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ROME – Ukraine’s top Catholic official, who leads the church in a majority Orthodox nation, said his country’s ongoing effort to fight off a Russian invasion has brought the different Christian churches in Ukraine together in an utterly new way.
“All religious groups in Ukraine find themselves united as never before,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, the largest of the 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome.
He said the spirit of common cause starts with Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Communities, which “represents 95 percent of religious society” in the country and has published 17 documents during these 70 days of war.
“Just on the eve of the Russian attack, when we had already received news that foreign ambassadors were leaving the city of Kyiv, in a night session the Council made an appeal to the Russian president to stop,” Shevchuk told the Vatican department headed by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch. “We proposed ourselves as mediators: if diplomats and politicians were not able to avoid an armed clash, we, men of the church, wanted to be mediators of peace.”
Shevchuk spoke Friday during a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, the Vatican department responsible for ecumenical efforts.
He said that “the ecumenical reaction to this war has been one of explicit condemnation,” and expressed gratitude to Pope Francis; Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; the Ecumenical Council of Churches; and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, all of whom have voiced solidarity with Ukraine.
The one Christian group with which the war has not brought a new unity, Shevchuk said, is the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
“An analysis of this justification truly shows us a very serious danger not only for the Russian Orthodox Church, but for Christianity in the modern world,” the archbishop argued. “Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church has been trapped in Putin’s doctrine of the state, which already had an explicit broad condemnation from Orthodox theologians a month ago.”
Therefore, “the war in Ukraine poses two main challenges to us on a global level: First, there is a need for a new reflection on the social doctrine of the Church on the theme of war and peace. The other issue to be studied is the relationship between the Church and the state. There is an obvious need to work out the correct language to describe the new challenges in these areas but also to have the courage at the ecumenical level to find the right answers to these dangers.”
Many Russian Orthodox priests and even some bishops have broken communion with the Russian patriarchate following Kirill’s support of the war, particularly those in Ukraine itself. To name one instance, Shevchuk pointed out that at least 15 of the 53 eparchies in communion with Moscow now refuse to commemorate Kirill during the liturgy.
The Sunday following the outbreak of the war, Shevchuk said, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said that this war is a metaphysical war that not only can be justified but indeed must be fought precisely to defend Orthodoxy.
According to Shevchuk, the community of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine feels “neglected and forgotten,” considering that most of the churches destroyed by the Russian army are theirs.
Shevchuk said what has happened in Ukraine is a “humanitarian catastrophe,” with “10 million Ukrainian citizens forced to leave their homes” and nearly five million Ukrainians who have abandoned the country, while “in the occupied and then liberated territories tragic things have been discovered,” such as “mass graves,” which are now “places of prayer for all: Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims.”
In addition to the massacres, he said, there is the great drama of rape, because as several humanitarian organizations have denounced, men, women and children were raped by members of the Russian army.
Similarly, religious infrastructure, he lamented, has been devastated: Close to 100 churches, monasteries, and religious buildings have been destroyed since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.
“We know,” he said, “that this war has two goals, according to what the Russian president declared: demilitarization and denazification. Demilitarization would really be destroying the Ukrainian state, paralyzing the resistance of our army to fulfill the second goal of this assault, the so-called denazification. And this really proved that the war is an ideological war; its goal was really to eliminate the Ukrainian people.”
Through a video participation, the prelate said that the instructions given to the Russian army on what to do with the Ukrainian people can be compared to “a textbook genocide,” according to which “the whole people had to be eliminated.”
On Friday, the members of the Vatican’s department that focuses on dialogue between different Christian Churches, were received by Pope Francis, who said that the ongoing war in Ukraine threatens the whole world and should question the conscience of every Christian and every church.
“We must ask ourselves,” Francis said, “what have the churches done and what can they do to contribute to the development of a world community, capable of realizing fraternity starting with peoples and nations that live social friendship? It is a question that we must think about together.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma