Finding a faith angle in the Ukraine

A spate of wire service photos from the demonstrations in Kiev may have awakened the Western press to the religious element in the protests. As GetReligion‘s editor tmatt has noted, photojournalism has led the way.

The pictures from Kiev are telling a fascinating story — but unless you know what you are seeing and can interpret the images or place them in their political and religious context, you will not understand what is happening.

The “Eurorevolution” as some Ukrainian newspapers have dubbed the protests is about economics, politics, national identity, and religion. It is being articulated in protests over a trade agreements. Yet the dispute has as just as much to do with the Soviet past and the present battle over gay rights in Russia.

However, the press has so far been unable to get its head round all this. The stories I have seen rarely address more than one of these topics at a time and then do so from an American/English perspective.

Even when there is a direct religion angle to the news, as in this story printed on Jan 27, 2014 on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, western reporters on the ground appear to be unaware of the symbolism (or perhaps iconography as we are talking about the Orthodox) of what they are reporting.

The ABC story entitled “Ukraine protests: Thousands mourn slain protester in Kiev as opposition rejects president’s bid to end unrest” is an example of the Western press’ lack of comprehension of the forces at work. It states in its sub-headline:

Thousands of people have packed into a church in Kiev for the funeral of a young protester shot dead during clashes in the Ukrainian capital last week.

Then the lede reports on the clashes, notes the calls by protestors for the president to step down and then moves to the funeral of one protestor killed in clashes with the security services.

There have been violent clashes in Kiev as demonstrators demand president Viktor Yanukovych stand down for pulling out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord. The fate of the government remains unclear, with demonstrators vowing to continue protests despite the president’s offer to give top jobs to opposition leaders.

The opposition called off a massive Sunday rally out of respect for the funeral of Mikhail Zhyznevsky, whose coffin was borne through the streets of Kiev before his burial. Zhyznevsky, a Belarussian living in Ukraine, was one of three people officially recognised by the prosecutor’s office as having died from gunshot wounds after clashes last week.

Mourners spilled over into a square outside Saint Michael’s Cathedral on what would have been his 26th birthday, many bringing flowers and waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons.

The article goes into details of the funeral noting the presence of the chief opposition leaders, and then notes the political symbolism of some of the flags flown at the funeral.

Some red and white nationalist flags from before Belarus became a Soviet republic – currently banned by the country’s authoritarian regime – were also seen at the ceremony.

The article then closes out with reports on the street protests. All of this I assume is correct, but the story leaves out so many pieces of the puzzle that a anglophone reader will not truly understand what is happening.

Among the things the ABC neglects to mention is what sort of church St Michael’s may be. It belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

As I noted in a report last year on GetReligion, there are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

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