The stance of those on the battlefield is different. A speech delivered last week by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), shed further light on the situation.
Speaking at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity on May 5, Shevchuk stressed that the war waged by Russia was “ideological” and aimed at “eliminating the Ukrainian people.” He pointed to instructions given to Russian soldiers about how to treat Ukrainians, saying that they amounted to a “genocide handbook.”
Shevchuk emphasized that the war had strengthened the unity among Ukraine’s religious communities. He pointed to the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO), which includes a representative of the UOC-MP and “in 70 days was able to prepare 17 documents” concerning the war.
In particular, Shevchuk recalled that on the eve of the Russian attack, UCCRO proposed itself as a mediator, because “if the diplomats and politicians were unable to avoid armed confrontation, we churchmen wanted to be this body that could mediate in some sense and also prevent armed confrontation.”
UCCRO also wrote “a letter to the religious leaders of Belarus” when the Russian government forced Belarus to assist with the conflict.
The work of UCCRO and the active involvement of members of the UOC-MP indicates, according to Shevchuk, that “the primary victim of this Russian offensive was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.”
Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC-MP, condemned the war. At the same time, Shevchuk said, “at least 15 Russian Orthodox eparchies out of 53” in Ukraine stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill during Divine Liturgies.
The Catholic leader said there was also a “massive transition of parishes from the administration of the Moscow Patriarchate to that of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” So far, more than 200 parishes have completed the move.
Shevchuk underlined that the ecumenical reaction to the war was unanimous and one of “explicit condemnation.”
In his introductory speech at the plenary meeting, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Swiss president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed the ongoing war.
He said: “This year, in an unexpected way, ecumenism has also been exposed to serious tensions. I am thinking above all of Putin’s terrible war in Ukraine, which has not only generated new and deep divisions in the Orthodox world, but has also provoked serious ecumenical irritation.”
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“The fact that such a terrible war, with so many refugees and deaths, was also legitimized from a religious point of view must shake an ecumenical soul and deserves the name Pope Francis gave it: blasphemy.”
“If we also consider that in the war in Ukraine Christians fought against Christians and even the Orthodox killed each other, we must recognize the gravity of the ecumenical wounds that have been inflicted and that, to heal, will require not only time but above all conversion.”
Koch added that “Putin’s invasion has pushed Christians and Churches in Ukraine to unite.”
“This too is a sign that God can write straight even on very crooked lines,” he said.
It is not surprising that the pope’s unexpected and not very diplomatic words provoked a reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church had seen in Pope Francis a possible way to overcome its international isolation.
The pope appeared to burn the bridges of dialogue. But the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has somehow re-established them, while making clear that it does not agree with the war in Ukraine or the positions of the Moscow Patriarchate.