World Council of Churches seeks to foster dialogue between Russian- and Ukrainian-affiliated communities affected by the war.
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A largely overlooked effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a deepening of the divisions among Christians in Ukraine. Now, Pope Francis has reportedly voiced support for an effort to build bridges among sparring factions.
There was already a long-running controversy regarding the affiliation of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine when the Russian military began a full-scale attack on the country last year. Though the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established in 2019, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which dates back centuries, continues to exist. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, however, has seemed to heighten tensions.
Although the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has sought to distance itself from Russia, the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has begun to take action against alleged Russian sympathizers and operatives amid the Church’s clergymen.
The government has given monks of the UOC-MP until March 29 to leave their homes in the millennium-old Monastery of the Caves in the capital, Kyiv. Pope Francis has expressed his disapproval of this, asking “the warring parties to respect the religious places. Consecrated nuns, people consecrated to prayer — be they of any denomination — are in support of God’s people.”
Breaking down barriers
This week, a delegation of the World Council of Churches, on a visit to the Vatican, presented a plan to Pope Francis to try to break down some of the barriers that have arisen.
“We shared that we are planning a new roundtable, in which we will bring the Ukraine Churches, Orthodox Churches, and other Church leaders together — and also together with the Russian Orthodox Church,” said the Rev. Jerry Pillay, general secretary of the WCC. “The idea is to bring them all together into a conversation about what it means, in terms of Christian unity, to deal with the context of the war.”
According to the National Catholic Reporter’s Rome correspondent Christopher White, the Pope responded positively to the idea.
“Pope Francis on March 23 offered his support for a new effort to bring together divided Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders for an in-person, roundtable summit as the 13-month war against Ukraine continues to splinter religious communities, with repercussions throughout Christendom,” the Reporter said.
According to Pillay, the Pope gave his blessing to the proposed encounter and reiterated the need to put “Christ in the center” of the conversation ahead of political or national divisions.
“The Pope has expressed a concern, as we have done, that Churches are seemingly too divided because of political issues,” Pillay told the Reporter after the meeting.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based WCC is a fellowship of more than 350 churches in more than 120 countries.
According to Pillay, the plan is tentatively calling for a one-day meeting in Geneva of Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders, followed by a one-day meeting of Russian Orthodox leaders, and then a roundtable discussion with all of the participants on the concluding day. Participants have not been announced.
Neither the Vatican nor the WCC has responded to Aleteia’s requests for comment.