Russias Orthodox Church must not follow Putins rhetoric of inciting hatred towards Ukrainians

Andy Hunder photo (2) - CopyLast week?s synod of bishops at the Vatican has been making headlines across international media concentrating on issues of homosexuality and divorce. One incident that the media has widely omitted to report is the scathing public verbal assault by the Russian Orthodox Church against the Church in Ukraine. Bishop Hilarion, the Russian Orthodox Church?s external affairs envoy who was a guest of the synod, raised eyebrows of the synod fathers when he venomously attacked the Catholic Church in Ukraine. Using very non-ecumenical and undiplomatic language the Moscow cleric labelled the Kyiv Church?s union with Rome as ?a bleeding wound on the body of the Christendom.? Hilarion, already dubbed as ?Bishop Hilarious? by some Vatican observers, demonstrated a great example of how not to make friends while visiting a global church gathering. His words echoed the propaganda that has been blaring out of a very well-oiled Kremlin-backed disinformation juggernaut, which has been demonising Ukrainians ever since the start of the crisis in Ukraine. Bishop Hilarion?s reference to the Ukrainian Church?s 16th century reunification with the Church of Rome, when the Church in Kyiv opted for closer ties with the Western Church and accepting the primacy of the Pope, while at the same time preserving an alluring Orthodox liturgy and Eastern Christian traditions, including married clergy. The crux of the issue seems to be that, with Vladimir Putin rapidly losing influence and control over Ukraine, alarm bells are ringing at the Russian Orthodox Church?s HQ in Moscow as it strives to keep its domination over Ukraine. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church preferred to be under Rome as opposed to Moscow from the 16th century. It has the best of both worlds, belonging to the global family of the Catholic Church, with access to the best education resources, partnership with religious leaders in the western world and also the traditions of the Eastern Church. Walk in to any church in western Ukraine and you would have a challenge in defining which religious denomination ? Orthodox or Greco-Catholic ? the place of worship belongs to. ?This model is deemed as a distinctive example of bridging East and West together. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, disrespectfully nicknamed as ?Uniate? by the Russians, has been a thorn in the side of Moscow for decades ? it was banned by Stalin and until 1989 it was the largest prohibited religious organisation in the world. Its bishops and priests were persecuted and sent to Siberian labour camps for not succumbing to Soviet authoritarian rule from Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greco-Catholics have differing positions on the relationship between Church and State. The Catholic Church in Ukraine has continuously opposed undemocratic regimes. During the protests in the Ukrainian capital earlier this year, clergy of the Church prayed collectively with the people on the Maidan, together with rabbis, Muslim clerics, and Orthodox and Protestant churchmen. Ukrainian Greco-Catholic clergy were among the first to publicly speak out against a corrupt regime in Ukraine and openly support freedom of speech, rule of law and human dignity. Critics of the Moscow Patriarchate who gained access to KGB archive documents in the early 1990s, argue that during the Soviet era the Russian Orthodox Church was "practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB,? the ruthless Soviet security service.? A former chairman of Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, has admitted that: "Not a single candidate for the office of bishop or any other high-ranking office, much less a member of Holy Synod, went through without confirmation by the KGB.? Today Russia?s political leaders and top clerics also seem to be building an extraordinarily close relationship. The Russian Orthodox Church has claimed, debatably, that it has exclusive jurisdiction over the Orthodox Christians living in most of the former member republics of the USSR, including millions of Ukrainians. By aligning itself so closely to Vladimir Putin the Moscow Patriarchate will inescapably squander its influence in Ukraine. It is being perceived as succumbing under the dominance of the Russian State as opposed to following a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Talking about a reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine today, in the midst of a war, is an exceedingly daring path to embark on. However, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, recently said: "We regret that [Russian] state propaganda is creating an image of Ukraine as an enemy. We just want an open and honest dialogue, which might eventually lead, one day, to reconciliation." Any future reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians will require the Church in both countries to play a leading role, analogous to the vanguard position that the Churches in Poland and Ukraine manifested in reconciling Ukrainians and Poles only a few years ago. ?Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.? Let us hope that today?s Church leaders will dwell upon these words of the founder and central figure of the organisation that they represent. Andy Hunder is Director of the Ukrainian Institute in London ??