Photo: Albin Hillert/CEC
Press Release No: 21/23
19 June 2023
The testimonies given during a hearing on 18 June at the Conference of European Churches (CEC) General Assembly were a stark reminder that the war in Ukraine is not only intertwined with theological division, but is also about people who perish every day while churches grow ever more frustrated about how to deliver a decisive push for peace.
“A lot of my friends, colleagues, and even students joined the armed forces,” said Dr Andrii Smyrnov, a professor in the Department of History at the National University of Ostroh Academy in Ukraine. “Unfortunately, many of them were killed.”
Smyrnov is also a member of the Synodal Commission for inter-Christian relations of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
“This is what we fight for: not just for a victory in this war but for a true, sustainable peace,” he said. “About 500 sacred sites in Ukraine have been destroyed during the full-scale war.”
Churches are caring for people on the ground in the war in many ways, he added. “More than 100 priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine are serving as chaplains for the armed forced of Ukraine,” he said.
He believes both Russia’s invasion and its justification by the Russian Orthodox Church represent a major challenge for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — and he is among those trying to nurture dialogue between the two churches. “For this purpose, we proposed creating a general working group which would contain bishops and theologians,” said Smyrnov. “We hope the unification process will begin soon and take place this year.”
Together with the desire for peace, is the ever-present question of how one can remain human during the horrors of war.
Yulia Kominko, editor-in-chief of the media of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, reflected that, even amid war, one aspires to be human. “But now, after a year, I can say it is very difficult to maintain your humanity during a full-scale war,” she said. “We didn’t expect it but we were faced with the fact that people wounded by war don’t want dialogue.”
She often repeated that her church is not an enemy of its motherland. “But we struggle for our free and beloved Ukraine,” she said. “Can you remain a Christian when your faith is tested from all sides?”
Ksenia Eggert discussed how, years before the war, and up to the present day, propaganda has been exploiting Russian audiences who saw themselves as victims of Nazism in World War II.
Eggert is currently working with Russian-language media in Vilnius, Lithuania, together with studies in canon law.
“It’s also important to understand that this propaganda campaign was not only effective inside Russia but outside Russia,” she said. “What is more relevant for the delegates here is that not only are geo-politics used to justify the war but religion is exploited as well — not only Christianity but Islam.”
Specifically, religion is exploited more explicitly in Russian propaganda when Patriarch Kirill, uses his sermons to encourage Russians to fight on the Russian side, added Eggert. “Ukraine is also openly depicted in Russian state media and pro-war media as being satanic and unholy while Russia is portrayed as holy and spiritual,” she said. “The propaganda messages are very strong.”
Natallia Vasilevich, an Orthodox theologian, human rights activist and political scientist from Minsk, Belarus, reflected on how Patriarch Kirill avoids expressing his views on the war when speaking to ecumenical audiences.
“Sometimes, when I hear Patriarch Kirill speaking in clear support of the war for the domestic audience, but then denying in front of the ecumenical partners that he ever supported the war, I even start to doubt my ability to understand the Russian language,” said Vasilevich. She stressed that theological work is also needed in the framework of the ecumenical movement, to indicate how theological notions are being manipulated.
The hearing resonated with questions of how to achieve peace. “All territories — all occupied territories — must be liberated,” urged Bohdan Mostovyi from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “I cannot say it’s only the future of Ukraine — it’s a peaceful future for all European nations.”
Keeping on the path for peace
We must learn from both our history and from our present situation, urged the panellists. “You may not see much information about Ukraine in the news but in reality there is no corner of my country that is completely safe,” said Alise Heichenko, a Baptist from Ukraine. “We also witnessed a recent environmental disaster committed by Russians. In my view, the future of Ukraine lies in the restoration of the legal borders of 1991.”
Whether they consider themselves journalists or theologians, students or human rights activists, those speaking during the hearing expressed their determination to continue their pursuit of justice and peace, even amid the severe hardships the war has brought to their front doors.
Fr Aliaksandr Kukhta, an Orthodox priest from Belarus, has one of the largest followings on YouTube channel for Christianity in the Russian and Belarusian languages. “In 2020, after the elections in my country, I participated in many events that took place in Belarus,” he said. “I stood as a live shield between people and bullets.”
He had to flee Belarus and moved to Ukraine, then, after Russia invaded Ukraine, he moved to Lithuania. “I continue to work with Belarusian people inside and outside their country,” he said.
Oleksandra Kovalenko, a researcher in religious studies and a member of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, is currently based in Kyiv. “Being Ukrainian, of course the war has affected me in many ways but first of all it’s an experience of being an internally and externally displaced person,” she said. “For the past year, living in the capital of the country at war means living amid the power outages, blackouts, and missile attacks.”
For more information or an interview, please contact:
Conference of European Churches
Rue Joseph II, 174 B-1000 Brussels
Tel. +32 486 75 82 36
YouTube: Conference of European Churches
Subscribe to CEC news