Bishop of St Albans highlights role of churches in building peace and stability in Ukraine

“We need a more adequate humanitarian response to the human suffering resulting from the conflict, and to support and strengthen the efforts of the churches and faith communities of Ukraine for justice and peace.” – Bishop of St Albans, 24/3/15

On 24th March 2015 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, took part in a debate tabled by Lord Tugendhat “that this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine (6th Report, HL Paper 115)”.


Bishop of St AlbansThe Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I add my congratulations on the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, for securing this debate, which provides a valuable space in which to explore the multifaceted and fast-changing situation in the region. The EU Committee’s report has opened a welcome opportunity to reassess the UK’s relationship with both Russia and Ukraine on a bilateral level and as part of the EU.

I wish to cast my remarks in the light of the recent visit of a delegation from the World Council of Churches to Ukraine. The delegates’ visit to the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev served as a reminder of the very complex relationship of church and state power on which Rus’ was built centuries ago. Ukraine and Russia share this history. It is impossible to unravel national identities that intertwined through the polities of Kiev, Novgorod and Muscovy, and on to the present day.

With this complex interplay of identities in mind, there is a clear need for an EU strategy towards the region that extends beyond united action on sanctions. The urgency of the situation in the region is compounded by the pending association agreements with Moldova and Georgia, which could render these states vulnerable to further Russian aggression. Further, as the committee report notes:

“The historical grievance of the rights of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia offers the Russian government a convenient pretext which could be used to justify further destabilising actions in those states”.

I echo the report’s call for more steps to be taken to facilitate access to citizenship for ethnic Russians who have long-established residency in those states but who may have limited ability in the official language. We must act now to heal fissures in society that could otherwise be exploited.

Among those whose political identity cannot be neatly delineated are the too often forgotten non-Russians who remain in Crimea. While the immediate priority for the region must be the cessation of fighting, the international community must not allow the annexation of Crimea to become tacitly legitimate. It is imperative that we continue to challenge the validity of last March’s referendum, persevering in our insistence that representatives from the OSCE be allowed into the territory.

I strongly commend the EU Committee’s attention to the importance of holding Russia to its human rights commitment. It states in recommendation 55:

“The EU and Member States must continue to raise the human rights situation in Russia in international forums and to press Russia on human rights violations in their bilateral relations. It is not sufficient for Member States to delegate this to the EU institutions”.

This commitment to ensuring equal treatment for all must also encompass a renewed effort to tackle corruption, which has already been referred to by other noble Lords and which blights the opportunities of so many. As the report states:

“Combating corruption should be an essential part of the EU-Russia relationship. Only in this way will the EU be able to prevent the theft of assets from the Russian people”.

In pressing for the observance of human rights commitments in Ukraine and Russia, the UK must look with care to the integrity of our own position. I am glad that the report presses this point by stating:

“If the UK is to retain its credibility in its criticisms of Russia on human rights, then its position would be undermined if it sought to weaken its own commitment to the Convention. Such a move would resonate in Russia in a very significant way and would be a powerful tool of propaganda for the Russian government”.

The remainder of my remarks will pertain to the report’s recommendation on continuing dialogue and exchange with Russia to avoid the entrenchment of the current conflict. As well as the importance of various cultural exchanges—the arts, language skills and other soft power—faith groups and civil society groups have a key role to play in facilitating cultural and educational co-operation.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in particular is uniquely positioned to show leadership in working for communication, peace, unity and reconciliation. As the majority church in Ukraine, with congregations in all parts of the country and on both sides of the lines of conflict, and having officially declared and reiterated its commitment to the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine, the UOC has a special capacity and leadership responsibility to be a bridge over the opposing political divisions throughout the territory of Ukraine.

The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations also has a key role to play as a facilitator of peaceful ecumenical and interfaith relations, encompassing as it does almost every church tradition represented in Ukraine, as well as the Muslim and Jewish communities. The council has remained impressively united despite all the difficulties facing Ukraine at the moment.

The various denominations and faiths hold different perspectives on the origins of the conflict, but still there is great potential for the churches and faith communities of Ukraine to play a lead role in transcending the competing nationalisms that can feed conflict, by addressing the social, economic and humanitarian needs that have been compounded by the fighting. This moral leadership is backed up with civil society action, with the central role being played by churches in meeting humanitarian needs in the affected regions. It was significant that during the violence in spring 2014, St Michael’s cathedral was used as a field hospital.

The unmet need remains very great. It is important that in the midst of our debate, as people are talking about the long-term strategy in the region, we do not forget the reality of daily life for tens of thousands of Ukrainians. Many are displaced from their homes and living in shelters and temporary accommodation. With even basic infrastructure destroyed, the battle to rebuild their lives is very difficult. We need a more adequate humanitarian response to the human suffering resulting from the conflict, and to support and strengthen the efforts of the churches and faith communities of Ukraine for justice and peace.



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