[World Council of Churches] Ecumenical efforts led by the World Council of Churches (WCC) continue to encourage peace in Ukraine, where a fragile cease-fire is daily tested by violence in the eastern part of the country.
Since the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean peninsula, and a war has raged with separatist pro-Russian fighters in the east of the country.
The conflict began after the post-revolutionary government showed an interest in fostering greater ties with Western Europe and has also pitted Western countries and Russia against each other, rendering the conflict national, regional and global.
Political leaders in February hammered out the Minsk II agreement that seeks to halt the fighting, while church and religious leaders work behind the scenes to promote its implementation, with both sides in the conflict making frequent accusations about the breaking of the accord.
Process initiated by recent ecumenical visit
A delegation led by the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, visited Ukraine from 17 to 20 March 2015. Later, in April, he met Patriarch Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, where they discussed Ukraine and other matters.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said on 15 February in its latest report, “The impact of the conflict on the human rights of those living in areas affected by the fighting in the eastern regions is dramatic and frequently life threatening in areas where fighting and indiscriminate shelling take place.”
From his observations, Church of Sweden Emeritus Archbishop Wejryd, the WCC’s Europe President, confirmed the gravity of the humanitarian situation in the east.
“The level of destruction in places like Lisichansk is almost total, and the area has been substantially depopulated,” said Wejryd. He heard reports of many people having starved to death in their cellars, unable to seek supplies because of the intensity and duration of the fighting.
“Those who remain are heavily reliant on outside aid, significant amounts of which is provided through churches and related organizations. But it is not enough to meet the extent of the need,” he said.
The delegation went to Ukraine to hear the perspectives of the churches and other partners there. In addition to hearing from church leaders, the delegation also met with politicians and government representatives, community members, church leaders and members of the faith community.
It sought to find ways in which the WCC and the ecumenical fellowship might aid efforts by Ukrainian churches and faith communities to promote an end to conflict and a just peace and reconciliation there.
Most Ukrainians belong to a faith community, mainly to churches. Faith plays an important role in their lives, said delegation members.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is the largest church in Ukraine, with congregations in all parts of the country and on both sides of the line of conflict, a long history of encompassing both Ukrainian and Russian identities. It therefore has great potential for promoting peace and national reconciliation.
“As the majority church in Ukraine...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 in this regard," said the WCC delegation in a statement after the visit.
“We were also positively surprised by the good ecumenical spirit in the All Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, (AUCCRO),” said Wejryd. AUCCRO comprises representatives of essentially every religious tradition represented in Ukraine, including the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“We discovered how in the AUCCRO different visions are held and are brought into discussion," said Rev. Karin van den Broeke, moderator of the General Synod of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and part of the ecumenical team to Ukraine.
“We considered this as an important contribution to the peace process. Those in AUCCRO strongly expressed their wish to have direct contact to the international ecumenical movement.”
Along with destruction by the war in the east, the conflict has had economic impact in both Ukraine and Russia that have adversely affected ordinary people in both countries.
The World Bank has said the economy of Ukraine contracted by 8 percent during the year 2014 as a result of the crisis.
At the same time, economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations have contributed to the plunge in the value of the Russian rouble.
News organizations have reported a resulting Russian financial crisis following the Ukraine conflict, while East-West relations have soured on the international stage.
Van den Broeke said the WCC expressed in a careful way the opportunities Ukrainian faith communities have in a process of reconciliation.
“Some people expected the WCC to come with strong statements on the political situation in Ukraine,” said Van den Broeke, noting that she thought the careful approach was fitting for a fellowship of churches.
She explained that the global ecumenical body needs to stay in contact with different parties and “to encourage all those faithful people who share their hope for a peaceful Ukraine.”
Delegation members underlined that AUCCRO offers a unified voice for peace and reconciliation in the context of the current conflict.
“This is only a first step in a process that might be successful,” said Wejryd in his interview.
Archbishop Wejryd travelled to the war-hit eastern part of Ukraine to witness relief work done by a church organization closely affiliated to the UOC-MP.
“I was impressed with the entrepreneurship and pragmatism shown by the group, which had been shipping close to 100 truckloads of necessities, mainly given by people in western Ukraine to people in eastern Ukraine,” said Wejryd. “It was greatly appreciated by local communities there.”
Ahead of talks in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in April called on Russia and Ukraine to set in motion the next phase of the shaky Minsk peace accords aimed at stopping the fighting in east Ukraine.
News agency reports said French, German, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers expressed “grave concern” after the talks about violations of a the ceasefire in separatist-held east Ukraine, but have undertaken to continue dialogue since then.
In the western part of Ukraine, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (which broke away from UOC-MP in 1992), Patriarch Filaret, has spoken in support of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, while having issued strong words about President Putin of Russia.
There is a difficult history and relationship between the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate and the Kiev Patriarchate. Representatives of both churches, however, cooperate in the context of the country’s multi-faith ecumenical council, AUCCRO.
The Kiev Patriarchate has a sizeable following in the western part of the country but has not been recognized by any other Orthodox churches since its schism from the UOC-MP.
The Dutch Protestant leader noted, “The position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate is perhaps the most difficult in Ukraine.”
“Different opinions on the situation in Ukraine are held within this church. In the meantime, and that’s the good thing the WCC wants to underline, it has an enormous potential on the way of justice and peace,” said Van den Broeke.
Archbishop Wejryd expressed his hope that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church will continue and strengthen his efforts for peace and stability in the region.
Wejryd added, “I think that the possibilities rest very much with Ukraine Orthodox Church, linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.”
The statement issued at the end of the delegation’s visit to Ukraine, it declared, “The WCC will seek to find the means and the methods by which it can accompany the churches and people of Ukraine in a pilgrimage of justice and peace.
“The delegation calls on WCC member churches throughout the world to pray and act for peace with justice in Ukraine.”
Read more on the WCC website.