Why one Ukraine struggle is everyone’s

Russia’s targeting of churches has reinforced Ukrainian resolve to defend religious liberty – and the freedom it allows for individual conscience.

Parish priest Andriy Klyushev talks about damage to his church in Irpin, Ukraine. The church split from the Russian Orthodox Church in May and was attacked by Russian forces.

One running tally in the Ukraine war is the number of churches damaged or destroyed by the Russian military. During a TV address in early June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that 113 churches had been attacked since the Feb. 24 invasion. His larger point to the Ukrainian people? The struggle to save Ukraine is also a defense of religious liberty.

Protecting that freedom – among others – may indeed be a big motivator for Ukrainian fighters. After all, the largely Christian nation elected a Jew as president – Mr. Zelenskyy – by a landslide in 2019. Ukraine’s religious leaders often speak of freedom of conscience in choosing and practicing a faith. Its main faiths – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant – cooperate on issues, not merely coexist. During the 2013-14 Maidan revolution, clergy offered prayers, comfort, and serenity to pro-democracy protesters in the capital, Kyiv.

One reason given for the war is a fear by President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine’s various Orthodox churches have broken or are breaking away from the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, which aligns itself with the Kremlin’s autocracy. That drift undercuts a belief in Russia that it is the center of the Orthodox world.

The attacks on Ukrainian churches may be aimed at sending a message against religious freedom. But they serve another purpose. “Given that the church as an institution of society enjoys the greatest level of trust of the citizens of Ukraine, religious figures are one of the biggest obstacles for the Russian invaders,” Maksym Vasin, executive director of the Institute for Religious Freedom, told Devex, a news site on global development.

Such attacks are not a surprise to Ukrainians. After Russia took Crimea by force in 2014 – a response to the success of the Maidan revolution – it suppressed all faiths in the peninsula other than the Russian Orthodox Church. Now the war in 2022 is again reinforcing Ukraine’s national narrative that it is a country that honors individual rights, especially religious liberty.

Freedom, however, is only a means to an end. “I have to be free in order to love,” says the Right Rev. Dr. Andriy Chirovsky at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and an expert on Eastern Christianity. Being able to love is what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, he told The Catholic Register while speaking about the Ukraine war.

During his TV address on June 4, the Ukrainian president pleaded with Russian troops to stop attacking churches. He was appealing to their conscience, perhaps out of a deep love. That is what religions do. They appeal to people to think from higher principles. As Ukrainians defend their own religious liberty, they are doing so for everyone.

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