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Looking back at history to understand Ukrainian-Russian strife


Orthodox Christianity, rooted in the church of the Apostles, moved out from Jerusalem, and took root in Kyiv (Ukraine) in the 10th century. Moscow (Russia) was established 200 years later but did not dominate Slavic Christianity until the 1500s, and then largely because the historic center of Orthodoxy, Constantinople, had fallen under the Ottoman Empire.

In the 20th Century, the Soviet regime forced a union with surrounding countries: Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and others. In these countries, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion. The Soviets enforced atheism. Churches and monasteries were shuttered; many priests, bishops, monastics and laypeople lost their lives. Stalin engineered a famine in Ukraine in the 1930s by taking all the wheat and produce at gunpoint. The death toll may have been 7 million. The U.S. recognizes and commemorates this tragedy, known as the Holodomor, on Nov. 19.

Orthodox Christianity is tied to ethnicity in those countries. This is hard for us to grasp, partly because we Americans legitimized the separation of church and state and partly because we have always had multiple religions.

Orthodoxy in America is unusual, because only here are there multiple jurisdictions. In America, the Greek Church is but one of several Orthodox jurisdictions. Multi-ethnicity was not originally planned when Orthodoxy landed in 1794, but historic circumstances brought it about. There should be one united Orthodox Church in America. Unfortunately, the situation is complicated because some jurisdictions have ties to their national churches of origin. Our local parish, in the Ukrainian jurisdiction, is one example of many where most members are converts and not ethnically tied to the jurisdiction.

Internationally we are seeing ruptures in the Orthodox world brought about because of the war in Ukraine. It is important to recognize that Orthodoxy is one in faith, practice and worship; the differences among churches are along lines of ethnic and cultural tradition. This new circumstance is difficult, comparable to the tragic splits in American churches at the time of our Civil War.

The patriarch of Moscow has not condemned Putin’s military war in Ukraine. He has publicly criticized “the West” for reputed moral failures that he claims could “justify war,” a lame rationale for which he has taken heat from the rest of the Orthodox world. The patriarch dreams of ruling Orthodoxy under what he calls Russky Mir, the peace of Russia, and Putin would reconstitute the “glory days” of the Soviet or perhaps Czarist Empire. Putin and the patriarch are close; Putin denies Ukrainian sovereignty and meanwhile the patriarch remains silent. The establishment of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018, by merger, separated Moscow psychologically from the heart of Slavic Orthodoxy, Kyiv. Kyiv is important symbolically, which is why admitting it is Ukrainian is a blow to the patriarch and to Russia.

Unlike the monarchial role of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy has functioned by a conciliar model: all churches had equal say and responsibilities. We are seeing this model shattered as never before. This may force realignments only dreamed of in the past; it may be impetus toward a united Orthodox Church in America, but it may also split us definitively from some fellow Orthodox.

We American Orthodox know that many Americans have been horrified by what’s happening in Ukraine. Thank you for the aid flowing through many channels to assist people who suffer from this egregious act of hostility. Thank you for prayers and hopeful thoughts in this sad time. I can only hope this column helps readers to see the intimate connection between religion and politics in that part of the world.

           Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest emeritus of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission, Las Cruces, Fr. Mark Phillips, pastor. The church website is: stanthonylc.org.