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For Ukrainian Christians, a Test of Faith

FILE - Golden cupolas of the 11th century Monastery of the Caves, holiest site of Orthodox Christians, beside the Soviet-era 62-meter tall Motherland statue, Kyiv.

FILE - Golden cupolas of the 11th century Monastery of the Caves, holiest site of Orthodox Christians, beside the Soviet-era 62-meter tall Motherland statue, Kyiv.

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, it has become a test of faith for Ukrainian Christians.

Many follow events in their ancestral homeland from the United States, where dozens of communities of both Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox believers have sprung up over decades.

As pastor at Washington's Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family, Father Robert Hitchens has spent many Lenten seasons listening to the prayers and struggles of his flock as they seek forgiveness and repentance.

The predominant concern he's now hearing regards the country's ongoing strife and conflict, the events that make it hard for many of his parishioners to think about forgiveness.

"During this time of Lent, we’re on a journey of conversion," Hitchens said. "The human side of us would like to hate people. But we’re called to rise above that. So we’re praying. But it's hard."

It's happening in many churches that serve predominantly Ukrainian or Russian Christians worldwide.

At the National Shrine, many Ukrainian-American Christians — both Catholic and Orthodox — came to the United States after the First and Second World Wars, and the current standoff between Ukraine and Russia only intensifies the memories.

"The sad part is that everybody thought that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and an independent Ukraine, life would eventually get better there," Hitchens said.

"The human reaction is that we would like to turn and blame Russia and the Russian people," he said. "What I tell my parishioners is that it’s not a people, it’s a government."

Custodians of the Orthodox faith

While recent polls suggest a majority of those living in Ukraine don't identify as overtly religious, among those who do, the vast majority — nearly 90 percent — consider themselves Christian.

Orthodox churches are nationally predominant, especially in eastern Ukraine, while a sizable minority of the population, notably in the country's western parts, are Catholic.

But from there it gets much more complicated.

In the Eastern, or Orthodox tradition, nations are considered "custodians of the faith." Separate, autonomous churches operate solely under the confines of state rule.

Additionally, national Orthodox Churches can operate in states other than their home nation.

In Ukraine, there are three distinct Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, one of which recognizes the Moscow patriarch — the head of the Russian Orthodox Church — as its leader. The two others are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox Church.

To add to the complexity, some of these churches are in "communion," or mutual recognition, with each other, while others are not.

Among Catholics, nearly all are members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It's one of several Christian denominations that follow Eastern [Byzantine] rites, but also recognize the authority of the Roman Catholic pope.

So while the Eastern [Orthodox] and Western [Roman Catholic] Churches split centuries ago, a Ukrainian Catholic mass is nearly indistinguishable from its Ukrainian Orthodox counterpart.

In both Ukraine and among the Ukrainian diaspora, then, it is not one's Christian tradition that dictates hostilities toward another community of faith, but the center of power — Moscow, Kyiv or Rome — with which that community's church is aligned.

Blessing of the weapons

When it comes to conflict, "Orthodox Christianity has a very interesting and complex attitude toward violence," said Marian Gh. Simion, an Orthodox theologian and assistant director of the Boston Theological Institute.

"Orthodox Christianity does not have a 'Just War' theory," he said. "Because it operates under the state, it's never had to make decisions on national invasions, so its theology runs much more pacifistic."

Simion focuses much of his work on the history of the Orthodox Church and violence within and between nations.

While he said that there is no theological support for violence in church teaching, in practice the different national Churches become parochial at times of war.

And that, he said, leads to strange and dangerous distortions of faith.

"In the Orthodox Church, mainly in the Slavic tradition, we have a very bizarre tradition, which is a service for the blessing of weapons, so that these weapons will 'protect the truth of Christ,'" he said. "This is a very bizarre service and is usually shelved and deemed as symbolic, except when we have war, in which it’s employed very quickly."

This, Simion said, leads to considerable conflict within the larger Orthodox community.

In the recent Russian-Georgian war, for example, patriarchs of two national Orthodox churches at first tried to ease the conflict.

Within a few days, however, the war had grown increasingly bloody, and both retreated, issuing statements of support for their side in battle.

'One cataclysm after another'

Repercussions of these complex relations are felt worldwide.

Metropolitan Antony, who in his 67 years has gone from a career in journalism to the position of Prime Hierarch and leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S., his ancestral homeland go from Soviet domination to independence, only to fall into uncertainty once more.

"The world was being lured into believing that the Great Bear had been domesticated as they built up to Sochi and that everything had changed," he said with a sigh, referring Russia and its recent Olympic Winter Games.

"But we can see, immediately after those Games were over, that the fangs and claws were no longer hidden away, and they came out with a bravado that hasn’t been seen for a long time," he said. "Yes there’s a great deal of frustration in me."

Metropolitan Antony's frustration is mirrored in many Ukrainian Orthodox believers who wish to see a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but are angered by Russia's incursion into Crimea.

While Ukrainian Orthodox Churches have been outspoken against the action, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has issued statements generally supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The brotherhood of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian nations is a reality hard-won by the history and many generations of our ancestors," Patriarch Kirill said.

It's no surprise to Marian Simion that the Russian Church would generally support the Russian government's actions.

"The Church had to be submissive," he said. "The Church had to take loyalty tests toward the state. And with the rise of nationalism, we see a tendency that local churches go along with the state and sanctify military enterprises."

VOA contacted several Russian Orthodox institutions, including the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, but all declined to comment.

Metropolitan Antony said he and his parishioners continue to pray for peace while working to organize assistance for friends and relatives back in Ukraine.

"Relations over the years at times have been difficult because of the politics of our two nations," he said, referring to escalating tensions in the Orthodox community. "For much of Ukrainian history, it’s been one cataclysm after another."

In Washington, preparations for the coming Easter festival continue, despite a growing unease felt by many parishioners at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family.

"Here, we’re praying for peace, and that all people would be allowed to determine their own future without any outside influence," Father Hitchens said.
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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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