Can Christian Churches Find a Peaceful Way Out of Crimea Crisis?

Call to Arms? Orthodox clergymen pray outside a border guard post in Ukraine’s Crimean region on March 1.

U.S. warships steamed toward the Black Sea on a “routine deployment” as the Russian military solidified its hold on the Crimean peninsula on March 7. With Russian soldiers encircling Ukraine military outposts, a hastily reconstituted Crimean parliament, in a further provocation, voted to accept annexation into the Russian Federation. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has so far proved indifferent to Western diplomatic entreaties: Is there any chance that the region’s churches can help move the world back from the brink?

Pope Francis asked for prayers for Ukraine on March 2, urging that all its citizens “endeavor to overcome misunderstandings and build together the future of the nation,” and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said, “As always, we hope negotiated solutions will be sought.

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“I believe that in the Ukraine, it is possible to find a solution that safeguards the interests of both sides and...consequently the well-being of the whole country and its people.” Cardinal Parolin added that the Holy See was prepared to contribute through dialogue with Russian Orthodox leaders. “We are ready to do so and hope it is possible.”

But while the pope and other Catholic bishops around the world called for prayers for peace, closer to the troubled region the rhetoric between the churches was far less irenic. His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukraine Greek Catholic Church, issued an appeal to religious and political leaders in Europe to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and urged his countrymen to prepare for the worst: “It is obvious that military intervention has already begun,” he said. “Our people and our country are currently in danger. We must stand up for our country, to be ready, if necessary, to sacrifice our lives in order to protect the sovereign, free, independent and unified state.”

Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow in the Russian Orthodox Church, in a letter on March 2 to the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine, urged them to push for peace. But the nature of the peace he had in mind was unclear. The patriarch seemed more than a little attentive to President Putin’s ambitions in Crimea.

“The blood of our brothers shed in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities,” he wrote, “is the fruit of hatred that members of the opposition from various quarters have allowed the enemy of the human race to grow in their hearts.

“No one living now in Ukraine should feel like a stranger in his own home, no matter what language he speaks.” He said that the church should ensure that “the entire population” had their “rights and freedoms” protected, “including the right to participate in making crucial decisions.”

The statement was condemned by the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is separate from the Moscow Patriarchate, as “unworthy,” even “evil.” In a press statement, the Ukrainian church said that Patriarch Kirill’s statement did not contain “a single word condemning the flagrant interference of Russia in Ukraine’s internal affairs, military aggression or inciting separatist sentiment.”

Dr. Charles Reed, the senior foreign-policy adviser to the Church of England, argued in a blog post that the churches of Europe should be pressing “for a policy which tries to bring together Russia and NATO to work together.” He added, “We really must find someone or some way of galvanizing the Ukraine churches into a similar cooperative mindset. Outside southwest India, there is nowhere where there is greater fragmentation and mistrust between the churches.”

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