Can Christian unity help a troubled Ukraine?

SANDRA ASKS:

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.”

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Shock: Russian Orthodoxy gives drag queen thumbs down

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Dear GetReligion readers:

Some of you wrote to say that you wanted to know what I thought of the whole Conchita Wurst episode, referring to the drag queen — the term used in mainstream media reports — who won the recent Eurovision Song Contest. In particular, a few of you want to know what I thought of the coverage of the fact that Russian Orthodox Church leaders have condemned this minor earthquake in popular culture.

People, people, are you surprised that Eastern Orthodox Christian bishops do not think highly of modern trends in sexuality? Remember the case of the Russian bishop who had a church torn down because its priest — apparently he had been drinking — performed a same-sex union rite at its altar? The priest was defrocked and, if I recall correctly, the local bishop had the rubble from the building burned and workers then salted the ground? (I’m trying to find a URL for that old story.)

I am also not surprised that recent statements by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy have received some mainstream media attention, in the wake of events in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics, the media superstar status of the Pussy Riot activists, etc., etc. I mean, how often do you get to put “Russian,” “Orthodox,” “Patriarchate” and “drag queen” into the same news story or even in one spectacular headline?

Here at GetReligion, of course, we are more interested in the news coverage of the event than we are with the event itself. The link several people have shared is for a story by Sophia Kishkovsky, carried by Religion News Service. Readers may also know her byline from work published by The New York Times. Here is a key chunk of it:

The Eurovision contest draws well over 100 million viewers annually, and the contest has become a point of national pride in Russia, which began competing in the 1990s.

“The process of the legalization of that to which the Bible refers to as nothing less than an abomination is already long not news in the contemporary world,” Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, told the Interfax news agency. “Unfortunately, the legal and cultural spheres are moving in a parallel direction, to which the results of this competition bear witness.”

Legoyda said the result of the competition was “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture.”

No surprises there. It was good that the story noted that the church simply saw this as another example of a larger trend. It does not appear that bishops rushed to pound out a “Conchita Wurst” document. This rather blogging-style report — which is drawn from press statements and previous media reports — does have more than its share of vague attribution clauses, as in:

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Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail

Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mail straddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

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Back in the USSR! Izvestia on the Crimea

Save for Mitt Romney, no one — in my opinion, at least — appears likely to benefit from the Anschluss in the Crimea. Not only has the annexation of the Crimea by Russia been a blow to the Ukraine, it has underscored the fecklessness of the EU and President Obama while also pointing to the structural weakness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

And it is really, really bad news for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bet that line caught you by surprise. When the crisis in the Ukraine first arose, GetReligion chided western newspapers for omitting the religion angle to the conflict. The press eventually caught up to what most Ukrainians knew about the interplay of religion, politics and ethnicity, but only after pictures of Orthodox and Catholic clergy acting as human shields to halt clashes between police and protesters in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev flashed round the world via the wire services.

And when monks from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) opened their cathedral near the Maidan to the wounded, turning the church into an unofficial headquarters for the anti-Moscow protestors, even the Western press took notice.

The religion angle of the unraveling of the Ukraine continues to be under reported in the West, but it is emerging in reports out of Eastern Europe. Last week Izvestia reported that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) would not turn over its parishes in the Crimea to the Russian Orthodox Church now that the Crimea is once more part of Russia.

But before we dive into this article let’s say a few words about Izvestia. In the bad old days (good old days), from 1917 to 1991 Izvestia (which means Reports in English) was the official newspaper of record of the Presidium — the Soviet Government. Its formal title was Reports of Soviets of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR. Pravda was the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Izvestia was privatized but then purchased by oligarchs close to the regime. While not an official government organ, it does represent the views and voices of Putin’s regime.

Reading Izvestia and Pravda in the olden days was an art form — part astrology part psychoanalysis. There was always some truth to be found and for those with an eye and ear for the nuances of the regime Izvestia was a pretty good guide to what the people at the top believed to be true or were debating amongst themselves. (Which is not the same thing as truth itself, but I digress).

The paper still performs this role to a lesser extent. I make no claims of expertise in the intricacies of palace politics in Putin’s Russia, keeping track of the Byzantine ways of the Anglican Communion is a full time job for me, and it may well be this piece in Izvestia is a straight news story. Or does it reveal a discussion taking place within the Kremlim?

Patheos will not let me use Cyrillic script on this page, preventing me from pulling the direct lines from the story. But in a nutshell, the article says Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) will seek to register its dioceses in the Crimea with Moscow as religious entities separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches located in the Ukraine and under the ecclesiastical authority of Moscow — told Izvestia that they had not decided whether to move from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) to the Russian Orthodox Church.
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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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