The Ukraine crisis can split churches


Before I get to the issue that I would like to cover this week, I just want to remind everyone of a wonderful interfaith symposium on April 8 at 7 p.m. at Temple Emmanuel, 1101 Springdale Road, Cherry Hill. Two distinguished speakers and authors, Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi, coauthors of the widely acclaimed book, “Sons of Abraham,” will discuss their book that deals with many of the contentious theological and political issues that frequently divide Jews and Muslims, as they offer solutions based upon fostering civil discussions that lead to peaceful outcomes. Tickets for this interfaith event are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Students (age 15 and above) with their parents attend free. To register or for more information please visit or call Brandon Cohen at 856-751-9500 ext. 1203.
Now to the issue I would like to share with you. The crisis unfolding in Ukraine as Russian troops mass on the border after a controversial secession vote in Crimea two weeks ago has Christians, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in a bind.
Eastern Christianity took root in Ukraine in 989 when Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, embraced the Christian faith and was baptized. Soon afterward many missionaries from the Byzantine Empire arrived, having been sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to evangelize Ukraine.
After the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. when the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople separated from one another, the Church in Ukraine gradually followed suit and finally severed ties with Rome. When Ukrainian Orthodox bishops met at the Council of Brest-Litovsk in 1595, seven bishops decided to re-establish communion with Rome. Guaranteed that their Byzantine tradition and liturgy would be respected and recognized by Rome, they and many priests and lay faithful were re-united with the See of Rome, while most Ukrainians remained Orthodox. Today the Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Catholic Church, with about 5 million faithful.
After Russian President Putin signed a bill to annex Crimea, the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the peninsula has been experiencing what a church official calls “total persecution.” In Crimea, clergy have received threatening phone calls and messages. At the home of one apprehended priest, a note was left that read this should be “a lesson to all Vatican agents.”
“This is not new,” said Bishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, who served as Exarch of Odesa-Krym for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “During the Soviet Union times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican,” Bishop Ivasyuk continued. “Of course, not all people in Crimea think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does.”
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was heavily persecuted during the Soviet era; it was considered illegal and operated completely underground until 1989.
On the Orthodox side of this crisis, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church called for prayers “that brothers of one faith and one blood never bring destruction to one another.” Russia has prided itself on its revival of Orthodox Christianity after decades of Soviet persecution, but a war with the Ukraine could splinter the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has 12,000 congregations, is the largest of three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. But while it has some degree of autonomy, with a Synod of Bishops that elects its own members, the church’s leader, Metropolitan Onufry of Chernovtsy and Bukovina, has to be approved by Moscow.
In his sermon at the end of the service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow last Friday, Patriarch Kirill, who has been known for his support of President Putin, suggested that Ukraine has a right to self-determination. But he also stressed that it must not be trapped into spiritual division from Russia. Andrei Zubov, a historian and expert in Orthodox-state relations wrote a scorching editorial that compared Putin’s actions in Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss of the Sudetenland. He said that if events spill into war, a split between Moscow and Kiev churches is inevitable. Calls have been growing for an independent church that would unite all of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches. If relations between Russia and Ukraine continue to deteriorate, the Patriarchate of Constantinople may eventually recognize a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, separate from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.