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

Orthodox voices: Who is chanting what in Kiev right now? February 19, 2014

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.

Where were the monks from? Some were from institutions linked to Moscow. But was this true of all the monks and priests who took part in this prayer vigil for peace?

Does that kind of detail really matter? Only if you think the conflicts in Ukraine are linked to history, culture, faith and the details or real life.

With that in mind, I would like to compliment the reporters at The New York Times for getting CLOSE to reporting this element of the conflict in the story that ran under the headline: “Kiev Protesters Set Square Ablaze to Thwart Police.”

Obviously, the protestors are part of a complex coalition, as is often the case in these kinds of uprising (see Egypt). Not all of the voices agree with one another. In the midst of the protests and violence, there are people who are attempting to maintain some sense of civility, while following their own convictions about nonviolence and peace.

Thus, Times readers are told:

Protesters caught three police officers who had apparently tried to run through what the protesters were calling the “perimeter of fire.” One was bloodied and semiconscious. As he was being dragged through the crowd, people kicked and cursed at him. Others yelled to stop beating the officer. “We are not beasts, brothers and sisters, stop,” one man said. Protest leaders stepped in to make sure the officers received medical treatment.

By early Wednesday, the speeches from the stage had given way to mournful prayers and chants by priests from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Some protesters acknowledged that they had contributed to the violent spiral of events by attacking police officers during street battles early in the day near the Ukrainian Parliament, which the opposition had hoped would approve constitutional amendments curbing President Yanukovych’s powers.

Other protestors were digging up more paving stones to throw at police. Others offered defiant speeches urging the protesters to fight on. Some shouted curses at the police, while it appears that others were praying. And then there was this tweet:

The priests who were leading prayers? Who were they? Which branch — or branches — of Orthodoxy did they represent? All of those prayers and chants: What did they say? Were saints mentioned? Which ones? Was there biblical or doctrinal content in the chants and prayers that would have had meaning to the Ukrainians in the crowd? Or to the nearby police?

And this Orthodox church that is providing shelter and sanctuary for some of the protestors: Does it have a name? Which branch of the faith is taking that stand? Are churches on both sides of the bloody divides working together?

In other words, there is information to be gained by listening to these voices of faith. There are symbolic statements being made — in words and in deeds.

There are ghosts amid the flames in Kiev.

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3 responses to “Orthodox voices: Who is chanting what in Kiev right now?”

  1. I appreciate this article–and wince at the tweet with the photo “looks like a beautiful church in Kiev.” It is beautiful but way to admit flat out you have no idea which church it is.

    • Dear Susan,

      I concur with the wince. I am willing to cut slack over not having the name of that church because of Twitter’s limitations.

  2. And there is no mention of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Indeed, why would we assume these priests are Orthodox? They very well could be Greek Catholic — there is little difference in appearance. By the way, the fact that Eastern-Rite Catholics and Orthodox are working arm-in-arm (which they, by and large, are) is an interesting fact as well.

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