The Pope could hardly be clearer about how he sees the war in Ukraine. Speaking in the Vatican at the height of the Russian attacks on Mariupol, named after the Virgin, he declared: “With pain in my heart, I join my voice to that of ordinary people, who are begging for an end to the war. In the name of God, hear the cry of those who suffer and put an end to the bombings and attacks.
“Focus on negotiation truly and decisively, and [make] the humanitarian corridors effective and safe. In the name of God, I ask you: stop this slaughter!”
He was not just addressing the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, but, indirectly, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, whom he knows. The patriarch had earlier described Russia’s opponents as the “forces of evil”.
As a perceptive article by Mark Jenkins in this issue makes clear, the patriarch has been a decisive influence on the thinking of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, he observes, seeking to reverse Russia’s catastrophic demographic decline, has made common cause with the patriarch and his antipathy to Western liberalism. Indeed, he appears to share the patriarch’s commitment to the brotherhood of Orthodox Christians and his keen awareness that the origins of the Russian church are located in Kyivan Rus’.
Indeed, for centuries the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine was under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate; it is only now that many of their churches no longer pray for the patriarch in the liturgy. Its Metropolitan Onufriy, on the day of the invasion, urged President Putin to stop the “fratricidal war”, and described Russian aggression as “Cain’s crime”. On the same day, Patriarch Kirill spoke of the God-given affinity between Russians and Ukrainians. The difference in perspective is striking.
The other Ukrainian Orthodox Church is autonomous – recognised as self-governing by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – and repudiates the Russian invasion. So do the Greek Catholic Church and the Latin Rite Catholic Church.
It is hard to avoid the sense that the Russian Orthodox understanding of the conflict is based on a tragic mistake. In seeking to unite Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine, the Russian Church has, in its silence, supported an invasion that has served to drive Orthodox Christians apart.
There are ways to bring about unity between Christians but they do not include military force and the killing of civilians.
Part of the problem is that both President Putin and the Moscow Patriarch consider that the culture and politics of Ukraine have become worryingly Westernised. In strategic terms, Russia has seen Ukraine drawn into the ambit of Nato and the European Union. In terms of values, the patriarch views with concern the increasing liberalism of Ukrainian society, especially the government in Kyiv, or Kiev. This partly explains Vladimir Putin’s puzzling references to drug addicts in the Ukrainian government.
The tragedy is that Ukraine is an overwhelmingly Christian country, no less so because its charismatic president is Jewish. Over 80 per cent of the population identify as Christian; over 70 per cent are Orthodox. The churches play a huge role in society. The casualties of the war are overwhelmingly Christian, including the countless people displaced by the conflict and the beautiful church buildings destroyed by Russian shelling. If this invasion is an assertion of Orthodox values, it is manifestly counter-productive.
The Pope has called for peace. And so he must; for the Christ we all worship is also the Prince of Peace. We should support peace talks, even if the price of a settlement is to concede some Russian demands, for instance, recognition of Crimea and the breakaway Russian-speaking republics in the east. It is for the Ukrainian government to decide if this is a price worth paying to prevent further bloodshed.
What British and Western governments must do, however, is confirm their renewed commitment to the defence of Nato members, as President Biden has, to his credit, done. They should also assert the rights of small, poor Moldova, on the Russian border, which is constitutionally committed to neutrality.
Meanwhile, we should continue to welcome refugees in Britain and to support neighbouring states, primarily Poland, Hungary and Moldova, in hosting the bulk of displaced civilians. Indeed, it is worth insisting that the UK government recognises the role that churches here can make in helping to settle refugees. Ministers and local authorities should be collaborating first of all with the Ukrainian churches. Irish religious orders have put monasteries and convents at the disposal of refugees; the same could happen in Britain.
Above all, we should, with the pope, be praying for the people of Ukraine, and indeed, for the young Russian soldiers caught up in a conflict they barely understand. Prayer works; so we should pray for peace. Especially peace between Christians.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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