to “pressure and force” by convening a general meeting, or synaxis, of Orthodox prelates to discuss his decision.

In a separate statement on Monday, he also warned Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and other Russian church leaders to “listen to the suffering of people on both sides”, and not to expect “the war unleashed by their state to settle their ecclesiastical claims”.

“How is it possible to claim to be brother to another people and bless the war waged against them by your state — to tolerate destruction of their homes and churches by Russian missiles?” Patriarch Bartholomew told Greece’s online daily paper Patris.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a disgrace; a great shame for those who inspired it and who continue, directly or indirectly, to justify and support it. It is also a disgrace for those who remain silent, tolerating or pretending not to see it.”

The Patriarch, who has 11 autonomous Churches, exarchates, and archbishoprics under his direct jurisdiction, spoke as Ukrainian forces made further gains in their current counter-offensive, and as Russia launched attacks on the Danube river port of Izmail in a fresh effort to disrupt Ukrainian grain exports.

The Religious Information Service of Ukraine said that a 200-year-old Orthodox church had been wrecked this week by Russian shelling near Donetsk, and others had been damaged in Kherson, Kyiv, and Sumy, as a government-sponsored team from Italy arrived in Odesa to help rebuild its destroyed Transfiguration Cathedral.

The International Organisation for Migration confirmed that 5.1 million people remained internally displaced in Ukraine, in addition to ten million seeking refuge abroad, the sick, elderly, and very young being in the “most vulnerable category”.

Controversy continues over the Pope’s praise for Russia’s imperial legacy during an online address on 25 August to young Roman Catholics in St Petersburg (News, 1 September), after Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to President Zelensky, accused Pope Francis of becoming an “instrument of Russian propaganda”. He told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that the Pope’s words would “unconditionally encourage aggressive imperialism”.

Speaking to journalists on his flight back from Mongolia on Monday, the Pope said that he had sought to encourage young Russians to “take responsibility for their legacy”, and had spoken of “great Russia not so much in a geographical, but in a cultural, sense”.

According to a Vatican News transcript, he said: “Russian culture is of great beauty and depth, and should not be cancelled for political issues — there have been dark years in Russia, but its legacy has always remained intact.

“I wasn’t thinking of imperialism when I said that. I spoke of culture, and the transmission of culture is never imperial, never. It’s always dialogue, and I was talking about that. It’s true that there are imperialisms that want to impose their ideology; when culture is distilled and turned into ideology, it’s poison.”

Speaking last week, the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash, said that his staff had held “several consultations with Holy See dignitaries” after the Pope’s speech, and that the Pope had failed to understand “how painfully and tragically his words would resonate for Ukrainians”.

The President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, whose Foreign Ministry also called in the Vatican’s representative after the speech, urged the Pope to be more prudent.

“The Pope has authority over faith, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’s an authority on history — and sometimes, perhaps, the history of Russia or our region and continent may look a little different from Argentina,” Mr Nauseda told the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.

“This is an extremely sensitive issue, and one should think very carefully before making such statements, since they affect many people, especially those shedding their blood in the senseless Ukraine war.”

The Primate of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, who demanded an explanation from the Vatican after the Pope’s speech, said that he would discuss the controversy with Pope Francis on Wednesday, during a synod of Greek Catholic bishops which was due to be held in in Rome.

In a national video message, he said that the adoption of the Western Gregorian calendar from 1 September by the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Ukraine would enable them to “live and serve God and Ukraine in a new way”.

“In recent days, the whole world has begun to rediscover the Russian Empire’s criminal past — to hear about history repeating itself on Ukrainian lands,” Major Archbishop Shevchuk said.

“Step by step, however, our sons and daughters are liberating their native Ukrainian land at the cost of their own lives, from the full-scale war the Russian coloniser has once again brought to peaceful Ukrainian soil.”

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Metropolitan Epiphany said that he also believed Ukrainians were “gradually defeating the Russian evil and its consequences”, and thanked “people of goodwill from all over the world” for their “charity, goodness, mercy, and open hearts”.

The Pope caused fresh controversy during his five-day visit to Mongolia by praising “the epic times of the Mongolian empire, with its vast territorial expansion” during a meeting on 2 September with officials and diplomats, and calling for its model of “common development”, or “pax mongolica”, to be “valued and re-proposed in our own day”.

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