Religion at the heart of understanding Russia’s claim on Ukraine

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Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury with an abiding love for Russian Orthodoxy, is urging senior Orthodox leaders outside Russia to stand alongside global religious leaders — the Pope, archbishops and patriarchs — and call for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and the re-opening of diplomatic engagement.

If he were to meet the Russian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Kirill, Lord Williams would say: “It is your people who are being killed. It’s not foreigners, it’s not strangers, it is your people. How do you make sense of that? What are we going to do about it? I would want him to make a statement pressing for a ceasefire —immediately”

Lord Williams was interviewed by journalists at a Religion Media Centre online briefing on religion and the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has claimed Ukraine as “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”.

The Russian Orthodox Church has fought for decades to link Russian identity with Orthodox identity “and somehow they did it”, according to Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou, from Fordham University, New York.

He told the briefing that their campaign had been so successful that the narrative had been taken up by Putin and was now an important reason for the invasion.

The church leadership was as powerful as a department of state, and was hand in hand with the foreign ministry, he said.

But beyond political influence, Lord Williams said there was a centuries-old tradition of Holy Russia, the imagination of a nation identifying as a suffering servant, always marginalised, invaded, defeated, oppressed — a sort of Christ-like people.

This was deeply rooted in Russian culture and was something that Putin was keying into. And it was a paradox: “We may find it bizarre, looking at the situation at the moment, faced with a naked act of aggression, and unrestrained indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. Anything less Christ-like is hard to imagine, and yet that narrative is there”.

“It is your people who are being killed. It’s not foreigners, it’s not strangers, it is your people. How do you make sense of that? What are we going to do about it? I would want him to make a statement pressing for a ceasefire – immediately”.

Lord Williams on what he would say to Patriarch Kirill

Lord Williams said he knew many Russians and Russian Orthodox were torn when confronted with the war, facing the fact that an extraordinary tradition of vulnerability had turned into revenge, avenging centuries of victimhood: “That does seem to me pretty toxic,” he said.

Father Stephen Platt, from the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland, told the briefing that the Russian Orthodox church was very large and diverse. It was not coterminous with the Russian state.

In Ukraine the Orthodox church split, with the Ukraine Orthodox church becoming independent in 2019. Fr Platt said the remaining Ukraine Orthodox Church, still loyal to the Russian tradition, had spoken independently in the conflict, with different opinions than the Moscow leadership.

The panel was asked whether the close relationship of present Russian Orthodox leaders to Putin would lead to a leadership challenge or redrawing of denominational boundaries. Professor Papanikolaou said there had been speculation about this, but it would depend on how the war developed.

Author Katie Kelaidis said she could see shifts on the horizon: on the left, more progressive Orthodox linking with mainstream Protestant congregations over issues such as human rights; or, the conservative right in the Orthodox tradition forging stronger links with American evangelicals, who had already given money and resources.

Professor Papanikolaou spoke of two roles of religion in the conflict. One was national identity, with a divide over what constituted greater Russia. Lord Williams’s reflection was that the spiritual writings from the 18th century were made in the border areas around Russia, not Moscow, and Orthodox ideas were shared across borders. When that tradition was identified as the dominance of Great Russia, that was toxic for the whole region.

The other role of religion was a divide over moral issues, traditionalist Orthodox teaching versus western liberalism, which was seen as a threat.

Putin had made a speech saying Euro-Atlantic countries had rejected their roots in Christian values, citing same-sex marriage shifts, saying belief in God had been replaced by belief in Satan. Lord Williams observed that the Russian church had been glad to view their society as defending God-given values, and therefore despised by the West.

The largest denomination in Ukraine is Orthodox, with 67 per cent declaring their affiliation. Ten per cent is Catholic, again split into different strands.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church has a base in London and Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski also joined the briefing. “What we are seeing in Ukraine is truly unthinkable,” he said. His church is always open for prayer and the congregation, “horrified at what is going on”, are in touch with families still in the country. He said there was an obligation to tell the stories and help the media tell the truth.

Various church groups in the UK have set up a GoFundMe page and raised £1m in a week for people fleeing the war.

Lord Williams agreed that what mattered most was support on the ground and “making sure that we express solidarity with those most at risk”, but there was also an opportunity for the church hierarchies to speak to power.


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