WASHINGTON — Standing in the basement of the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, cradling a well-worn book by Ukraine’s 19th-century “genius poet” Taras Shevchenko, co-pastor Father Wasyl Kharuk paused to muse about the crisis in his homeland — referring first to the role of the Church.

“I studied for the priesthood in an underground church,” in the late 1980s, he said. “Now, all the Ukrainian Christian churches are out in the street supporting the people. The change for us is … dizzying.”

“Even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with Moscow is against war,” the 50-year-old priest continued.“They wrote a letter to their brothers in Russia, to Patriarch Kirill [head of the Russian Orthodox Church], saying Ukraine should be united. No invasion. No war.”

There is a diverse array of religious actors in Ukraine. Among Christians, besides the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and the Latin-rite Catholic Church, there are numerous Protestant denominations and an Orthodox Church split into three branches: the Orthodox-Kiev Patriarchate, the Orthodox-Moscow Patriarchate and the small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. But despite the religious plurality, these Churches have been singular in proclaiming the need for dialogue and a peaceful settlement.

All the Churches were active in Kiev’s Maidan demonstrations, the anti-government protests that started on Nov. 21 and resulted in the collapse of Viktor Yanokovich’s presidency three months later, after several chaotic days of confrontation and death.

“Every night I would hear the crowd pray together, led by clergy on the stage, and they would start the days, together, with prayer,” explained Olya Duzey, a Ukrainian American implementing a USAID health project based in Kiev. “The clergy were an organic part of the process, providing spiritual support for the people, united with everyone in fighting for a better future.”

“It’s Catholics and Orthodox together, as well as Jews, Muslims, Protestants. Everyone,” she added.

 

A Voice for Peace

Since Russian troops took control of the Crimean Peninsula with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian Church leadership has been speaking out for peace and engaging with international diplomatic efforts.

A synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate met quickly after the Maidan violence on Feb. 25 to condemn “criminal actions of the [Yanokovich] government that provoked the bloodshed on the streets” and to make clear they would not let the faithful be divided according to ethnic, linguistic, geographic or social lines.

“We have to keep a single unified Ukraine for future generations. In the current situation of severe social stress, we must make every effort” to protect peace, read the group’s statement — an especially important declaration because it is the largest Orthodox group in Ukraine, with the strongest ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. 

And U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson met last week in Kiev with representatives from the two major Orthodox Churches, the Moscow and Kiev Patriarchates that together represent about 70% of the nation’s population, to discuss their peacekeeping role.

Given this context, there seems little chance that the invasion of Crimea can light a fuse to be carried across Ukraine via the Orthodox Church, even in its most sympathetic branch.

In the Orthodox world, each national Church (plus several historical Orthodox entities not tied to a state) is considered equal in authority. The most influential in this religious family, though, is the Russian Orthodox Church, as a result of its size — some 101 million believers out of the 260 million Orthodox in the world — and significant wealth.

Last Sunday in Istanbul, an unusual gathering of most leaders of Orthodox Churches assembled to plan their first pan-Orthodox synod in more than 1,200 years, to be held in 2016. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church was present, and, together, the group issued a communiqué calling for “peaceful negotiations and prayerful reconciliation” in Ukraine — hardly the actions of a bellicose actor.

 

Patriarch Kirill’s Key Role

Since the fall of communism, the percentage of Russians identifying as Orthodox Christians has surged: increasing from 31% (1991) to 72% (2008), according to the Pew Research Center in a study released last month.

President Putin considers himself a devout Orthodox Christian. He was secretly baptized; he supposedly wore a gold cross, even as a KGB officer; and he has promoted the restoration of Orthodox churches across the country — some 23,000.

Photos of Putin lighting church candles, kissing icons and consulting with bishops in full regalia are easily found on the Internet.

So it is not surprising that many see Patriarch Kirill, who became leader of the Russian Orthodox Church five years ago, as key to negotiating a peaceful solution in Ukraine by using his influence to persuade President Putin to walk back from confrontation.

In fact, Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchynov spoke by phone to Patriarch Kirill on March 3, asking him to persuade Putin to stop the aggression against Ukraine.

The day before, Patriarch Kirill sent an eloquent letter to the acting leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Onufry, and to the country’s faithful, clearly stating his opposition to violence and affirming Ukraine’s right to self-determination:

“With sorrow, anxiety and pain do I look at what is happening in Ukraine now,” he wrote.

“Political discords have led to the confrontation and divisions between people, including those who are bound by the common faith. Under threat is the existence of Ukraine as a united state. …The Ukrainian people themselves are to determine their future without any external impact,” the letter continued.

“I make an ardent appeal to all my brothers and sisters in Christ to forgive and understand each other. I appeal to all the powers that be: Do not allow violence against civilians!” wrote the Patriarch.

 

Opportunity for Christian Leadership

Robert Moynihan, president of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation, dedicated to deepening the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox, and editor in chief of Inside the Vatican, sees a great opportunity for Christian leadership to help avoid a disastrous, bloody war in the region.

“The Churches [in Ukraine and Russia] have an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s allow the Spirit to move us, to find a better way,’” Moynihan told the Register. “There is a profound desire for peace among Christian church leadership. There’s no desire to witness the sorrow of fratricide.”

Asked for his insight into Pope Francis’ perspective on Ukraine, Moynihan said, “Of course, Pope Francis has a very Christian position, very nuanced.”

“The Pope is a close friend of Sviatoslav Shevchuk [Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church], whom he knew in Buenos Aires, and he supports the Greek Catholic Church.”

“At the same time, Pope Francis deeply admires the spirituality of the Orthodox. He has twice met with Archbishop Hilarion,” who serves as a kind of foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, “and he intends to collaborate with the Orthodox on the profound issues of morality facing the modern world,” explained Moynihan.  

 

Papal Involvement

Pope Francis has communicated with many sources about the Ukrainian crisis.

On Feb. 26, the Pope met with former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, an official in the Russian parliament who serves as president of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, an aid organization for the Christian Church in the Holy Land. Ukraine was on their agenda.

The Holy Father discussed the Middle East directly with Putin when the Russian resident met the Holy Father less than four months ago.

Putin gave Pope Francis an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, which both men kissed,  and he extended to the Pope greetings from Patriarch Kirill, who is the strongest Russian proponent of ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church in centuries.

Jesuit Father James McCann, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome (founded by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 as a center dedicated to Eastern Christianity), thinks it’s a positive development that Christian churches in Russia and Ukraine are “resisting being used.”

Father McCann spoke to the Register from Brazil, where he was visiting some Ukrainian communities. The Pontifical Oriental Institute has a close relationship with Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Latin Catholic and Orthodox communities.

The polyglot Jesuit told the Register, “Putin might try to use the Orthodox Church, but I don’t think the Church will allow itself to be used as an instrument of foreign policy. The leadership is more careful, and I can’t see them endorsing a takeover of Ukraine.”

Seeing the Vatican’s long-standing investment in strengthening Catholic-Orthodox relations helps explain the resilience being exhibited among Christian leaders in the Ukraine flash point today.

 

Crimean Complications

President Barack Obama met Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House March 12, and during the meeting, Obama denounced the Russian-backed “slapdash election” scheduled in Crimea for Sunday on whether to join Russia. Obama said the U.S. “will not recognize any referendum that goes forward,” and Yatsenyuk insisted Ukraine will “never surrender” in its efforts to preserve its territory, Fox News reported.

But for pragmatic reasons, others see no effective way to challenge Russia over Crimea now.

On March 12, Turchynov announced Ukraine will not intervene militarily if Crimea decides to secede. Crimea was for centuries a Russian territory, until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev simply gave Crimea to Ukraine (his native country) in 1954 as a gift, allegedly while drunk. The transaction was approved in Moscow without objection.

Father Kharuk calmly observed, “I’m afraid Crimea will go to Russia. Hopefully the Russians will not go further. If so, it becomes a danger.”

Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, planning for Pope Francis’ May trip to the Holy Land is picking up pace. He will be accompanied by Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church. Thus, the trip is another landmark in the steady, undeterred progress of ecumenical collaboration — strengthening the two lungs of Christianity, as Blessed John Paul II memorably described the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.