Although many Christians have suffered and even died in Ukraine, churches across the globe keep silent about what is happening. This is quite in contrast with the way in which international organizations and national governments approach the situation there. The discussions at the Security Council of the U.N., for example, produce more moral statements about Russia’s lies, violence, and manipulations than any church has ever done. It seems as though the churches and political organizations have swapped roles: The churches speak more as political organizations, and governments and international bodies as churches.
Consider the statement issued by the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate during Pope Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2014. Two sentences in this statement were dedicated to Ukraine:
We also remember all the people who experience the sufferings of war. In particular, we pray for peace in Ukraine, a country of ancient Christian tradition, while we call upon all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law in order to bring an end to the conflict and allow all Ukrainians to live in harmony.
This is probably the strongest statement in support of Ukraine promulgated by Christian leaders so far. Yet it is much weaker than most statements issued by international organizations and national governments. It only implicitly condemns Russia’s annexation of Crimea by urging respect for international law. Apart from this juridical judgment, there are no moral judgments in the text.
Pope Francis, who is known for his connection with the Ukrainian community in Argentina, speaks about and prays for peace in Ukraine but avoids talking about the nature of the conflict. Sometimes his language is dubious. During one of his general audiences he called the war in the east of Ukraine “fratricide”—using the term promulgated by Russian propaganda. To call the war “fratricide” ignores the fact that there are Russian weapons and troops on Ukrainian soil. The pope also warned the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church to be less involved in politics, even though this church does not support any political party or regime. During this time, he has not said a word about the heavy political engagement of the churches on the other side of the conflict.
Another example of implicit appeasement and appalling “impartiality” is the position of the World Council of Churches. From the very beginning of the Maidan protests that succeeded in ending Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime, I regularly visited the website of the WCC and searched for the word “Ukraine.” The search returned four or five results not really relevant to what world media outlets were discussing on their front pages during those months. The silence was broken after a Russian “Buk” missile downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last July. Then the WCC sent a message of solidarity with the Dutch churches. There was still silence when, at around the same time, the sons of pastor Alexander Pavenko of the charismatic Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord were murdered by separatists in the city of Slavyansk, when the priests of the Patriarchate of Kyev and the Muslim leaders were expelled from Crimea, and when Greek Catholic priests were tortured by the “Russian Orthodox Army.”
I was relieved to read the WCC “Statement on Ukraine Ceasefire Agreement,” which announced that a high-profile delegation of the council would visit Ukraine. The delegation, which included top representatives of the churches and the general secretary of WCC, was a token of the council’s worry about the situation in Ukraine. When they visited in March of this year, two members of the delegation traveled to the east of the country and met with people there. Some other members visited a shelter for displaced people near Kyev. They listened to all sides at both official and non-official meetings. There were two official meetings: one with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the other with the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. There were no official meetings with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, or other churches that suffered most from the annexation of Crimea and in the conflict in the east of Ukraine.
In its communiqué after the visit, the WCC described the conflict in Ukraine as “competing nationalisms.” This, however, misses the essence of what has happened in Ukraine. The Maidan was a revolution of dignity, not a nationalist resurgence. It was a religious and ethnically unifying struggle that opposed the corruption of Yanukovych’s regime and demanded rule of law. The majority of the people who stood in the freezing cold on the Maidan, and who now fight on the Ukrainian side in the east of the country, are Russian-speaking. President Petro Poroshenko recently stated that “more than half” of the Ukrainian fighters in the east speak Russian. They are far from being Ukrainian nationalists. They fought on the Maidan and now fight in the east for a dignified life and for the integrity of their country as a society united by a shared vision of the common good, not by blood or language or religion. Russian propaganda, however, presents them as nationalists. The WCC communiqué shamefully repeated this thesis. At the same time, it kept silence about numerous acts of religiously motivated violence, which the recent report by the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights called “crimes against humanity.”
The churches and organizations such as the WCC have their own reasons to produce confusing statements, or to avoid making statements at all. Many Orthodox churches see the conflict in Ukraine as a geopolitical battle between the East and West. They don’t seem to care if several thousand of their Orthodox brethren get lost in this battle—the geopolitical victory of the East is more important than human lives, the Gospel, or inter-Orthodox solidarity. For some Protestant churches, Putin and Ukraine matter in their own wars—the culture wars. For the sake of “conservative values,” they ignore the sufferings of their Protestant brethren in the east of Ukraine and pin their hopes on Putin as the scourge of Western decadence. The Vatican wants to unblock the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and generally keeps in line with the “impartiality” of Benedict XV and Pius XII. The WCC seems to care more about its membership than about justice and truth. The crisis in Ukraine has revealed an unfortunate worldliness in the churches.
If they can’t learn the importance of renewing Ukrainian civil society from the Gospel, maybe the Christian churches can learn the lesson of solidarity and truth from the Muslim and Jewish communities in Ukraine. Ukrainian Muslims and Jews have demonstrated an increasing solidarity with each other, which stands in sharp contrast to Muslim–Jewish relations in the rest of Europe. In the east of Ukraine, Muslims fight shoulder to shoulder with Jews. The Jews know that they fight for the freedom of Muslims in Crimea, and the Muslims know that they fight to prevent pogroms in the Donbas area, something very likely to happen there if Ukraine loses those territories. These Muslims and Jews demonstrate that reconciliation is possible, when it is based on solidarity and truth.
The whole of Ukraine needs reconciliation so that we can join together to build a society committed to the promotion of human dignity. To do so, Ukraine has to rely on the experiences of other countries that overcame comparable challenges of totalitarianism, war, and propaganda. One of the most suitable patterns of reconciliation could be borrowed from South Africa, a country very different from Ukraine, but with some important similarities.
First, as the people of South Africa were divided by the race-based ideology of apartheid, so the people of Ukraine are divided by the ethnicity-based ideology of the “Russian world.” Ukrainians who have come to identify themselves with the Russian world consider other Ukrainians enemies: Either they have betrayed the Russian world by adopting supposedly “Western” ideals, or they are aliens who have never belonged there to begin with. Ukrainians who seek to preserve the territorial integrity of their country, in return, regard all this talk of the Russian world as a threat to their country and its peace. It is therefore a sad irony that the ideology of the Russian world has contributed to alienating Ukraine from Russia, even though initially it was designed to connect the two countries. This is the ideology that has fueled the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
In South Africa, the ideology of apartheid was constructed and supported by the churches. The same is true for the ideology of the “Russian world,” a concept first formulated by Orthodox churchmen and today often promoted by them. In South Africa, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) notoriously supported the National Party. Similarly, the Russian Orthodox Church was willing to serve as the uncritical chaplain to Yanukovych’s regime. On the first day of Yanukovych’s rule, the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill flew to Kyev to bless the newly elected president. On its last day, a key figure in the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Paul of Chernobyl and Vyshgorod, led a blessing service for Yanukovych and his clique at the Kyev-Pechersk Lavra, notoriously assuring him, “Today you carry a heavy cross, and the Church will be with you to the end, just as Simon of Cyrene helped carry the cross of Christ to Calvary.”
While some churches helped build the walls in South Africa, others demolished them. Much of the important work happened under the umbrella of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), with particular input from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Ukrainian churches have their own version of the SACC—the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. It plays a prominent role in building bridges and promoting reconciliation in Ukraine.
One lesson Ukraine should learn from South Africa is that reconciliation is impossible without truth. Although forgiveness should lead in the process of reconciliation, as Desmond Tutu stresses in many of his publications, it must not be confused with forgetfulness. Reconciliation is possible only after truth is said, after things are named with their proper names. We must tell the truth about what was going on under Yanukovych, we must be clear about the nature of the war in Ukraine, and we must wield truth to dismantle Russia’s propaganda. After all, propaganda can be lastingly neutralized not by counter-propaganda, but by truth. This truth must be told no matter how uncomfortable it is to those on both sides of the conflict.
Truth is the mind of reconciliation. However, reconciliation also needs a soul. Solidarity with the victims is as important in reconciliation as truth. The solidarity of the global Christian community was crucial in dismantling the regime of apartheid in South Africa. Individual churches and their networks, including the largest one, the World Council of Churches, raised their voices and expressed their solidarity with the suffering and struggling African churches. We need the same thing today in Ukraine.
Photo Credit: Jim Forest (modified)
Cyril Hovorun is a research fellow at Yale University. He served as chairman of the department for external relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and first deputy chairman of the educational committee of the Moscow Patriarchate. He is a scholar in patristics and ecclesiology.