Unease in Ukraine at church leaders’ Cuba talks

Kiev churches see Kremlin agenda behind parts of declaration by pope and patriarch

Pope Francis  embraces Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after signing a joint declaration on religious unity in Cuba. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/Reuters

Pope Francis embraces Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after signing a joint declaration on religious unity in Cuba. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/Reuters

 

Religious leaders in Ukraine have expressed alarm over a historic first meeting between the heads of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which Moscow hailed as a “shining example” of dialogue in the shadow of a new cold war.

Almost 1,000 years after the split between eastern and western branches of Christianity, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met at Havana airport in Cuba, and called for unity and for the protection of Christian communities in the Middle East.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday’s talks were “a shining example” of peaceful engagement between Moscow and western powers that have “slipped into a new cold war”.

The meeting was viewed very differently in Ukraine, where a pro-Western revolution and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels have thrown fuel onto long-smouldering religious fires. Ukraine’s troubled history has bequeathed a complex religious life.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church split into a Kiev Patriarchate, which is a strong supporter of the country’s independence and its pivot to the west, and a Moscow Patriarchate that is much closer to Russia.

Seeking to convert

Ukraine’s second-largest denomination is the Greek Catholic Church, which practices Orthodox-style rites but sees the pope as its spiritual leader, and is accused by the Russian Orthodox Church of seeking to convert its members.

The Kiev Patriarchate and Greek Catholic Church have fiercely criticised Russia’s meddling in Ukraine and role in a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people and displaced more than two million. In 2014 Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Kiev Patriarchate, said Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared to have fallen under the spell of Satan and faced “eternal damnation”.

Patriarch Kirill once likened Mr Putin’s long rule to “a miracle from God” and, when Mr Putin addressed Russia’s top military officers and defence officials in December, the patriarch sat among them in the front row.

Several of the 30 points in the joint declaration agreed by the pope and patriarch raised hackles in Ukraine, where the hurriedly arranged Havana talks were widely seen as a Kremlin bid to improve Russia’s image.

The declaration’s call for the split in Ukrainian Orthodoxy to be “overcome through existing canonical norms” seemed to echo the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to be the sole legitimate Orthodox authority in the country. “Since the Munich Agreement, the principle of ‘deciding about us, without us’ has stunk,” said archbishop Yevstratii, a spokesman for the Kiev Patriarchate, referring to western powers’ 1938 concession of parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany.

Ukraine conflict

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said the communiqué ignored the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the Kremlin’s campaign to foment conflict in Ukraine.

“Today it is a generally known fact that if military servicemen and heavy weapons had not come from Russia to Ukrainian land, and if the Russian Orthodox Church had not blessed the idea of the ‘Russian world’ . . . then the annexation of Crimea and this war would not have happened at all,” he said.