Can common ground be found to unite the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine [and could the harmony across church lines] during the Maidan protests point the way?
THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:
Possibly. But this troubled nation with a declining population of 45 million has excruciating religious and political history to overcome. It is blessed and cursed by geography, with rich farmlands and mineral resources yet perennially caught between East and West.
Now that Russia has seized power over the Crimea province, its agents and Ukrainian allies are subverting added areas in the east, with fears that Russia might invade, or exercise effective control without needing to invade. Threats from these pro-Russian operatives prevented voting in some sectors but on May 25 the nation managed to elect new President Petro Poroshenko, who called for a “unitary Ukraine.”
By coincidence, unity was also on the agenda that same day in Jerusalem as Catholicism’s Pope Francis conferred with the veteran symbolic leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. They issued a joint declaration hoping for full spiritual concord and shared communion between their two major branches of Christianity.
Ukraine, more devout than many nations in western Europe, has seen bitter rivalry between Catholics and the Orthodox, and serious splits within Orthodoxy. Church differences are intertwined with the divide Sandra notes between Ukrainian-speakers in the west and Russian-speakers to the east (though in practice Ukrainians are largely bilingual).
There was substantial church support for the months of mass protests in Kiev’s Maidan (“square”) that toppled a corrupt regime aligned with Russia. Sandra notes that during these demonstrations believers from the various Orthodox and Catholic groups overcame historical barriers to join together in countless open-air prayer meetings. (Also backing the protests were most of the minority Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.)
Both the Ukrainian and Russian nations trace their founding to the A.D. 988 conversion to Orthodoxy by a state centered in Kiev. Over centuries, control of the land seesawed among Mongols, Poland to the west, and Russia to the east. After the Communists’ 1917 takeover in Russia, Ukraine declared independence, but was soon forcibly absorbed into the new Soviet Union. After Soviet tyranny collapsed, Ukraine again declared its independence in 1991 but has had huge problems establishing an honest and stable democracy.
Bishop Borys Gudziak, who ministers to Ukrainian Catholics in western Europe, summarizes some history: During Communist rule and two world wars “more than 17 million people are estimated to have died violently on Ukrainian soil.” Among the Orthodox in the Soviet Union “tens of thousands of bishops, priests, monks and sisters were executed, as were hundreds of thousands of lay martyrs.” Then Stalin turned with a vengeance against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, making it “the largest illegal religious body in the world, … outlawed, mercilessly hounded, and driven into the catacombs.”