Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ukraine's Faiths Unite in Response to Russian Aggression

Moscow's claims of inter-faith conflict not borne out on the ground.
By Halya Coynash

It was doubtless not Vladimir Putin’s intention, but Russia’s military aggression has proved a strong uniting force among religious believers in Ukraine.

The three main churches are working together to provide spiritual and moral support to Ukrainian soldiers stationed on the southern border between mainland Ukraine and the Crimea. At the same time, pressure on the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate has prompted the Crimean Tatars to offer their mosques for church services. Archbishop Zorya has expressed gratitude and said that they will certainly take up the offer if the situation gets worse.

The situation in the Crimea is likely to deteriorate for the peninsula’s Muslim community, too. Said Ismailov, Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, believes it possible that muftis from Russia will be brought in to Crimea, although he predicts that the Crimean Tatars will not recognise them.

“There is no schism in Crimea. At present, we are seeing that the Crimean Tatars have united more closely because misfortunate has come to their homes and is consolidating them,” he said.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (linked, at least until now, with the Moscow Patriarchate) and the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate have announced that they have begun a dialogue on various issues, including possible merger into one united Orthodox Church of Ukraine. While notably absent from the Russian Duma for Putin’s March 17 speech on Crimea, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has certainly not criticised the military aggression.

Furthermore, Metropolitan Illarion, head of the Department for External Church Relations, is reported to have strongly criticised the heads of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for supposed “meddling in politics”.

The Russian authorities have begun criticising what they claim to be religious discrimination against Moscow Patriarchate believers.

Some priests from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church in Kherson region can be seen in a moving video here . They are concerned to provide whatever support Ukrainian soldiers and their families need at a time of enormous tension and hardship.

Father Serhiy Dmitriev of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church explains that at the beginning the film that they also have provided practical assistance by finding out what the men needed and acting as messengers for the community and the local regional administrations.

Residents of neighbouring regions immediately set to answering the call for practical items and over 200,000 hryvnia was collected, a substantial figure for any region of Ukraine where incomes in general are very low.
Father Serhiy says the situation on the border, especially in the Transdniestr and Odessa regions, has become much more acute over the last three days. Additional military forces have been sent, and priests have therefore gone to hold prayers and counsel the men. He adds that Russian helicopters fly over them about five times a day, and they are all waiting for the “further development of events”.

Mobile groups of priests travel between military units along the border. Fortunately, the abductions that were originally being reported, where Russian soldiers tried to take prisoners, stopped once numbers increased at Ukrainian checkpoints.

Both local inhabitants and church representatives are helping to catch provocateurs and Russian reconnaissance agents.

The film does not mention how Jewish soldiers are coping. During the three months of protests on the Maidan, and at the funerals of some of the Jewish activists killed by Berkut police snipers, both rabbis and Christian church representatives joined together in prayer.

Jewish religious and secular figures have come out firmly against Russian propaganda, especially the claims of mounting anti-Semitism in Ukraine. The messages pushed by Russian propaganda of a country deeply divided, of religious discrimination, and of minorities, especially the Jewish community, under siege and terrified by the “fascists” in power are once again foundering.

Whether or not the weight of sheer military force prevails, Russia’s moral bankruptcy is absolute.

Halya Coynash is a journalist and a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.

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