Healing the Russia-Ukraine faith divide

Ending Kremlin aggression against Ukraine will take a dialogue between each country’s Orthodox churches.

Snow falls over the Orthodox Monastery of Caves in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Last July, just before he sent some 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine in an apparent preparation for an invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote, “Our spiritual unity has also been attacked.” To Ukrainians, the meaning was clear.

Mr. Putin remains upset over the creation of an Orthodox church in Ukraine two years ago, one that is now independent of the Russian Orthodox Church. He even equated this attempt at a separate Ukrainian identity as the “use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”

Mr. Putin cites many reasons to keep Ukraine within Russia’s orbit of influence. Yet the historic religious ties between the two countries remain the most emotional, especially among millions of Orthodox Russians. While Western leaders have tried to end Kremlin aggression against Ukraine with threats of sanctions, little has been done to address the underlying religious schism.

In late November, however, when fears of an invasion were high, the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, said that the problems with the new Ukraine church may be resolved by dialogue. “Schisms are always, of course, overcome at some point,” he told Rossiya 1 television station.

“The hope remains that both by the grace of God and by the efforts of clergy it will be possible ... to begin dialogue ... and to agree on something,” he said.

Something similar was stated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has called on both churches to engage in negotiations. “Faith should unite, and not divide,” he said.

In many parts of the world, interfaith dialogue is often essential to bringing peace. With last year’s Abraham Accords in the Middle East, for example, a dialogue has opened between Israeli Jews and Gulf Arabs. During a visit to Cyprus this month, Pope Francis told Greek Orthodox leaders on the island, “Where our relations are concerned, history has opened broad furrows between us, but the Holy Spirit desires that with humility and respect we once more draw close to one another.”

The Ukraine crisis puts a spotlight on the need for greater diplomatic attention to religious divides. In a paper last month by the U.S. Institute of Peace, scholars Peter Mandaville and Chris Seiple wrote:

“While the common tendency among many observers of global affairs to view religion as a source (or ‘driver’) of conflict undoubtedly persists, it is increasingly clear that achieving sustainable peace and stability in most settings depends on the ability to involve religious actors ... in that process.”

If Ukraine is to remain an independent state, one important task is to help church leaders on each side look first at the core principles of their faith, such as love. Such principles can never be under spiritual attack.

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