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Ukraine's war of the pews

Russia's use of the Orthodox Church in its struggle over Ukraine has both divided churches in the war-town country and united them in seeking a common peace. They and the faithful, more than the fighting, may end this war.

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    Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, greets the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, Onufriy,in Moscow Feb. 1.
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Wars often have multiple fronts, and not all military. With an upsurge of fighting in Ukraine since Jan. 11, that war’s other “fronts” – diplomacy, economic sanctions, financial aid – are receiving more attention. President Obama is even weighing lethal military aid to Ukraine’s weak forces to help battle armed separatists backed by Russian forces.

Yet Ukraine has one little-noticed “front” -- religion -- that both drives the conflict and could also help end it.

The Kremlin sees the conflict in Ukraine as part of a larger struggle against a unified Europe that it contends may someday be a threat. President Vladimir Putin seeks to reverse Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union. He portrays Europe as morally weak and as a declining civilization, compared with Russia’s. And he has enlisted the Russian Orthodox Church to act as a “spiritual shield” in this struggle on behalf of “Holy Russia.” On Jan. 22, for example, the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, spoke to parliament – a first in Russia – decrying the “pseudovalues” of the West. 

Yet this religious tactic has a problem. That church’s branch in Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox-Moscow Patriarchate, is fast losing members as more Ukrainians take sides with a new, pro-European government in Kiev. Many of its members are joining two other Orthodox churches. 

Meanwhile, some members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is popular in western Ukraine, are providing assistance to Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the largely Russian-speaking east. And many of the Moscow-tied Orthodox churches are helping the rebels.

Yet even as these churches struggle with taking sides in what is mainly a battle over national identity, they have also managed to keep talking to one another. In November, they signed a memorandum to recognize and pray for an integrated and unified Ukraine. 

Their current differences are not really theological. As Archbishop Isichenko of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church told an ecumenical website following a year of warfare: “After wandering in the twilight of empires, the Eastern Churches, like the ancient sages, rediscover the leading star of freedom in Christ. Will the Church be able to get free from misleading patronage of earthly powers on their way towards this dawn – that’s the fundamental question that the year of 2014 has left.”

Some non-Orthodox church leaders are helping mediate the differences and keep the churches focused on ministering to civilians in need. “I’ve never seen a variety of denominations and religious leaders working so closely together and helping each other,” wrote Pastor Ihor Shemihon, a minister of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kiev.

The war in Ukraine probably will not be decided by fighting. And so far diplomacy and a cease-fire agreement have failed. The best hope is that the Ukrainian people will seek a solution. They have experienced nearly 5,000 casualties in the war with tens of thousands of people displaced. They may also tire of their churches blurring the line between the religious and secular spheres. Russians, too, may tire of the Orthodox Church being used for political purposes, especially as more Russian soldiers die in Ukraine.

The front to watch in the war may not be on the battlefield or in the diplomatic offices of Europe. The people and their church leaders could finally set the conditions for peace.

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