Russian politics worry Ukrainian churches

When a Malaysian airliner was downed on July 17 over eastern Ukraine, the atrocity, blamed on pro-Russian separatists, provoked calls for a re-evaluation of Western ties with Moscow. As the Ukrainian conflict widens and humanitarian problems intensify, some reappraisal of Catholic-Orthodox relations may also be underway, given the apparent endorsement by Russian Orthodox leaders of President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies. 

“The Catholic Church is always open to dialogue, especially in situations of conflict,” Msgr. Hlib Lonchyna, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop in London, told Our Sunday Visitor. “But such a dialogue has to be based on justice, truth and charity. If there’s a political agenda in the background, this will certainly poison the waters.”  

Interchurch ties have long been troubled over Orthodox complaints of Catholic interference in Eastern Europe, as well as over rival notions of authority and claims to jurisdiction. They were widely said to have improved during the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, helped by a readiness to cooperate in upholding Christian values in Europe.

And in August 2012, Poland’s Catholic Church took the lead with a joint appeal with Russian Orthodox leaders, calling on Christians to work together against “religious indifferentism and advancing secularization.” The Polish-Russian declaration was welcomed by the pope as “building hope for the future.”

But Marcin Przeciszewski, who heads Poland’s official Catholic Information Agency, KAI, thinks the Russian church’s moral credibility is now damaged. Although Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and other Orthodox prelates haven’t supported Russia’s actions against Ukraine officially, they should have condemned them. 

“Our dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy was aimed at fostering reconciliation,” the Catholic editor-in-chief told OSV. “But while other post-communist countries have faced up to their past, Russia hasn’t done this. It’s clear no reconciliation is possible while Russia is governed in a totalitarian way by people like Putin.”

‘Great danger’ 

In Ukraine itself, efforts to improve Catholic-Orthodox ties appear to be unravelling. 

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has been divided between a predominantly Orthodox east, traditionally looking toward Russia, and a largely Catholic west, which feels closer to Western countries. Orthodox Christians are divided between a large Ukrainian Orthodox Church, linked to Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate, and two smaller breakaway churches. 

Greek and Latin Catholics, meanwhile, account for one-tenth of Ukraine’s 46 million inhabitants. Of these, the Greek Catholics, who combine the Eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, were persecuted with particular savagery after their church was outlawed in 1946. 

Catholics backed moves to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, which culminated in the February ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich. They’ve since paid a price at the hands of the pro-Russia separatists battling for eastern Ukraine. A visiting Polish priest was abducted in May, while a parish rector, Father Viktor Vonsevich, was also seized in mid-July before being released in early August.  

“Local Catholics are in great danger,” Msgr. Marian Buczek, the recently retired bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, told OSV. “Our Church has appealed for national unity and for all ethnic groups to live worthily under one roof. But for now, people can do nothing but stay home and await better times.” 

Tensions rising

Pressure is also mounting again against Ukraine’s long-persecuted Greek Catholics. In Russian-occupied Crimea, where a new Greek Catholic exarchate, or vicariate, was approved by the pope in February, several clergy were detained and beaten by Russian forces, while others were branded “Vatican agents” and warned to leave, according to Bishop Bogdan Dziurach, secretary general of the church’s governing synod. 

In Donetsk, a Greek Catholic priest, Father Tikhon Kulbaka, was also abducted by separatists after organizing interfaith prayer meetings. 

Russia’s Orthodox Church has fuelled hostility toward Greek Catholics, just as it did under Soviet rule. In April, its foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion, said that Greek Catholics had “launched a crusade against Orthodoxy” and posed “a serious obstacle to dialogue.” In late June, he again attacked the Church for being “anti-Russian” and backing Ukraine’s “Majdan revolution.” 

Bishop Lonchyna fears ethnic and religious cleansing if pro-Russia forces gain the upper hand.

“The threats and accusations against us recall Soviet propaganda when our church was suppressed,” Bishop Lonchyna told OSV. “The fact Orthodox leaders still view us as traitors and don’t recognize our church as legitimate merely fuels tensions. Instead of seeking reconciliation, they’re resorting to manipulation and inflaming the conflict.” 

A Catholic-Orthodox commission of theologians drew up a “road map” to unity at Ravenna in 2007 and finalized an agreement on papal primacy in Paris in 2012. And in a May declaration at Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said they hoped to reach “the goal of full communion.” 


Marcin Przeciszewski, the Polish editor, said Catholics in countries bordering Russia are now fearful of Putin’s aggression and unlikely to favor contacts with Russian Orthodox leaders. Although his own Polish Church stands ready to talk, it will now also seek contacts with church groups beyond the Orthodox hierarchy. 

“The Polish Church doesn’t regret its attempts at reconciliation. But it feels it should also support lower-level Orthodox initiatives,” Przeciszewski said. “It’s clear that dialogue will only achieve results with a democratic Russia — and a real democracy will only be achieved there with the creation of a civil society.” 

The stance of Kirill, Hilarion and others could already by damaging the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Both hierarchs have been barred from the country, and the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church has talked of a possible reunion with the country’s breakaway Orthodox denominations. 

Bishop Dziurach, Greek Catholic secretary general, says his own church will continue to stand “on the side of persecuted and humiliated.” He doubts whether Kirill and others have much interest in “a worthy and broad dialogue” with Catholics anyway, and thinks bitterness will grow among their own Orthodox followers. 

Bishop Lonchyna agrees. Responsible Catholic leaders will always seek cooperation in pastoral and social tasks, he said, and won’t allow “personal animosities” to crush the ideal of Catholic-Orthodox communion. 

“But when religion and politics get mixed up, that’s always where the tensions and conflicts emerge,” the Greek Catholic bishop said. “If Russian Orthodox leaders were truly independent and could think freely and speak the truth, our contacts and exchanges would look quite different.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.