Got news? A Baptist emerges as acting president of Ukraine

The news rolls on in Ukraine, with leaders of the opposition attempting to get some work done after the chaos. As you would expect, the tensions remain highest in the Eastern half of the nation, where cultural and, yes, religious ties to Russia are strongest.

However, one of the first things that caught my attention in the following Los Angeles Times piece was a simple question of Associated Press style. Can you catch the problem at the top of the report? Let’s just say that it’s linked to a key element of the headline: “Ukraine’s acting leader still seeking consensus on interim government.”

KIEV, Ukraine – Hoping to reach a consensus that would heal some of Ukraine’s wounds, the country’s acting president on Tuesday delayed the seating of an interim government for at least two days, even as opposition colleagues appealed to the Hague criminal tribunal to try fugitive ex-President Viktor Yanukovich on charges of crimes against humanity.

Reports of mounting discord among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and gunshot wounds suffered by a top aide to Yanukovich further heightened a sense that Ukraine’s stability is threatened as politicians jockey for position before the May 25 presidential election.

A multiparty transitional leadership had been expected to be announced Tuesday. But acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told lawmakers that it would take until at least Thursday to get consensus on a Cabinet that would have the trust of the entire nation.

Well, I guess there is the fascinating question (for obsessive former copy editors like me) of when the “opposition” ceases to be called the “opposition” and becomes the people in power.

But, no, that isn’t what caught my eye (which may or may not be winking).

Let’s put it this way. What is the key difference that you spot in this lede from the online news team at Christianity Today?

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Dear journalists: When in Ukraine, try talking to Ukrainians

Hearing the confessions of soldiers shortly before they go into combat is one of the most important and symbolic duties performed by priests who serve as military chaplains representing Christianity’s ancient churches.

After all, the soldiers are going into harm’s way and there is no way to know if they will return. In a way, the priest knows that he could be hearing the penitent’s final confession — turning this encounter into a kind of Last Rites for a person who is not sick unto death, but may be moments from death.

This brings me to the first photo — pictured above — in a remarkable online slideshow produced, using photos from a number of different news sources, by the foreign-affairs desk at The Washington Post.

This particular photo is from Getty Images. There is no way for me to know what kind of information was attached to this photo that could have been used by the copy-editor or editors who produced this feature. There is no way to know if the photographer had any way to talk to the specific priest or this penitent to obtain more information about what was happening in this dramatic scene.

As readers can see above, the photo caption reads:

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014, in Kiev.

This is, I guess, a literal statement about what the photographer saw.

However, for the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Ukrainians at the scene, that is not what was taking place.

The priest in this picture has placed his stole over the man’s head and is reading prayers. This is what happens at the end of the rite of confession, which under ideal conditions would take place in a sanctuary with the penitent facing an icon, often the icon known as Christ Pantocrator. The penitent is confessing his or her sins to Christ, with the priest hearing this confession representing the church.

Is there another circumstance in which a priest would place his stole over the head of a kneeling believer and then say prayers? There may be, but not one that I know of as an Eastern Orthodox layman. The same was true for my priest, to whom I took this question over the weekend.

Would it have been more dramatic to say that this believer, in the midst of territory that was turning into a war zone in downtown Kiev, felt the need to say his confession?

I would say so.

Is he confessing his sins because of something he has just done? There is no way to know that.

Is he confessing his sins because he believes he is about to be placed in a situation resembling combat, a setting in which his life will almost certainly be at risk? I would say that this is the safest interpretation of the information contained in this photo. In other words, he knew that there was a good chance that events in that street were about to turn deadly. He knew his life was in danger, so he felt the need to confess his sins and be blessed. Right then and there.

Now, I know that journalists are not supposed to speculate and I am not calling for speculation.

However, journalists are also supposed to do the best job that they can to understand the events that they are covering.

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What’s God got to do with it — in Maidan square?

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’ll say it again — there is more than one Orthodox Church in the Ukraine.

Does this matter? Is this pettifogging carping — dull minded pedantry? Am I just showing off a store of useless knowledge, or Is it important to distinguish between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) (KP) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriachate) (MP) when reporting on the demonstrations in Kiev?

If you want to understand what is going on and break free from the narrative being peddled that this is a conflict over “fundamental European values” (Guardian) with the protestors “defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia” (Economist) in order to build what British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes will be a “free, sovereign, democratic” Ukraine — then it is important to understand the local issues driving this conflict. Contrary to what the Western European politicians want to believe, this is not a rerun of the Cold War with Angela Merkel and David Cameron replacing Ronald Reagan as the hero. What then is going on?

On page A8 this morning the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “Cathedral Turns Into Hospital as Ukraine Protests Worsen.” Casualties from the fighting in Independence Square, or Maidan Square as it is know to the locals, have been brought to the cathedral for treatment by volunteer doctors.

The lede states:

KIEV, Ukraine In St. Michael’s Cathedral, Orthodox priests chanting prayers have been replaced by doctors calling for medicine.

The golden-domed church has been transformed into a field hospital of sorts for protesters injured or worse in days of deadly clashes with police.

And then the story shifts to interviews and man in the street accounts from doctors, volunteers and patients being treated at the cathedral. The article is strongly written and crisply presents the sights and sounds observed by the Wall Street Journal’s man in Kiev.

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Orthodox voices: Who is chanting what in Kiev right now?

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The images continue to pour out of Kiev. Right now there are flames rising high over the lovely public squares I first visited in 2009, while speaking at a Ukrainian conference on religion and the news. While there, I wrote this column — “Religion ghosts in Ukraine” — about a tense public event involving then President President Viktor Yushchenko.

Here is a rather long passage, linked to ways in which the churches of Ukraine are divided along some of the same lines as the culture itself:

In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.

Media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.

It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — with direct ties to Moscow — had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.

But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?

A rite featuring clergy from one or both of these newer churches also would have been symbolic. After all, these days almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia, from natural gas prices to efforts to emphasize the Ukrainian language, from exhibits of uniquely Ukrainian art to decisions about which statues are torn down (almost anything Soviet) or which statues are erected. …

But it’s hard for Ukrainian journalists to ask these kinds of questions. … As in America, Ukrainian journalists often assume that politics is the only faith that matters in life.

In recent weeks, your GetReligionistas have posted several times offering commentary on media coverage — or the lack of it — of the religious themes in the Ukrainian conflict. Let me be blunt: We are not arguing that religious disputes are at the heart of the tensions and violence. We are not saying that religion trumps politics, in this case.

No, what we have been saying is that the religious divisions in Ukraine offer additional windows into the nature of the cultural conflicts that are taking place there. We are saying that it is hard to understand Ukrainian culture without listening to some of the religious voices.

Remember those monks the other day, the ones standing between the police and the demonstrators? They were using the power of Orthodox prayers, icons and symbols to stop the violence — for a few days at least.

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Pod people: Memory and revolution in Kiev

All Ukraine, All the time is not our moto at GetReligion. Though you may be excused for thinking it might be as tmatt and I have knocked out a number of stories looking at the reporting coming out of Kiev this week.

I returned to Kiev once more in this week’s Crossroads podcast. I spoke with Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilken about the religion angle to the protests in the Ukraine, arguing that the demonstrations were not intelligible without reference to the country’s political and religious history.

As tmatt has noted there have been some wonderful images coming out of the protests, especially those that showcase Orthodox clergy standing between protestors and the riot police — seeking to prevent bloodshed. There has also been some sharp political reporting as well.

The report on the funeral of protestor shot and killed, allegedly, by the security services, picked up the political symbolism of red and white banners waved by some mourners (the banned flag of Belorussia). But the religious symbolism of holding the memorial service at the cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) rather than at the neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) escaped Western reporters.

At its most basic level, this is a conflict of nationalism with religious overtones– Russophile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Moscow led church) against Europhile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Kiev led church).

But the analogy is not exact.

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Got news? Prayers and poetry in the Ukraine standoff

The daily march of the headlines from Kiev continues.

The other day, I offered up a post linked to an amazing Associated Press photo of a quarter of Orthodox Christians, including at least one priest and one monk, who put themselves in the line of fire in between a wall of riot police and the brick-tossing demonstrators. Click here to catch up on that.

I want to return to that subject for a moment (also watch for an upcoming Crossroads podcast with George Conger on Ukraine coverage), because several Orthodox readers of this site have sent me links to additional information about what is happening with those priests and monks. It appears that their public witness for peace is continuing?

As George has been stressing in his posts, it’s important to realize that — in part due to the complexities of post-Soviet life in this region — there are two major Eastern Orthodox bodies and hierarchies in Ukraine, one aligned with Russia and the other is an autonomous Ukrainian church.

The photograph featured above, and the following information, comes from a website in Russia. Keep that Russia link in mind.

Yesterday morning, monks from the Kiev-Caves Lavra Fr. Gabriel, Fr. Melchisedek, and Fr. Ephraim stood on Grushevsky Street in Kiev with a cross and icons, between the demonstrators and the Ukrainian special police force “Berkut”, and stopped the conflict. They entered the arena as peace-makers, and not in support of one side or the other.

Although they were invited to join the “people”, the fathers only prayed and sang the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” wrote the Ramensky deanery of Moscow on its Facebook page. The conflict ceased.

As the website Pravoslavie v Ukraine (“Orthodoxy in the Ukraine”) learned, at around 9:00 a.m., clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church came to Grushevsky Street, placed themselves between the warring sides, and began to pray, calling both sides to stop their fighting and repent.

The monks have no intention of leaving until the situation has completely stabilized. The clergymen are currently continuing their prayer on Grushevsky Street in shifts.

By all means, read it all. And has anyone seen coverage of these acts of witness in the American mainstream press? By the way, there is an option to translate the text into English, when I open the full Pravoslavie.ru report using the Chrome browser. Here is a link to a related story in the English version of the site.

Now, there is one point about this piece of the Russian site report that I want to emphasize. Note that the monks and priest-monks are from one of the most famous monastery complexes in all of Christianity — the monastery of the Kiev caves. I have prayed inside the Lavra during two trips to Kiev and it’s hard to understand what is happening with Orthodox faith in that land without learning about the amazing recovery of that institution, with its growing ranks of monks, in the post-Soviet era.

However, it is also crucial to note that this monastery serves as the base of operations for the leader of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Orthodox readers of a site based in Russia would probably know that.

So what does that mean?

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That cross in Kiev: What George Conger said, once again

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Simply stated, it is one of the most haunting Associated Press photographs that I have seen in my journalism career.

The caption under the photo, as it ran with a recent New York Times report, says:

Orthodox priests pray as they stand between protesters and the police in Kiev early Friday.

Actually, the photo (click here to see it, since it is copyrighted) appears to show an Orthodox priest and a monk and, perhaps, two laymen. One of the men — it’s hard to see which one, in the dramatic amber lighting — is holding a processional cross.

In the background there is a long row of police, protected behind a wall of riot shields. Apparently the priests are facing a sea of protesters, silently pleading for non-violence.

Who are the priests? What are they doing there? What is their role in this dramatic standoff? Most importantly, in the context of the Ukrainian disputes, which church do they represent — the Orthodox body aligned with Russia, the one loyal to Ukraine or the Eastern-Rite Catholic church loyal to Rome, and more in alignment with Ukraine? Is anyone in this photo aligned with President Viktor F. Yanukovych?

Or consider this: Is there any chance that this brave quartet of men includes representatives of one or more camps in this conflict?

As our own George Conger recently wrote, in a post that was way out front on this angle in this story that, day after day, continues to make headlines around the world:

Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev … but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

So what did this particular Times story have to say about the religion angle in the unfolding drama, the story behind that dramatic photo of the priests and their cross?

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