The Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

War and the churches in Ukraine

The effects of the Russian attack on Ukraine have been devastating. Churches and religious communities have not been spared.

In 2015, after Russia had occupied the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the Donbas, I interviewed Andriy Mykhaleiko, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church historian and priest, for Vartija. This time I corresponded with Dr Pavlo Smytsnyuk who is the Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. He studied philosophy and theology in Rome, Athens and St Petersburg, and holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford. His main interests are in political theology, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, nationalism and religion, as well as colonial studies. Since the war in Ukraine started, Pavlo and his team in Ukraine are working to make the voice of Ukrainian churches heard abroad.

The Ukrainian Catholic University was officially established in 2002 but its history dates back to 1929 when the Greek Catholic Theological Academy was founded in Lviv. The UCU was the first Catholic university to open on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The current chancellor of the UCU is Major Archbishop Dr. Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The UCU has around 1900 students and offers degrees in nearly 20 programmes, e. g. theology, history, social pedagogy, political science and journalism.




In Finland, and I think this goes for other countries as well, the news reporters and political commentators seem to be uncomfortable dealing with the religious dimensions of the war. They may just be unfamiliar with churches and their history, theological concepts, and some of them just seem to think religion plays no big role in this war. In any case, I consider this a serious lack of understanding the reasons behind the war. How do you see this?

In many countries of Eastern Europe, religion plays a major role, as compared to Western Europe. For example, in Ukraine, sociological polls show that people trust churches more than they trust the government or public institutions. Catholics and Protestants, and, over extended periods of time, Orthodox, in Ukraine were not part of the ruling system, but rather on the side of the marginalised and persecuted. This gives religion a certain moral authority, and ability to influence what is going on. Due to this authority, churches can mobilise popular support for certain ideas and even affect policymaking. Religion is also linked to identity: national, cultural, ideological. While in the European West, religion has often been de-politicised and relegated to the sphere of sexual ethics and spirituality, in the East, it is often part of everyday life.

This does not mean, however, that the current war is a war about religion. But it has a religious dimension. President Putin is not attacking Ukraine because he wants it to be converted to Russian Orthodoxy. He probably does not care about Orthodoxy as a belief system. However, he consistently uses religious ideas—generously provided by the Russian Orthodox Church —in order to frame this war as acceptable to the Russian population.

Let me give you a few examples. In an hour-long speech by Putin on the 21st of February, which announced the recognition of the two separatist republics, one of the reasons stated for why Russia must intervene in Ukraine was as follows: “In Kyiv, they are preparing reprisals against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”. However, the leadership of this church has rebutted Putin’s claim, saying that they do not need Russia’s protection. In the same speech, Putin argued that Ukrainians are not a real nation, and therefore Ukraine is an artificial state, which can be dismantled without any regard to its political sovereignty. Now, this argument goes hand in hand with the narrative of the Russian Orthodox Church that Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Moldovans are, strictly speaking, one people, or “Holy Russia”.


In 2013–2014, the Euromaidan demonstrations obviously brought the different churches in Ukraine closer to each other. How has the current war affected relations between the churches? Has it united Christians of different backgrounds? If it has, in what kind of matters can it be seen?

Crisis has the potential to both unite and divide societies and social groups. In this sense, Euromaidan and the ongoing war are somewhat similar in their effect on social cohesion and nation-building. Maidan’s focus on dignity and freedom (another title of the uprising is “the Revolution of Dignity”) was acknowledged, very early on, by Christians in Ukraine. As soon as the first demonstrators were beaten by the police, the churches drew attention to the conflict and protested the government’s overreaction. This reaction was manifested independently by senior leaders of various religious communities, and jointly, through declarations by the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), which unites the leaders of 16 major religious organisations present in Ukraine, including Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim representatives.

AUCCRO issued several declarations, where it condemned the violence and invited authorities and the opposition to negotiate. Churches asked the government to take into account the demands of the protesters and to punish those who used violence against peaceful manifestations of dissent. Churches also attempted to act as a mediator between the protesters and authorities. Maidan had a very positive influence on the way Ukrainian Protestants relate to what is happening within society and to other churches. Before 2014, Ukrainian Baptists and Pentecostals (who constitute the majority within Ukrainian Protestantism) conducted a rather inward-facing life. But the Maidan Revolution, with its ecumenical solidarity, inspired young Protestant pastors and theologians to be open to others.

The present Russian aggression has had a similar effect upon Christians in Ukraine. All churches have manifested a deep cohesion and cooperation from the very first days of the invasion. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches issued a statement with words of support for the Ukrainian Armed forces and a blessing to soldiers, asking the international community to help stop the Russian invasion. They also wrote a letter to President Putin asking him to stop the war before it is too late.

The Metropolitan of the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine Epiphany and the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Sviatoslav Shevchuk asked everyone to pray for peace, but they also talked about the duty of citizens to protect Ukraine. The Protestants too were outspoken in their condemnation of Russia’s aggression. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine insisted that the peace we must pray for, should be “a just peace, which will result in the expulsion of the aggressor from all occupied territories and a fair punishment for the crimes committed”. It called upon those who can serve in the armed forces to join the defence of their country, and invited “brothers and sisters from abroad to provide diplomatic and informational assistance […] and humanitarian aid”. The Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches—which is probably the biggest Protestant denomination in Ukraine—took a more pacifist stance, but still supported Ukraine in its self-defence.

At the same time, there is an important difference between Euromaidan and the events of today. In 2013-2014, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate tried not to take sides. In the present conflict, this church was amongst the first to condemn Russian aggression. Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv called the Russian invasion “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who out of jealousy killed his own brother. Such a war can have no justification either before God or before people.” This is a very important statement—it might have arrived a bit late, but better late than never. Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis eight years ago, this Church always insisted on a spiritual and cultural union with Russia, and pretended to be apolitical, neutral. It was often criticised for not taking a position. There was a moment five years ago, when Onuphry refused to honour the soldiers, killed in Eastern Ukraine, saying that he wanted to stay out of the conflict. Today, I believe that the injustice of what Russia is doing—is so obvious, that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church cannot remain silent. And it is good that they refuse to be exploited by Russian propaganda. They are now saying: you come here to save us from “the Nazis”, but we do not need you. We will fight you.


What about the possible role of the Pope as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia: can he gain the trust of Ukrainians in general if he doesn’t first clearly say who the aggressor is? Vatican diplomacy is known for its prudence and pursuit of strict neutrality, but do they work now? Do you see any chance of Pope Francis being able to bring peace?

You are touching upon a complicated question here. Ukrainians and Christians in other countries observe with attention the moves of the Holy See in the present crisis. There might be something going on behind closed doors, which justifies the Vatican’s caution on Russian aggression in Ukraine. As you say, the Vatican prefers discrete diplomacy to loud declarations. And these tactics has proven to be effective in many cases. Only some years ago, the Holy See played an important role in healing the breach between the USA and Cuba.

During the current war in Ukraine, the Pope has made a couple of symbolic gestures which have demonstrated his support for Ukraine. In what is unusual for Vatican diplomatic protocol, he walked into the Russian Embassy to the Holy See to talk about the war. He also sent two high-ranking curial clergymen to Ukraine and neighbouring countries. One of them is cardinal Michael Czerny, one of Francis’ most trusted advisors. However, these symbols and gestures are poly-semantic—they mean everything and nothing at the same time. If you want to be a mediator, you need to keep open the channels of communication on both sides and avoid statements that could be interpreted as partisan. But there are moments in which to be bipartisan would also mean to be silent about the truth on the causes of the war and those who are responsible for the aggression, and, in this way, to fail the victims who need protection and encouragement. I have an impression, that after the first two weeks of the war, Pope Francis became more pronounced about the tragedy that Russia has set in motion. His declaration that the war can never have a theological justification is a direct rebuke of Patriarch Kirill’s attempt to sell this war as a religious necessity.

Dr. Pavlo Smytsnyuk.

Dr. Pavlo Smytsnyuk.


What do you think of Patriarch Kirill’s stubborn support for Putin and the war? Do you have the impression that he really believes in the war’s righteousness or is he just afraid to contradict Putin? Surely the fantasy of the ”Russian World” has gone to its grave with this war?

Patriarch Kirill’s comments on the war have horrified not only Ukrainians and Europeans, but also many Russian Orthodox. Christians around the world have urged the Patriarch to speak about the war—but when he started speaking, everybody was left with a sense of astonishment and bitterness.

Not only does he refuse to side with the innocent victim (I note that so far, most killings happened in areas where the majority religion is Orthodoxy of the Moscow Patriarchate), but he defends the war by providing theological and theo-political arguments to back the Russian invasion. Kirill narrates this war as a “metaphysical” struggle of the “divine truth” against the sin of the West, which wants to contaminate “Holy” Russia with homosexuality. At a practical level, this implies the right of Russia to use force against Ukraine.

The fact that Kirill’s siding with the narratives of the Russian Federation has became so explicit, represents, to my mind, an important shift in Russian Orthodoxy. In the past, the Russian Orthodox Church conceptualized itself as a cosmopolitan civilization of the “Russian world”–“Russian” as integrating not only Russians, but Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Moldovans, and even Kazakhs and Estonians. Today, this cosmopolitanism has evaporated under the fire of Russian missiles.

Russian aggression against Ukraine has revealed that both the Russian world ideology and rejection of some Western values, e. g. human rights, are instruments of Russian domestic and foreign policy. The Russian Orthodox Church’s agenda has revealed itself to be profoundly linked to the interests of the Russian nation-state, by attempting to keep other post-Soviet countries under the Kremlin’s influence, preventing them from joining Euro-Atlantic institutions. The Russian Orthodox Church’s tactics in Ukraine can serve as a good illustration of this symphony between ecclesiastical and political interests. In fact, the “Russian world” narrative serves both the purpose of the Russian Church’s presence in Ukraine, and of its integration in the Russian sphere of interest. When brought together, the ideas of the “Russian World” and the West as an absolute evil, lead to the need to “save” Ukrainian Orthodoxy from the risk of being “contaminated” by the West, which, as I alluded to earlier, was part of Putin’s justification for his 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

It is hard to say whether it is the state that is manipulating religion, or religion—in order to show its utility to the state—offering religious pretexts and arguments which come in handy in the state’s search for justifications for the violence it is committing. My impression is that in Russia, religion and the state are so intertwined that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.


Could one of the consequences of a victorious war (for Ukraine) be the birth of a new Kyiv patriarchate, which would unite all Ukraine’s churches, or is that wishful thinking?

Currently, there are two competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine: the autocephalous (independent) Orthodox church of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. The latter feels betrayed by their mother church in Russia, which is supporting the war against Ukraine. This has led to a push-back against Kirill, with many bishops and clergymen, who have stopped commemorating the Patriarch of Moscow during their liturgies to call for their church to be independent.

I believe there are several possible scenarios of how the situation with the Orthodox churches in Ukraine could develop. The first and most natural (from a pastoral and canonical point of view) trajectory would be a union of both churches. These churches have existed in a very tense relationship over the last several years. There is a long way to go, before they could discover each other as brothers and unite in one church. However, the war accelerates the ways in which things are going: Teenagers acquire maturity, comedians become respected politicians—all this overnight.

The second scenario would be the conservation of the status quo. However, if the [Moscow-oriented] Ukrainian Orthodox Church decides to remain within the Patriarchate of Moscow, I expect bishops and parishes to leave this jurisdiction in order to join the autocephalous church.

The third trajectory would be the existence of two independent Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine. It would be the most absurd solution, but if the two churches are unable to transcend this mutual animosity, they would be forced to exist separately.

The fourth scenario would occur in the event that Ukraine loses this war, and Russia imposes a puppet government. In this case, I expect the autocephalous church, together with Catholics and Protestants to be persecuted, or at least impeded in their religious activities. I hope this will not happen, and that Ukraine, with the support and solidarity of churches and nations of the world, will keep its freedom and dignity.


Read also: Niko Huttunen, Ukrainan sodan hengellinen rintama. Vartija 19.3.2022.

The article image shows the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

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Mikko Ketola (s. 1963) on kirkkohistorian yliopistonlehtori ja dosentti Helsingin yliopistossa. Vartijan päätoimittajana hän on toiminut vuodesta 2010 lähtien. Lue lisää

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