The war in Ukraine: A failure to evangelize?

Conflict in eastern Ukraine which began in April 2014 has pitted the country's government against separatists widely believed to be backed by Russia, and some are attributing the chaos to a failed evangelization in the country.

Feb 25, 2015

The funeral of Taras Brus, a Ukrainian serviceman who died in Ilovaisk, Donetsk Oblast, in the summer of 2014. Credit: Sofia Kochmar

KYIV, UKRAINE: Conflict in eastern Ukraine which began in April 2014 has pitted the country's government against separatists widely believed to be backed by Russia, and some are attributing the chaos to a failed evangelization in the country.

Fr. Wojciech Surowka, a Dominican priest who directs the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Sciences in Kyiv, urged that “a dialogue of reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians should begin from the Church. If we do not start it, politicians will never do it. It would be nice if the formula of 'forgive and ask forgiveness' were delivered simultaneously by the Ukrainian and Russian bishops.”

“This war is the failure of our evangelization. If Christians on both sides kill each other, then we did not teach them well who Christ is. They absolutely do not understand the essence of Christianity. It's our fault. In the conflict in Rwanda last century, the bishops recognized it – I expect this step from the confessions in Ukraine,” Fr. Surowka told CNA.

According to the estimates of the United Nations, the conflict has led to more than 1 million displaced persons in Ukraine, and nearly 6,000 dead.

Some of the victims are civilians, uninvolved in military conflict, killed when pro-Russian militants fired on residential areas in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, hitting a bus stop, and a hospital. It is difficult to check the number of prisoners on both sides. On Sunday, during a memorial service for the victims of the Maidan protests, explosives fell in Kharkov, in central Ukraine, far from the conflict zone, killing two and wounding 10.

The fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists – widely believed to be supported by Russian troops and arms – and the Ukrainian government last April. The month before, Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
In areas controlled by the separatists, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church allied with the Russian Orthodox Church is favored, to the exclusion of other Christian groups.

Mykhailo Cherenkov grew up in Donetsk, and was born into a family of Baptists: his father is Russian, and his mother Ukrainian. After his education at a local university, he served as rector of Donetsk Christian University, a Protestant institution. Now his university is a pro-Russian military base, home to around 400 militants.

Mykhailo lives in Kyiv now.

"In December I went to Donetsk. I couldn’t get into my university. There is too much military security. The place has become hostile,” he said.

In the territories controlled by separatists, the only “legitimate” Christian body is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Other Churches and ecclesial communities do not have the possibility of holding services.

"Protestant pastors should either go underground or leave Donbas. Churches and schools, all infrastructure are confiscated. They can continue to pray - but not participate in public life,” the former rector of Donetsk Christian University explained to CNA.

Roman Catholic priests of Polish citizenship were forced to leave Donbas; the Polish government evacuated them, along with its other civilians there. Now parishioners in Luhansk watch their priest say Mass via Skype: he is in Poland, and they are in the conflict zone. In Donetsk one Roman Catholic priest has remained, as he has local residency. The rest of the priests are serving in the territories controlled by Ukrainian authorities. In Donetsk, a Grad rocket system damaged the chapel of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Vladimir the Great of Paris told CNA that “since July, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop has been forced out of his seat. He is still in his diocese, in an unoccupied area, but his residence, chancery, and all documents are under the control of terrorists. Most of the clergy have been forced out of the occupied territories. A number of Roman and Greek Catholic priests were abducted. Those that remain are under constant, direct and indirect threat.”

Last summer, the Greek Catholic priest Fr. Tikhon Kulbacka was held for 10 days by the “Russian Orthodox Army” – a radical militant group active in Donbas, and which uses “Orthodox ideology.”

Cherenkov – the Baptist from Donetsk – commented that “the Russian Orthodox Army can be as dangerous as the Islamic State, because they are using tools of terror in the name of Orthodoxy!”

But in the central office of Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), they denied any relation to this group.

"If a person takes up weapons and goes to kill in the name of Jesus Christ, it is schizophrenia, but not Christianity. These groups have nothing to do with the Orthodox Church,” Fr. Mykola Danylevych, assistant director of the UOC's external relations office, told CNA.

“They use these pseudo-Orthodox slogans to create an ideology for their quasi-states. But in reality they just use the Church, not having anything in common with it.”

Bishop Gudziak, who is head of external relations for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said that “in the short term, the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an apologist for the Russian annexation of Crimea and Putin’s invasion in Eastern Ukraine does not go well for ecumenism.”

“What is more serious for Moscow Patriarchate,” he continued, “is the fact that its leadership, which has not only failed to speak out critically against government policy, has acted as apologist and ideologue for the rise of aggressive Russian nationalism. This leadership has been losing credibility in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church is heavily subsidized by the Russian government. The price of these subsidies is silence before their president’s warmongering and aggressive ideology. Today the population of Russia is being hypnotized into a trance of aggression. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t speak out against propaganda, and often acts as an agent of it.”

In addition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), there are two other Orthodox Churches which have claimed autocephaly, but are not recognized by other Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Fr. Danylevych, of the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), said: "If we will try to proclaim autocephaly today, it will lead us to new division. Unfortunately, the conflict in the Donbas has only increased among men those dividing lines that already existed. We, as a Church, feel very much these identities of Ukraine: Ukrainian and Russian, eastern and western. We try to keep a balance between these two. Ideologies separate us, but in Christ we are united.”

“Therefore, if a person recognizes his God and Savior Jesus Christ, and the Orthodox Church as the Church - this is our man. We need to learn to live in a Church, despite the personal ideological differences,” Fr. Danylevych said, describing his Church.

Cherenkov stated that “the Church should keep unity, without sacrificing morality: those who came with weapons onto the territory of their brother, became enemies. It is useless to forgive someone who has not passed through repentance. Our unity is not broken when we do not communicate, but when we lie to each other. The issue of Christian unity is not to pretend that between us nothing happened, but to look for reasons why it happened, and honestly recognize them. To recognize aggression - it's not politics; it is elementary Christian ethics, because in this way we get up in defense against inhumane acts, fratricidal war, and the seizure of foreign territories, which undermine peace in the world.”

Fr. Surowka, who studied ecumenical theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, reflected that “without prejudice to the dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Vatican could more frankly say what Church thinks about it. The Catholic Church has to say: 'Yes, we would like to conduct ecumenical dialogue with you; but that you support terrorists is unacceptable for us.' It could move us back in ecumenical cooperation, but it would become an expression of our humanity.”

During the Ukrainian bishop's ad limina visit to Rome last week, Pope Francis reminded them of their duties to justice and truth amid their country's crisis.

Cherenkov commented that in the crisis, “church diplomacy should give its authoritative word. The World Council of Churches is the only place where the heads of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches can meet. Patriarch Kirill could influence the politics of Putin.”--CNA

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