The role of religion in the war in Ukraine tests the entire ecumenical community

In Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February, war, history, religion and politics are intertwined in many ways. According to Professor of Church History Katharina Kunter, the complexity of the role of religion is important to understand.

Ukraine is a religious country – about 70% of its inhabitants belong to Orthodox Christianity. But Orthodoxy in Ukraine is divided. At the moment, the largest Orthodox churches active in the country are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) under the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was recognised as independent by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2018–2019.

“For the Russian Orthodox Church, this gaining of independent status from the Patriarchate of Constantinople appeared as an aggression, and neither Ukrainian church recognised the other,” says Katharina Kunter.

“As the war goes on, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) under the Moscow Patriarchate is losing many members to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). At the same, time this church distanced itself from the Russian narrative, according to which Ukraine had always been a Russian and a Russian Orthodox country since the baptism of Rus’ in 988. This mass baptism of the residents of Kiev is considered the beginning of the Christianisation of the Eastern Slavs.”

Religion is used to justify warfare

According to Kunter, one of the dimensions of the situation in Ukraine is the politicisation of religion.

Vladimir Putin uses church history and religious language to justify the war of aggression he launched. He has positioned himself as a defender of true Christianity.”

After the Second World War, war and violence were no longer considered Christian in the West, but the Russian Orthodox Church has a different view. Both Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow are using the same Christian narrative, which emphasises, for one, Kiev and Ukraine as the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church. They also stress traditional family values and a right-wing worldview to justify the attack. This narrative also encompasses opposition to other religions and consequently goes hand in hand with anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric.

It is possible that the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence on Putin is diminishing – according to Kunter, images of Putin and Kirill together are rarer now compared to the beginning of the war, for instance. However, both leaders have the same goals: to deny Ukraine’s autonomy, and to annex Ukraine and gain as much influence as possible. Putin needs the Russian Orthodox Church to strengthen Russia’s moral and national status, while the Church enjoys many privileges that it does not wish to lose.

“At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between the church leadership and regular Orthodox people. For example, there are Orthodox priests in Russia who oppose the war and Patriarch Kirill. Due to their views, they live under constant threat to their lives. Many have lost their jobs or have had to respond to false charges.“

Orthodox Christianity at risk of division

Another dimension is the ongoing struggle for power between Orthodox churches.

“The Moscow Patriarchate is losing its influence on Orthodox churches supported by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has begun playing an imperialist game in Africa. In late 2021, two Orthodox dioceses were established in Cairo and Johannesburg, and connections with African countries established in the Soviet era have begun to be strengthened,” Kunter says.

Crossing the borders can be seen as an attack on the Patriarch of Constantinople. Normally, in Orthodox Church law, only one Orthodox Church should exist in each territory. Thus, the expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church into Africa, which historically belongs to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is a punishment for recognising the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) – and a violation of Orthodox law.

“Global Orthodox Christianity is now in danger of splitting in half, and the scale of the phenomenon can be compared to the Reformation in the 16th century. On opposing sides are Western and non-Western values, but it is also about very fundamental questions of trust and how Christianity can be lived authentically in the 21st century.”

The Pope not expected to mediate peace

In addition to the Orthodox Church, there are other churches and religions active in Ukraine: Western-oriented Protestant churches, Lutherans, Reformed churches, Baptists, Greek-Catholics and Catholics. From Russia’s perspective, these churches are promoting the cause of the “West” and NATO, and trying to destroy the true Orthodox Church. The anti-Semitism of Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, and their talk of ‘denazification’, are part of the same story.

There were hopes for Pope Francis to mediate peace in the conflict, even though the Holy See has traditionally remained neutral in wars and conflicts. However, both the Catholic sphere and the rest of the world were disappointed.

“The Pope’s reaction to the Russian attack has come as a surprise: he has tried to remain neutral and maintain a relationship with Patriarch Kirill,” Kunter says.

Pope Francis has not named Russia an aggressor or visited Ukraine. By doing so, he is seen to support the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The situation is clear: Putin and Kirill offer no peace. The reasons behind the Pope’s actions have been speculated on. The Vatican may have lost power in Eastern Europe, or he may not have skilled advisors. One relevant aspect may be the Argentine-born Pope’s personal background. Since the 1960s and 1970s, he has been close to socialist liberation theology. He embodies a deep anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism. This could explain why he may have trouble seeing past his view of an utopian social justice connected to an imagined Russia.”

Fundamental questions for the ecumenical community

Another dimension is ecumenical, referring to the international cooperation of Christian churches. There have been many discussions with the Russian Orthodox Church, which, however, have been watered down by the religious nationalism of its leadership. In fact, the ecumenical community is being forced to consider how to work with the Russian Orthodox Church. Some are in favour of dialogue; others believe that to constitute a defence of the war. According to Katharina Kunter, the view of the Finnish Orthodox Church is clear: dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate is not possible.

The Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in late August and early September 2022 brought the problematic situation to the fore.

“The war is a sensitive topic for the ecumenical community. The Russian Orthodox Church is a member of the World Council of Churches, and up to now it has also represented the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine. This year, a delegation from Ukraine took part in the assembly for the first time. It’s important for Ukrainians to be involved and be able to oppose the propaganda of the Russian Orthodox Church. The general secretary of the council has also visited Ukraine, thus offering his support.”

At the Assembly itself, however, it became apparent how difficult it is to reach a consensus in the ecumenical community, which includes many anti-Western and pro-Russian churches. The declaration on the Ukraine war was therefore also weak.

Throughout the war of aggression, various local churches and parishes in both Ukraine and other parts of Europe have played a significant humanitarian role in supporting refugees.

Reconciliation is possible

According to Kunter, there are positive signs: the Orthodox churches in Ukraine have held informal discussions in a positive atmosphere. Unification is seen as one possibility.

“A single and unified Ukrainian church would benefit independent Ukraine.”

According to Kunter, the link between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches can be restored in the distant future, after the war.

“The Second World War was filled with hostilities and hatred, but after the war a process of reconciliation was initiated, which can be considered a model for the situation in Ukraine as well. However, that process will take time, and it is the victims’ right to decide when to initiate it. And it will not work without a declaration of guilt by the perpetrators.”