Ukraine, refugees and church divisions will top the faith agenda in 2023

By Lianne Kolirin 

Faith groups are likely to play a significant part in some of the biggest stories on the news agenda this year.

An online briefing hosted by the Religion Media Centre about the major stories for 2023, included a range of experts — among them a bishop, two UK faith leaders, four journalists and an academic — who highlighted the issues with a religious slant that are expected to make headlines over the coming 12 months. 

Ukraine will obviously remain high on the agenda, as we near the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on 24 February. 

Taking part in the discussion was Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family of London. He discussed the mood of “resilience” in Ukraine, highlighted by the commemoration of the Russian Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. He said churches had been “packed to the brim” as people refused to “allow this bombing to disrupt their celebrations”. 

“Of course, their celebrations in many cases have been also in bomb shelters, in homes without water or electricity. But nonetheless they are very resilient,” he said.

The prospect of peace remains distant, Bishop Nowakowski added. “I can only echo what President Zelensky has said, that for any peace there has to be the return of the occupied territories of Donbas and of the Crimea. And there has to be the process of prosecution of war crimes. Otherwise, it’s a hollow peace.” 

The church has a continuing role to play, the bishop said, particularly when it came to humanitarian aid and “providing hope” and “a place for people to come and receive pastoral care”. 

Faith groups will continue to support Ukrainians who have fled to safety in Britain and other European countries. Iryna Terlecky from the Welcome Centre at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mayfair told the briefing that her church has helped between 3,000 and 4,000 people to date. 

The continuing challenge was, she said, to help the refugees in the UK with practical issues such as accommodation, but also with the continuing trauma. 

Ms Terlecky said: “People are trying to lead a normal life. But underneath it all, there’s this huge pain and anguish, which is then compounded because of the practical difficulties that they’re coming up against.”

The fallout of migration and the global refugee crisis will dominate the news in 2023, an emotive topic affecting numerous religions around the world. 

Dr Sophie Cartwright from the Jesuit Refugee Service described the problem as “a really significant global challenge”, adding: “You’re not only thinking about people who are displaced across borders, but of course, millions of people who are internally displaced within their countries of origin.” 

Internationally, she said, there had been an “increased hostility towards refugees”, which had led to the introduction of increasingly draconian measures by countries including Britain. 

“The Jesuit Refugee Service works in over 30 countries and many of my colleagues, particularly elsewhere in Europe, also work in detention centres,” she said.

Detention of people coming in search of safety was “traumatic” for all involved, she said, with many survivors comparing it to torture. 

Julie Bicknell, freelance journalist reporting on freedom of religion, said many refugees were fleeing religious persecution. However, there had been some positive news in that the EU’s asylum agency had published long-awaited guidelines on how to improve management of the crisis. These, she believes, will benefit those fleeing religious persecution. 

Africa is of particular concern when it comes to religious persecution, Ms Bicknell said, particularly Nigeria, where about 4,500 Christians were killed in 2021 because of their faith. Religion is also central to the protest movement in Iran and life under the Communist regime in China.

Illegal migration from Mexico is part of a bigger social picture in the United States, according to Bob Smietana, from the US Religion News Service. “The border situation illustrates the kind of polarisation we have here,” he said. 

“The polarisation is often driven by religion. So you have white Christians in particular, who are mostly in the Republican Party, fearing the loss of their kind of life and cultural influence. And so migrants at the border are seen as ‘Oh, no, here’s another way that America is changing.’ And so they want to close it down. 

“Then you have other Christians, often from their same faith group, who say ‘Well, we have people crossing the border, we have to help them and we should probably have a more organised immigration system’.”

Meanwhile secularisation is gaining pace in the States, Mr Smietana said, warning of a “slow disintegration of American religious institutions”.

He told the briefing that the average church used to be 137 people, whereas now it’s 65. The United Methodist Church is “in this kind of slow train wreck of a schism over sexuality, which they’ve been fighting for years”, but their conference is not until 2024.

The Southern Baptists, embroiled in controversy over its handling of sex abuse allegations, face more wrangling over how the reforms will be implemented, while trying to regain a sense  of trust.

Religion will continue to play a central role in tackling the cost-of-living crisis here in Britain, said Daniel Singleton, national executive director of Faith Action. 

He said faith groups had been “first in, last out” in tackling the greatest challenges of recent years, including the pandemic and the refugee crisis, though there was now a problem with “fatigue and resources”, he said. This would require a more grounded and long-term response, as many faith groups and places of worship were themselves struggling with rising bills. 

Paul Morrison, policy lead with the Joint Public Issues Team, agreed, adding: “Faith groups have to start engaging with that longer-term question … what are the assumptions within our society that create the inequality and allow us to accept the inequality?” The team is a partnership between the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church.

One of the biggest news stories in Britain this year will be the coronation of King Charles III, a ceremony with deep religious roots, according to Catherine Pepinster, the journalist and author of Defenders of the Faith

Questions will arise over whether traditions will be modernised — and, more pertinently, whether Prince Harry will be invited after his many family revelations.

The ceremony is likely to feature representatives of more faiths than ever before, according to Ms Pepinster, although she admitted that will probably be overshadowed by the “family feuding”. “All that kind of soap opera will take away from the solemnity of the occasion and certainly its religious meaning,” she said. 

The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing its own version of “Prince Harry’s book”, according to Ms Pepinster, following the publication of a memoir by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, closest aide to the former Pope Benedict.

“That will play into the issues in the Catholic church because there is the division at the higher levels of the Catholic church between the more progressive liberal Catholics and the traditionalists,” she said. 

A story to watch this year is whether Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, will retire, as he is already beyond retirement age.

This year is also likely to highlight divisions within the Church of England when, next month, the General Synod will vote on same-sex marriage. 

Journalist and podcaster Tim Wyatt told the gathering that the outcome was impossible to predict but that “some kind of reform” was likely. “There’ll be some kind of messy compromise that no one’s truly happy with, but which doesn’t upset many people enough to actually make them leave,” he said.

View this briefing on our YouTube channel here


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