MOSCOW— There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. As Easter approaches, the role of religion in the current conflict has resurfaced.
From the outset, clergy played a part in the demonstrations in Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine, as professor Andrei Zubov, an expert on the history of religions, points out.
“Priests of different confessions, different Orthodox groups, Unitarian, Greek-Catholics - everyone was together,” he said.
While church leaders of all faiths in Ukraine appear to support the new political leadership in Kyiv, the Russian clergy are keeping silent about recent events.
“We have yet to hear the Russian Orthodox Church take a stance on the situation in Ukraine. They have not even called for a truce during Easter,” said Alexander Soldatov, a Russian journalist who covers religion.
The current conflict in Ukraine may be causing a schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukranian affiliate. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Russian government, would not comment for this report. Professor Zubov had this to say.
“If they come out in support of President Putin, their Ukrainian chapter could break off. If they support Ukraine, it would cause big problems with the Russian presidential administration," said Zubov.
About 40 percent of Orthodox believers in Ukraine are Russian. Zubov and Soldatov say Russian Patriarch Kirill is at odds with President Putin over the conflict. As evidence, they cite Kirill's absence from Putin's March 18 Crimea address in the Kremlin.
But Ukranian Orthodox priest Yakov Krotov dismisses that idea.
"Officially, the church is completely behind Putin. The rumors about Patriarch Kirill and Putin are just rumors," he said.
Krotov thinks Patriarch Kirill is hedging his bets politically and called his silence "meaningless."
Soldatov says, whereas the clergy was active in the Kyiv demonstrations, it is nowhere to be seen in the pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine.
“While there were numerous priests of all confessions at the Maidan square [in Kyiv], none are standing on the barricades surrounding the administrative buildings in Luhansk and Donetsk,” he said.
For both Russian and Ukranian Orthodox believers, Easter is the most significant religious holiday. And this year it coincides with Easter in the West. Many faithful are no doubt praying that Ukranians and Russians can avoid an escalation of the current conflict.