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Ukrainian politician expresses shock over ‘whitewashing’ report

08 March 2024

Yulia KUSHNIR, for York City of Sanctuary

Hundreds of people attended a vigil at York Minster, last Saturday, to mark two years since the Russian invasion

Hundreds of people attended a vigil at York Minster, last Saturday, to mark two years since the Russian invasion

A UKRAINIAN politician wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury last Tuesday expressing “deep shock” at the contents of a document about Ukraine presented to the General Synod (News, 1 March).

The head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience, Professor Viktor Yelensky, suggested that the document “draws groundless parallels and dubious comparisons between the aggressor and its victim.

“It places Russia, which has trampled on international law and its obligations, invaded the territory of a sovereign state, destroyed Ukrainian cities and villages, killed tens of thousands of civilians, tortured and raped Ukrainians, on the same level as Ukraine, which is bleeding out, defending not only our freedom and very existence but also protecting Europeans and safeguarding the world order.”

The document, which was composed by the chair of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, Mark Sheard, outlines the human cost of the war for both sides, and considers what attitude the Church should take to the ongoing conflict.

It suggests that Christians should “avoid actions or words that dehumanise Russia or Russians”, and that “even if the West has no other option but to support Ukraine, the present struggle shouldn’t diminish the Church’s sadness about the war or blind it to the deepest challenges war poses to Christian thought.”

Professor Yelensky alleges that the document “tries to whitewash and justify Russia, which might be ‘humiliated’ and ‘disadvantaged’ by Western support of Ukrainian resistance”.

It seems that this is a reference to a passage in the document in which it is suggested that “the West ensure that in supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defence it does not seek the wider humiliation of Russia and the further re-ordering of a European security architecture that disadvantages Russia.”

The letter was sent before the Synod debate for which it was produced. In that debate, Archbishop Welby said that he was “not neutral” in the war, and that “Ukraine is paying for our security with blood” (Synod, 1 March).

He referred to his recent visit to the country, which, in an interview with the Church Times, he said had been an attempt to fulfil the “biblical and theological imperative to stand — as much as one is able — with those who are oppressed” (News, 14 February).

During the trip, he met church and political leaders, including Professor Zelensky. The topic of Draft Law 8371, a proposed new law proscribing any religious organisation that is subordinate to Russia, was raised at several of these meetings, and is referred to in Mr Sheard’s document.

The law seems likely to affect the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which has historic but now disputed links with the Moscow Patriarchate. In May 2022, the UOC stated its separation from the Russian Orthodox Church, but critics, including the hierarchy of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), have argued that the Church remains linked to Moscow (Podcast, 9 February).

The situation is described in Mr Sheard’s document as having “affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian Government”, a claim that Professor Yelensky disputes.

“No religious organization has been banned since Ukraine gained independence,” he asserts, and asks why the document does not refer to the number of Ukrainian clerics killed by Russian troops in the course of the war.

In an interview with the Church Times in Kyiv last month, Professor Yelensky was asked what, in his view, the UOC needed to do to avoid falling foul of Draft Law 8371.

The leaders of the Church needed to confirm its full separation from the Moscow Patriarchate at the administrative level, he said, to “send a powerful message to Ukrainian society”. A majority of Ukrainians wanted to see the Church banned completely, he said, but the draft law did not attempt to do this.

Bob Amsterdam, an American lawyer who has acted for the UOC and produced a report on the situation, previously told the Church Times that the draft law was a “bare-knuckled attack” on the Church.

He linked the law with reports of violence against UOC priests, and the forced eviction of the UOC from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (News,18 August 2023).

After a visit to the Lavra with representatives of the OCU in February, Archbishop Welby met young faculty members of the UOC theological academy.

Fr Panteleimon, one of the priests, said: “We have never supported the aggression. We support our country, we love our people, and we condemn this aggression.”

And another of the young theologians, Fr Nicodimos, said that there was a desire for a decisive split with the Moscow Patriarchate, especially among younger members of the UOC.

Last Friday, a Lambeth Palace spokesperson said: “The Archbishop has responded privately to Viktor Yelensky’s letter. During his most recent visit to Ukraine, Archbishop Justin emphasised that the Church of England’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief and concerns regarding Draft Law 8371 does not — and should not — be seen as in any way diminishing its ongoing solidarity with Ukraine.

“As the Archbishop said during his speech at Synod, he is not neutral on this unjust war, and continues to urge maximum solidarity with the courageous people of Ukraine.”

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