The night of 24 February was one of the darkest nights in the modern history of Ukraine. We are a nation of over forty-four million people, who have seen many horrors in the past century. Now, after thirty years of independence from the shackles of communism, evil has returned.
It takes the form of inhumane and perverse attacks by Russian military forces: attacks on innocent human lives. Unprotected and vulnerable families with their children, the sick in our hospitals, kindergartens, civilians; all are targets. Kyiv, the cradle of the Slavic world and its civilization, is surrounded by rockets and exploding shells.
Ukraine is a majority-Orthodox country, with about ten percent of our population belonging to the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of the twenty-three Eastern-Rite Churches in communion with Rome. Vladimir Putin’s narrative that he is liberating Ukraine from infidels makes no sense here; there is not and never could be an argument for attacking Ukraine.
Following its years of independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has begun to build a free and sovereign state. Reforms have started to take place, and while some individuals might have once felt nostalgia for and a desire to return to the former times, such sentiments decreased as Russia annexed Crimea and the Donbass territories in the east of Ukraine. Now, with the full invasion of Ukraine and the military aggression that has accompanied it, it is hard to find people who welcome Russia and Putin’s policy of so-called “liberation”.
One of the institutions that has promoted a new narrative of a free, sovereign, and humane Ukraine is the Ukrainian Catholic University. Based at Lviv, it is the only Catholic university in the vast territory between Poland and Japan, and it has played a vital role in shaping a new generation of Ukrainians. It is forming young, conscious Christians who understand their role as promoters of human rights, freedom, and justice. Among its various programs and initiatives, the University is trying hard, without any financial support from the state, to implement its motto: “to serve, to witness, and to communicate”.
The University is serving the nation and the Church by witnessing and communicating the truth of the gospel. Its Institute of Religion and Society, which I direct, has recently translated and published most papal encyclicals and magisterial social documents, thus promoting Catholic social thought and teaching in a society that still faces various challenges in the shadows of its Communist past.
Meanwhile, the Dialogue Fellowship Program strengthens national cohesion by bringing together emerging leaders from all walks of life and from various faith backgrounds to work together on pressing issues in their communities. The program, which started last year, has already brought thousands of people into cooperation: Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews.
The Orthodox majority may also be facing coming change in the face of the invasion and the widespread presence of Russian troops. In a recent appeal addressed to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev (of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which forms part of the Moscow Patriarchate) urged Kirill to “do everything possible to put an end to the sin of armed confrontation”. Otherwise, as he continued, “the abyss between our peoples may remain forever.” Meanwhile, Metropolitan Epifany, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (which is recognised as autocephalous by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) has also appealed to Kirill, citing “the unprovoked full-scale aggression of Russia, the state whose Orthodox Church you lead”.
We are talking about more than three thousand dead Russian servicemen, whose bodies are on the soil of Ukraine. The leadership of our country has already appealed to the International Red Cross to facilitate the return of the bodies of the Russian military to their homeland, so that relatives and friends can say goodbye to them and give them burial. Unfortunately, no response has been received from the Russian side so far.
Therefore, I appeal to you, as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to please show mercy to your fellow citizens and flock. If you cannot raise your voice against aggression, at least take the bodies of Russian soldiers whose lives have become the price for the ideas of the “Russian world” – yours and your President.
All this may well alter the landscape of Orthodoxy and its influence worldwide. The Russian Orthodox Church’s dependence on the Kremlin in recent years has been clear, but with the invasion and aggression towards Orthodox Ukraine, things are likely to change. Pope Francis’s unprecedented visit to the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See has already testified to the urgency of the situation.
In light of the unfolding events, the Vatican might also now take a more sober stance towards its ecumenical endeavours with Moscow; future dialogue may take a different shape. That shape will become clearer in the coming days, as religious leaders and authorities find themselves moved, even obliged, to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the meantime, our country remains attacked and violated, and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world is about to explode.
In the dark days of Soviet rule millions of innocent victims suffered because of their faith. An atheistic regime saw real danger in those who believe in God, because in the face of the evils of Communism they remained both nonconformist and resilient. It was their faith that made them strong. In the course of our independence, the new Ukrainian identity that has started to emerge has been shaped hugely by the life and witness of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It is not for nothing that, in the face of a godless regime, it was known as a Church of Martyrs.
Dr Taras Dzyubanskyy is Director of the Institute of Religion and Society of the Ukrainian Catholic University, and head of the Libertas Center of Interdenominational and Interreligious Dialogue.
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