Can Christian unity help a troubled Ukraine?

Can Christian unity help a troubled Ukraine? June 2, 2014


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?


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 spiritual 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.” Stalin gave the stolen Catholic properties to Russian Orthodoxy, so messy property disputes have continued since the Soviet collapse and Catholic restoration. Gudziak says past suffering makes Catholicism “among the most respected institutions” in Ukraine.

Actually, Ukraine has two separate Catholic jurisdictions. A minority worships in the western or Latin Rite inherited from Poland. In 1596 a synod established the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which maintains Orthodox worship and practices, e.g. married priests, but recognizes the Pope. Orthodox resentment of such Eastern Rite churches is a major barrier to better relations with the papacy.

In March, Patriarch Bartholomew presided at a meeting of global leaders to plan for what’s billed as the most important meeting of the Orthodox hierarchy since A.D. 787, a “Holy and Great Synod” in 2016. In addition to pondering relations with Catholicism this synod will try to overcome what Bartholomew calls the “enduring ecclesiastical controversies” in Ukraine. There are three main rivals with overlapping turf and disputed status:

— The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, long part of the Russian Orthodox Church, is now supposedly self-governing but the Russian patriarchate in Moscow must approve its choice of leader and exercises considerable influence otherwise.

— The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was established in 1921 during the first brief independence phase to create a fully national faith. After considerable suffering, it revived just before Ukraine again declared independence in 1991.

— The Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate was created for similar reasons in a 1992 schism from the Russia-aligned church led by its former primate.  This church appears to be gaining popularity from resentment about Russia’s latest maneuvers against Ukraine.

In 2011, Ukrainian pollsters reported that roughly 31 percent of the population identifies with the Kiev Patriarchate, 26 percent with the Russia-aligned U.O.C., and 2 percent with the Autocephalous Orthodox. The survey estimated the nation has 4 million Greek Catholics and 1 million western Catholics.

The Russian Orthodox Church insists that Ukraine lies under its jurisdiction and spurns the two independent Ukrainian bodies. The Russians are also suspicious about Bartholomew’s hopes for unity with Catholicism, and their huge membership ensures virtual veto power within Orthodoxy. The Russian church has emerged from its own Soviet catacombs to become a major ally of President Putin’s Kremlin. Russia’s territorial ambitions may pit the Moscow-based church against rising Ukrainian nationalism, while in Crimea imposition of Kremlin rule raises new worries for churches not affiliated with Moscow.

U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Ukraine (2012):

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