Ukraine Crisis – the Religious Dimension. Speech by Bishop of St Albans

Even if this crisis has cast a Cold War shadow over Europe, it is important that we remain in dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. That is not always an easy task” – Bishop of St Albans.

On March 18th Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi moved ‘that this House takes note of the situation in Ukraine.’ The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Rev Alan Smith, spoke of the religious dimension to the crisis in Crimea between Russia and Ukraine:

14.03 Bishop of St AlbansThe Lord Bishop of St Albans:

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for this debate and for her helpful setting out of the situation. We have heard some fascinating background regarding the very complex history behind the situation. My comments will focus on the religious dimension, which has not been drawn out very fully so far.

To illustrate that, another aspect of what has been going on this past weekend is that Crimea is of extraordinary significance as a holy place for the Russian nation, for Russian orthodoxy and for the Russian sensibility or psyche. Legend links St Andrew with the place—it was believed that he lived there. The Emperor Trajan sent Pope Clement into exile in Crimea, giving it a direct link with early Christianity. Although Prince Vladimir was converted from paganism to Christianity in 988 and baptised in Kiev, it was actually the Russians—the Moscow Patriarchate—who built a shrine in Chersonesos, claiming it as the site of this very significant baptism. Because of this heritage, the Russian Orthodox Church has been building monasteries in Crimea and has restored many of its holy places. It has been encouraging large numbers of pilgrims to go there, describing it as Russia’s Mount Athos. That is how it sees the place. It has huge significance in many other dimensions as well as the historic ones.

There is no reason why noble Lords will know about the long and painful ecclesiastical history in Ukraine. However, for many years, there has been deep-rooted mistrust and division between the western-facing Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the eastern-facing Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. They overlap in their jurisdictions. What perhaps is surprising is the extent to which all Ukraine’s churches have found common purpose in recent months. In September 2013, when President Yanukovych was openly talking about signing an association agreement with the EU, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations supported the move and called on people not to oppose a new trajectory for Ukraine because of their traditional relations with Russia.

As the Maidan uprising turned violent, churches in Kiev, including Christ Church, the Anglican church in the city, acted as field hospitals for people wounded in the uprising. St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery became the main field hospital. A team of doctors were aided by priests from the monastery who distributed food and, of course, lead prayers. From the very start, Ukraine’s religious communities have been extremely supportive of the political aspirations of the demonstrators. Many of Ukraine’s churches are members of the Conference of European Churches, while many Muslim organisations in Ukraine have long and active links with co-religionists in the EU, not least with the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe.

From a religious perspective, Maidan was a uniquely ecumenical and interfaith phenomenon. As churches responded to the new political reality, the barriers of mistrust started to erode. Some religious leaders actually started talking to one another. The synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate has even gone so far as to suggest to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate that perhaps it is time to reconcile differences and unite in one church.

It is early days but, given that Ukraine is the second-largest orthodox country after Russia, a united Ukrainian church would redraw the map of orthodoxy. The critical distance that has already emerged between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow is significant. President Putin, of course, belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. State and church are extremely closely linked. Indeed, Metropolitan Kirill called on orthodox believers to vote for President Putin in the last election. He also flew to Kiev in 2010 to bless President Yanukovych’s presidency. Metropolitan Kirill has the ear of President Putin but, rather than acting as a brake on him—he is one of the people who probably could do something—it would appear that he is supportive of the Russian state’s ambitions.

If Russia was to manufacture further social unrest to justify moving beyond the Crimean peninsular, and if such a move was legitimised by Metropolitan Kirill, there is a very real danger that the Russian Orthodox Church will alienate Ukraine’s orthodox Christians permanently. Ukrainian churches are already taking steps to secure additional chaplains to help provide for the pastoral care and support of those who serve in the Ukrainian armed forces.

I turn now to the various media reports that have circulated in recent weeks suggesting that the Maidan had a dark, neo-fascist underbelly, and that Ukraine’s Jewish community was subject to attack and harassment. These reports have been dismissed as Russian propaganda by Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, the Chabad Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, who reported that Maidan self-defence units provided security for the synagogue in Kiev. Ten days ago, the Ukrainian Jewish Congress reported that there had been no reports of anti-Semitism since the uprising.

Sadly, the decision to demonise protesters as fascists has been deliberately used to stoke up deep-rooted and historic fears in Crimea as well as in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Priests in Sevastopol have faced harassment and abduction. Many have already evacuated their wives and children to the mainland. Given this climate of fear and intimidation, it is hard not to see the referendum as an exercise in annexation—a divorce at gunpoint rather than self-determination.

The situation in Crimea remains tense and uncertain. His Holiness the Patriarch of Kiev has expressed concern that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ofthe Kiev Patriarchate will be outlawed in Crimea for its support of the Maidan, while other churches will be subordinated directly to the Most Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

Similar fears and anxieties face the Crimean Tatars. They, too, were supportive of the uprising and now face an uncertain future. For many in this Sunni Muslim community, Russia is linked indelibly with Stalin’s mass deportation of Tatars to central Asia in 1944. Their communal leaders urged them to boycott the referendum, saying that the idea of holding a vote while Crimea is occupied by Russian troops was a “farce”.

Noble Lords will recall that last August the national minorities unit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe published a report warning that:

“Crimea faces a volatile mixture of acrimonious political competition, socioeconomic exclusion, inter- and intra-religious strife and a general atmosphere of increasing intolerance”.

The referendum will have done nothing to have diminished the risk of inter-ethnic violence.

Against this uncertain and volatile background, the Christian churches of Europe, through the Conference of European Churches, have been in contact with the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, a body that includes Jewish and Muslim representatives as well as Christian churches. A letter signed by the present CEC president, known to many Members of your Lordships’ House as the recently retired Bishop of Guildford, expresses solidarity and support, urges an end to further polarisation in Ukrainian society and assures them that churches elsewhere in Europe are urging a democratic and diplomatic solution to the problems facing Ukraine. I know that Bishop Christopher Hill will be talking later this week to other European church leaders about how this solidarity and support can be given more tangible shape through the Conference of European Churches.

Even if this crisis has cast a Cold War shadow over Europe, it is important that we remain in dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. That is not always an easy task given the Russian orthodox world view. I am encouraged that only last month the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London met representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church to discuss the theological education of students from the Russian Orthodox Church here in the UK. However this crisis plays out, and I pray as I am sure many of us do for a speedy and peaceful resolution, it is important that we do not sanction measures that put such dialogue at risk.

The debate was closed by Government Minister Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

Lord Wallace of Saltaire [extract]…Other countries also cherish nationalist memories and myths of their own, which we do not always wish to accommodate. After all, it was the myth that Kosovo was the birthplace of the Serbian nation that persuaded Milosevic and others to cling on to Kosovo in spite of the fact that there were no longer many Serbs living there. There are Muslims across the Middle East who believe that the reconstruction of Islamic caliphate is a vital part in reconstructing their myth of history. I dare say that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, does not share that view. Perhaps I may say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that the Russian Orthodox Church in the high point of the Tsarist Empire collaborated in the idea that Moscow had become the third Rome and, as the third Rome, was entitled to reconquer the second Rome so that Constantinople logically should belong to Russia. That is not something which we accepted and, indeed, part of why we fought the Crimean War was to prevent the Russians from expanding to take over Constantinople.

All those things are a matter of how one views history and, as we all know, there are different ways in which to view it….


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