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The Easter season will be an uncertain one for the embattled people of Ukraine, but what is sure is that it will not herald improved relations between the region’s Churches. Since Moscow’s creeping occupation of Crimea began in late February, the Russian Orthodox Church has echoed the line of President Vladimir Putin with an obsequiousness recalling the worst days of Soviet rule. Its stance has provoked resentment among local Catholics and forced Orthodox Ukrainians to make hard choices between spiritual and national loyalties. Recent efforts by Catholic leaders in Europe to cooperate with Russian Orthodoxy can hardly be sustained when such sharp differences emerge over freedom.
While most of Ukraine’s 46 million inhabitants claim no religious affiliation, Orthodox Christians have made up around a third of the population since the country’s independence in 1991. They are divided between the largest group, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which is linked to Russia’s Moscow patriarchate, and two smaller denominations, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), neither of which is recognised by Orthodox leaders abroad. Greek and Latin Catholics account together for a tenth of the population. Of these, the Greek Catholics, pejoratively dubbed “Uniates” by Orthodox leaders, were persecuted with particular savagery after their Church was outlawed in 1946 and its property seized by the Soviet state or transferred to the Russian Orthodox.
The part played by Churches in Ukraine’s protracted drama, which began with President Viktor Yanukovych’s unexpected withdrawal last November from a proposed agreement with the EU, is certain to be long remembered. The Greek Catholic Church, which practises the Eastern Rite but is loyal to Rome, was forthright in its support for the pro-Western protests; the smaller Latin Catholic Church was more cautious, only speaking out as Yanukovych’s legitimacy and authority waned.
Ukraine’s two independent Orthodox Churches backed the protests too, as did the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, which condemned the Yanukovych Government’s “criminal actions” when the crisis reached its bloody denouement in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, at the end of February. “Stop calling us fascists, Nazis and nationalists, even in private conversations, these words kill,” the UOC spokesman, Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko, appealed to Orthodox Russians on Facebook. “If we are members of the one Orthodox Church, if you think Kiev is the mother of Russian cities, do not inflame us – just pray for us and listen.”
As the crisis developed over Crimea, the UOC’s new head, Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky, reminded Vladimir Putin of his professed Orthodox faith, urging him to avoid a “fratricidal struggle between nations”. He addressed a similar appeal to Russia’s Patriarch Kirill, warning that the arrival of Russian troops risked “catastrophic consequences”.
The petitions went unheeded. When Russia’s State Duma approved the use of force on 1 March, the head of the Moscow patriarchate’s department for church-society relations, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, defended the Russian army’s “peacekeeping mission”. When Crimea was formally annexed on 18 March, the secretary of Russia’s Patriarchal Council for Culture, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, welcomed the “victory over a vicious circle of historical absurdity”.
Not a word of criticism or doubt has come from the Moscow patriarchate, despite otherwise universal condemnation of the annexation as a violation of international norms. Instead, on 19 March, a day after the annexation, the Russian Orthodox Synod urged Ukrainians to “abandon the language of hatred and enmity” and called on those outside the Orthodox Church to return to “unity in faith and brotherhood”.
Russia’s Orthodox Church has used similar language to back President Putin’s claims that ethnic Russians are under attack in Ukraine, and that Orthodox churches and monasteries are facing violent seizure. Such claims, indignantly denied by the Kiev Government, are not backed by any independent human-rights organisation. Rather, the breakaway Orthodox Kievan patriarchate says that Russian Orthodox groups are seizing its churches in Crimea and has denounced Kirill’s “cunning, deceitful words” about Church unity, noting how Russian Orthodox leaders traditionally use state power to impose their control.
Pressure is also mounting against Ukraine’s long-persecuted Greek Catholic Church, whose new Crimea exarchate, or vicariate, was approved by Pope Francis only in February. Several Greek Catholic clergy were detained and roughed up by Russian forces after the invasion, while others were branded “Vatican agents” and warned to leave, according to Bishop Bogdan Dziurach, secretary general of the Church’s Synod of Bishops.
“Many people have stopped coming to church, and are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine, fearing a new oppression,” explained Fr Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a parish rector in Kerch, who fled Crimea with his wife and daughters after being interrogated by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB. “We fear our places of worship will now be confiscated.”
Russia’s Orthodox Church appears to be endorsing the moves against Greek Catholics. In an interview earlier this month with the US news weekly, National Catholic Register, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of external relations for the Moscow patriarchate, said Greek Catholics had “launched a crusade against Orthodoxy” and posed “a serious obstacle to dialogue”. This is adamantly denied by Greek Catholics.
Meanwhile, Crimea’s separate Latin Catholic vicariate, which forms part of an Odessa-Simferopol Diocese, has complained of restrictions, too. Its bank account was frozen during the region’s transfer to the Russian rouble, blocking payment of salaries and pensions, while talks on the restitution of Catholic churches seized during the Soviet era have been put on hold.
Bishop Dziurach, the Greek Catholic secretary general, says every effort will be made to defend Catholics in the international arena. “But the threats and accusations against us recall Soviet propaganda from when our Church was suppressed, and we’ve no illusions as to what this portends,” he told me last week. “Catholics who support Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity are viewed as enemies.”
Speaking last week, Patriarch Kirill compared the ousting of President Yanukovych to the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917. The offensive analogy may have pleased President Putin, with whom the patriarch watched Russian military manoeuvres in Crimea last August. In December, Putin accused Western countries of abandoning their “ethical norms” and in January said they were “moving away from Christian values” and taking a “path to degradation”.
Yet Kirill’s subservience could have a cost. Earlier this month, the president of Latvia, Andris Berzins, became the first foreign head of state to cold-shoulder the patriarch by asking him to postpone a planned visit. Meanwhile, the UOC is negotiating a possible reunion with Ukraine’s breakaway Orthodox communities, whose principal leader, Patriarch Filaret Denisenko, has said he would be ready to serve under an independent UOC leader. If the Ukrainian Church, or a large part of it, now breaks with the Moscow patriarchate, this will gravely damage Kirill’s authority and legitimacy in Russia itself.
In the meantime, the Russian Orthodox stance looks set to leave a legacy of bitterness. The Greek Catholic Archbishop Svietoslav Shevchuk told the Ukrainian daily Den at the end of March: “When a Church is extremely close to a certain power structure, and when the symphony of Church-State relations is transformed into a kind of dominance of one over the other, then that Church becomes unable to tell the truth in its entirety in certain historical circumstances. I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing now.” One man who discovered this belatedly is the French Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne, who visited Metropolitan Hilarion two weeks ago to discuss the “defence of the traditional family” and returned home condemning Western “ultra-liberalism” and naively praising Russia’s “respect for life”. More serious observers might reflect that while defending traditional values may be a worthy aim, when those values do not include respect for democracy, human rights, religious freedom and national sovereignty, Catholics should be careful about identifying with them.
As the Polish Catholic Information Agency noted in its comment on Patriarch Kirill’s Donskoy Monastery speech: “We should remember that ‘great power’ was the name given to that prison of nations which changed after 1917 into one great concentration camp. Perhaps it would have been worth maintaining a certain even-handedness towards the sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict – in the name of an authentic Christian universalism which links people in love rather than incites divisions between them.”
Jonathan Luxmoore reports for The Tablet on Eastern Europe.