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

That cross in Kiev: What George Conger said, once again January 26, 2014

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?

In a scene that veered from primeval to apocalyptic, demonstrators used sticks to hit barrels and sheets of metal, creating a savage drumbeat as a backdrop, while billows of smoke rose from piles of burning car tires along a barrier made of bags of snow.

During a meeting with religious leaders in Kiev earlier in the day, Mr. Yanukovych had vowed to restore stability and expressed frustration that opposition leaders seemed unable to exert much influence over protesters who had clashed with the police this week.

“I will do everything to stop this conflict, to stop violence and establish stability — certainly to stop radicals,” Mr. Yanukovych said during the meeting, according to a statement released by his office. “If we manage to stop them amicably, we will stop them amicably. Otherwise we will use all legal methods.”

Amen. What George said. Again.

So Yanukovych met with “religious leaders” and that is that. Might there be any facts associated with that meeting or do the facts not matter, when we are talking about religion?

As George wrote:

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. And 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. …

The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations. … The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its call for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

Are your GetReligionistas claiming that religion is the driving force in this dispute, a force that trumps politics, economics, etc.? No, that is not the point. Once again, let me quote George:

By raising these religion points, I am not stating the Eurorevolution is being driven by religion. I am arguing that a well rounded news report should touch upon the religion angles in this story — provide the context for a Western reader to understand. Not all of the protestors are motivated by religious fervor. However, religion lies close below the surface of national politics east of the Oder and good reporters should relate this information to their readers.

In this case, it’s not enough to say that a president met with generic religious leaders. In this case, readers need to know who is who and who is talking (or even praying) with who.

It’s a journalism thing.

So, what George said. What he said remains crucial to the ongoing coverage.

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  • Frankly i am not impressed. I hope that Protestantism takes them.

    • Taras Szmagala

      There are lots of active Protestant denominations in Ukraine, but the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is also very active. The Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv is particularly engaged. For one small example, as part of their business school, they offer the only MBA degree in Ukraine offering business ethics and non-profit management as course offerings. In addition, UCU offers a first-rate school of journalism — particularly relevant in Ukraine. The Protestants are an important part of the equation, but the Catholic Church is also playing an active role in civil society.

    • tmatt

      And your media-related comment?

    • Ira Rifkin

      So much for keeping this to journalism

      • Godspeed Taras Szagala. The fact is, is that God will be a hand against the Catholic and Orthodox for the gain of Protestantism, providing that we keep the faith.

  • Julia B

    There’s another aspect that is never mentioned. A good portion of Western Ukraine used to be part of Poland. And somewhere around the floating border between Poland and Ukraine is the dividing line between Cyrillic letters and those used in the West.

    • Taras Szmagala

      Julia — all of present-day Ukraine uses Cyrillic, including those areas that used to be part of Poland. Both Ukrainian and Russian use Cyrillic exclusively.

      • Julia B

        Did the Poles all leave after WWII? I know that Lvov was an important Polish city at one time.

        • Taras Szmagala

          Yes, Lviv was Polish at one time. There is still a Polish community there (just like there’s a Ukrainian community in Peremyshl, modern-day Poland). And you’ll see a lot of Polish on the gravestones in the local cemeteries. But street signs and the language on the street is almost exclusively Ukrainian now.

          • Julia B


  • Mark Byron

    Back in the Orange Revolution days, I recall a big evangelical church founded by an Nigeran immigrant (Sunday Adelaja) being one of the leading players. His proto-denomination is growing quickly, so Wesley might get his wish, if he doesn’t mind things a bit on the Word-of-Faith side of things.

  • Taras Szmagala

    Kudos to the author. One important correction — in fact, many priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow are actually supporting the protests. This is a cause for concern in Moscow, as they correctly note that they are losing control of their bishops and priests in Ukraine. And if the Moscow Patriarchate loses Ukraine, they lose their claim to supremacy in the Orthodox world (which they are now asserting, much to the chagrin of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew).

    • Julia B

      Is that based on numbers? TMatt: I think that’s a fact journalists should understand, too.

  • FW Ken

    I hope this doesn’t village copyright law, but the both pictures are wonderful, and there’s a link to some more. I hadn’t seen the pic you linked. Very beautiful.

  • Johannes Oesch

    The Lutheran church in Kiev is right in malstrom of current events, The Rev. Ralf Haska is pictured and mentioned in this report of the German new service idea: “Angesichts der eskalierenden Gewalt in der ukrainischen Hauptstadt Kiew
    hat der Pfarrer der deutschen Evangelisch-Lutherischen
    St.-Katharinenkirche, Ralf Haska, zum Gebet aufgerufen. Aufgrund der
    „apokalyptischen Bilder“ könne man gegenwärtig nur beten, sagte er der
    Evangelischen Nachrichtenagentur idea. In der gegenwärtigen Situation
    könne nur „Gottes Geist des Friedens helfen“., and here:

  • Taras Szmagala

    Tmatt — you should check out the journalism school at Ukrainian Catholic University. Worth a story in the future…

  • tearfang

    Fundamental Issues

    No gripes from me about being more specific about religious leaders and which major religious groups end up on which side of the protesters vs government. But that is like complaining about a spec when there is a log of problem that why the protesters are fighting the government isn’t mentioned or linked anywhere. It doesn’t matter if I know more clearly who supports which side if I fundamentally don’t know what they are fighting over.

    • This is due to the government not wanting join the never-do-well European Union, correct?