Defending Religion in Ukraine – Russia’s Putin Twists Common Christian Roots to Justify War

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“Please pray for Ukraine,” my friend said. In view of the Washington Monument, she shared photos her family members just texted to a Kiev bomb shelter.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a religious war per se, religion is a strong subtext. Ukraine and Russia are ancient bastions of Christianity. And this Christian story is part of President Vladimir Putin’s twisted logic to justify unjustifiable aggression.

An aerial photo of the thousand-year-old Cave Monastery, also known as Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the holiest site for Eastern Orthodox Christians, is taken through morning fog at sunrise in Kiev, Ukraine November 10, 2018 .
(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

Putin cited religious concerns in his bombastic speech ahead of the February 21 invasion. Generally ignored, it focused on spiritual connections, as well as other more discussed issues. While it’s hard to understand Putin’s reasoning for the invasion, his reading of history provides some insight.

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In his speech, Putin said, “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Unaware of Ukraine’s centuries-old national identity separate from Russia, he added, “people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”

Protecting this ‘inalienable spiritual space’ was one of Putin’s goals casus belli to attack. In Putin’s story, Russia’s origin story began in present-day Ukraine and needs to be recovered.

Certainly, Ukraine and Russia share a religious heritage dating back to the 10th century when the Kingdom of Kievan Rus adopted Christianity as its state religion. From this beginning, Christianity spread throughout this part of Europe and Eurasia. Throughout their turbulent histories, the citizens of both countries have tirelessly embraced the faith.

Today, the majority of Ukraine’s population of 43 million identifies with Eastern Christianity. The largest denomination looks to the Russian Orthodox Church for spiritual leadership under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. In contrast, the smallest Orthodox Church in Ukraine, headed by the Kyiv Patriarchate, is a local, specifically Ukrainian denomination.

Putin’s concerns for religious life are questionable given how he handles the issue at home.

The presence of these churches, all functioning freely, reflects the religious freedom enjoyed by Ukraine. Additionally, Ukrainian Greek Catholics are found in western Ukraine, with their liturgy and rites reflecting a common Orthodox heritage. Protestants, Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews also enjoy religious freedom.

Putin’s concerns for religious life are questionable given how he handles the issue at home. Russian authorities regularly target evangelical and proselytizing groups, religious minorities and those who challenge the religious status quo. The Trump administration has added Russia to its 2020 watch list for religious persecution. Last year, the Biden administration further named Russia one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom violations. The European Court of Human Rights has just condemned Russia on these issues.

If the Russians won this war, religious freedom would be one of the many causes of this unnecessary conflict. The Ukrainian Council of Churches issued a warning on March 1 about a possible Russian airstrike on St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev.

And Putin knows how to play politics with religion. Strengthening the Russian Orthodox Church, horribly repressed during the Soviet period, is part of Putin’s effort to rebuild Russian identity. However, in return for state support, the Russian Orthodox Church lacks true independence from the Kremlin. Orthodox groups have also reported Russian disinformation campaigns attempting to create conflict between churches in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds a baby while crossing the Irpin River on an improvised path under a bridge that was destroyed by a Russian airstrike, as people flee the town of Irpin, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds a baby while crossing the Irpin River on an improvised path under a bridge that was destroyed by a Russian airstrike, as people flee the town of Irpin, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

For this reason, the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought spiritual independence from Moscow. As a result, they applied for autonomy status, called autocephaly, in 2018 from the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. The request was granted in 2019, offering the Kyiv Patriarchate full religious freedom without conditions from Moscow. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch over the move, threatening a schism within global Orthodoxy.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s statement last Sunday echoed Putin’s war logic. “May the Lord preserve the Russian land. When I say “Russian”, I use the old expression of “A tale of years past” – “Where did the Russian land come from”, the land that now includes Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other tribes and peoples.” He even implied that the Ukrainian forces defending their homes were “evil”.

Therefore, and contrary to Putin’s war aims, Russian aggression could bring the two Ukrainian churches closer together. Metropolitan Onuphrius, head of the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, issued a statement denouncing Putin’s invasion.

“Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we call on the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war.” Furthermore, he asked for “love and support for our soldiers who stand guard and protect and defend our land and our people.”

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The heroism of Ukrainians defending their homes and homes against overwhelming forces has inspired the world. As Russian forces advanced on Kiev, reporters caught a lone woman reaching out to God in prayer outside St. Michael’s Cathedral. The Soviets once destroyed the golden-domed cathedral in the 1930s, as part of their effort to erase Ukrainian identity. Following independence in 1991 from the defunct USSR, Ukrainian worshipers immediately began to rebuild, an effort to restore their national and religious identity. St. Michael’s reopened in 2000.

The woman’s petition to God there clearly showed the stakes for Ukraine, both physically and spiritually. Let’s hope that Ukraine will not meet the same fate again at the hands of the invaders.

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