Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow celebrates the Orthodox Christmas service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in this January 6, 2022, file photo. A group of Orthodox theologians have issued a statement condemning Patriarch Kirill's support of the war in Ukraine. CNS photo/Maxim Shemetov, Reuters

Religion makes complex war harder to understand

By  Nicholas Elbers, Canadian Catholic News
  • March 31, 2022

The geopolitical landscape of the war in Ukraine can be difficult to understand, and for many this problem was made even more perplexing by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s endorsement of the Russian invasion.

To help people understand the situation, a panel of experts was assembled by Vancouver’s St. Mark’s College’s Centre for Christian Engagement to discuss the complicated nature of religion within the war in Ukraine. On a live webinar, the panellists stressed the diverse nature of faith in Ukraine and the hopeful future that this reality might help foster.

Dr. Heather Coleman, a specialist in religion and culture at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, spoke about the long history of religion in the region. She described the current religious landscape, where 65 per cent of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox and 10 per cent are Catholic. There are also large communities of Jews and Muslims in the country.

Coleman said that despite the overwhelmingly Orthodox nature of the country, the picture isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, with two major branches of Orthodox Christianity dividing the population. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is self governing and in communion with Patriarchate of Constantinople after separating in 2018 from its Russian counterpart, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

To make sense of Patriarch Kirill’s statements supporting Russia’s military actions it’s important to understand the Russian Orthodox Church has not given up its historical boundaries and considers Ukraine part of its jurisdiction, along with all of Russia and Belarus.

Kyiv is of special symbolic importance for the Orthodox Christian world, said Coleman, because it is where St. Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity from the Greeks around 988.

Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, associate professor of theology at Christ College, Valparaiso University in Indiana, addressed the more recent history of the two churches.

Because of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s strong ties to Ukrainian nationalism, it’s strongest in western Ukraine where it is supported as a bulwark against the Catholic influence of Poland and Lithuania.

Today, the Orthodox Ukrainian Church is cautious about being too explicitly pro-Ukraine because of how widespread the faith is across the country and out of caution about increasing tension with Russian-leaning Ukrainians in the east.

As Ukrainian religious identity becomes increasingly independent, suspicion toward the Russian Orthodox Church within Ukraine has come to the forefront.

All of the speakers agreed Patriarch Kirill’s statements have not helped this reality, reinforcing the impression that the Ukrainian Church under Moscow has exposed its pro-Russian sentiments.

Ukraine’s Moscow-linked church has been accused of establishing Russian fifth-column cells, which Denysenko is skeptical about. Still, he concedes there are many in the Church who harbour strong pro-Russia views.

He remains hopeful, noting two major themes that are prevalent in public discourse. The first is calls to repentance for Russia, a thread that comes up not only as a Lenten theme but also a Fatima message. The other is the growing use of the story of Cain and Abel to illustrate how many are viewing the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Although Pope Francis has been criticized for failing to explicitly condemn any of the parties involved in the war, Fr. Myroslaw Tataryn, a Ukrainian Catholic priest, said the Holy See is trying to maintain open dialogue with the Moscow patriarchate and says the Pope has opposed the invasion.

Tataryn, professor emeritus of the Department of Religious Studies at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., noted that in a March 16 conversation with Patriarch Kirill, the Pope “lectured him about how as Church leaders we should use the words of Christ and not words of war.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.