Patriarch Daniel of Romania, meanwhile, did not hesitate to define the conflict in Ukraine as “a war launched by Russia against a sovereign and independent state.”
Patriarch Ilia of Georgia wrote on Feb. 24: “Based on the bitter experience of Georgia, we know how important the territorial integrity of the country is. That is why we are watching the tense situation in Ukraine with anguish. We note that the events of yesterday and today are already in danger of serious bloodshed, although the possibility of regulating the situation is still there. It is also an opportunity to maintain universal peace.”
The bishops of the Finnish Orthodox Church have strongly condemned the Russian invasion. They said: “There is no justification for the war. The Ukrainian people must be supported by all means: both financially through demonstrations and spiritually through prayer.” They also appealed “to the bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate to promote peace.”
Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens expressed his shock, saying that his “thoughts and prayers are directed to our Ukrainian brothers, especially to the young children and the elderly who are experiencing the horrors of war, and of course to the thousands of our compatriots in the country.”
The most surprising reaction, however, came from Russia: 233 priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church lamented the “fratricidal war” and asked for an immediate ceasefire.
They launched their appeal after the Sunday of the Last Judgment and in the week ahead of Forgiveness Sunday, the two Sundays before Great Lent in the Eastern calendar
The 233 signatories said they hoped that “everyone, both Russians and Ukrainians, will return unharmed to their families.” In view of “Forgiveness Sunday,” they stressed that “the heaven’s doors will be open for everyone, also for those who have heavily sinned,” but there is “no alternative to reciprocal reconciliation.”
Among the very first to condemn the attack was Bartholomew I of Constantinople. By granting autocephaly, the Ecumenical Patriarch had recognized Ukraine as a nation in its own right, in an act that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also appreciated. In August 2021, Patriarch Bartholomew was a special guest at events marking 30 years of Ukrainian independence.
Not surprisingly, Zelenskyy called Bartholomew to thank him for his words. “Ukrainians feel the spiritual support and strength of your prayers,” the president wrote on his Twitter account, “We hope for the fastest possible peace.”
Therefore, there appears to be a shift in the Orthodox world towards Kyiv and away from Moscow. Previous tensions are being canceled by the common belonging to a people and by the idea of sharing a common destiny. The Orthodox Churches, after all, were all behind the Iron Curtain: they suffered religious persecution and don’t want a return to that experience. They have fought for the independence of their nations and therefore cannot accept that this is being called into question.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church remains active in the background. It celebrates with the Byzantine Rite and recognizes the Patriarchate of Constantinople as its Mother Church, but it is united with Rome and faithful to the pope. Since the “Revolution of Dignity,” it has served as a bridge between Christian confessions. But it is also a guardian of the Ukrainian identity, which it has kept alive even in the diaspora.
This, too, President Zelenskyy knows. On Feb. 8, 2020, while visiting Pope Francis, the president put two topics on the table: the request to the Holy See to mediate for peace in Ukraine and the question of the beatification of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944), who was the first to develop the idea of a global Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not limited to national borders.
In 2015, Pope Francis recognized the metropolitan’s “heroic virtues,” a significant step on the way to beatification. His sainthood cause is very dear to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Zelenskyy underlined the importance of the beatification in a phone call with Pope Francis on June 30, 2021. He also reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Ukraine.
Religious communities, in the end, really matter in Ukraine. For this reason, the idea that St. Sophia’s Cathedral could become a military target has reunited the country’s Christian soul.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox world seems to isolate the Moscow Patriarchate more and more. There is a risk that the Orthodox schism will no longer concern just the granting of autocephaly to a local Church. Instead, new divisions could emerge over political issues. And whoever puts political choices in front of them will risk isolation.