The Ukrainian voice in the World Council of Churches 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany

2022-09-09 08:45

by Heleen Zorgdrager, professor of Systematic Theology at Protestant Theological University, Amsterdam and visiting professor to the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, Lviv

Young Orthodox Oleksandra Kovalenko and Roman Sigov suddenly became the face and voice of Ukrainian Christianity at the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe. They were part of the Ukrainian delegation that came to the Assembly on special invitation of the WCC leadership. Officially, the delegation of twelve persons had the status of ‘observers,’ since Ukrainian churches are not yet a member of the WCC. For all representatives it was an opportunity to communicate about how the war affects the country, and how churches are responding with spiritual and humanitarian assistance to the people in need. Also, they actively used the Assembly for building relations within the international fellowship. Among the twelve, Oleksandra and Roman (Orthodox Church of Ukraine) stood out for being quite visible throughout the Assembly, including the business plenaries where urgent statements on public issues, also on the war in Ukraine, were discussed. They stood firmly, intervened with strong voices and had a meaningful participation. At the end of the Assembly I had the chance to take an interview with both.

Oleksandra and Roman, what stood out for you in the assembly, what was a highlight?

Oleksandra: I start every conversation with saying that we are very grateful that we are here. We appreciate it that the leadership of the WCC dedicated the Europe plenary for a large part to Ukraine. We really appreciate the efforts they made and how they gave us the opportunity to witness.

Roman: What stood out for me was, obviously, the thematic plenary on Europe in which I took part. I am really happy and it was important that Ukrainians as well as other European youth were speaking and not Russians as it happens sometimes. So I guess this was rather a good step forward. The fact that Archbishop Yevstratii (Zoria) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as well as the other church expressed our willingness to join the World Council of Churches is a positive sign which makes me quite optimistic.

Oleksandra: I can mention some highlights. When I came to Karlsruhe for the Youth Pre-Assembly, the first night it was raining. I went to the church for a Taizé-prayer and when I entered the church building I was completely wet. The church was lit in blue and yellow colors. Roman was asked to do the Bible reading in Ukrainian. Praying together in that church was such a deep experience. Also, I met here many nice people, made new friends and we will for sure keep in touch. It was so good to meet people whom you feel are really supportive to Ukraine in this time of war. There were disappointments as well. People have asked me questions that demonstrate misinformation, indifference or even arrogance. You hear them using phrases from Russian propaganda. To give an example of a painful question: someone asked me “How was it possible that the Russian army was within three hours near to Kyiv, don’t you have borders? Are they like paperboard?” Then you feel that people cannot understand what it is like when war comes over you, and tanks crush the borders of your country. In such moments I feel lonely.

Roman, what was your most difficult moment during the Assembly?

Roman: I would say it was the presence of the Russian delegation and their unwillingness to talk, their constant support of this ongoing war, and the spread of official narratives of the Russian state among the participants of the Assembly who are sometimes not well informed about the situation of the war. This fact that Russian delegation can freely spread any kind of lies makes me worried. I’m afraid about the future of ecumenism. I do believe that the dialogue is one of the key instruments for unity, and it should be done properly. When we seek a true dialogue, we have to be careful to meet the preconditions for dialogue. As for the quality of participants, they have to speak truth and keep respect to one another and show the sincere will to not only talk but also listen to the other. Unfortunately, in this case, I’m afraid that the Russian delegation will not meet any of these preconditions. Dialogue is not possible now. Nobody of them even tried to approach me during the Assembly. This is an evidence that they have no interest in dialogue. Therefore, I ask myself: what was the purpose of them coming to the assembly? As the answer I see again and again convincing people that they all might take over their lies.

Can you comment on the public statement on the war in Ukraine that we just heard?

Roman: Yes. The comments from the Ukrainian delegations were predominantly not taken into account, only small changes occurred. They added some statements in favor of the Russian delegation, such as ‘the multi-national delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church.’ Also the notion of ‘civil conflict transformation’ was added, which is a very serious political trick. It is completely wrong, there is no civil conflict in Ukraine and there hasn’t been any since its independence in 1991. But I don’t want to be too critical towards this document. It charges the Russian invasion in UA, yet fails to call it an ‘unprovoked aggression.’ However, given the fact that this document was formulated with the active participation of a Russian person and zero Ukrainian people I would say that it is way better than it would have been. But still I see a lot of not so correct statements which could be reformulated.

Oleksandra: There are controversial parts. It is not fair to put Russian and Ukrainian on the same line if you call upon churches to condemn the war. Ukrainian churches do this from the first days of war, so you better address the Russian church. You can’t make both parts equal. And the text can be more specific on the situation, for instance on Zaporizha and Mariupol. But I understand that the World Council of Churches will not accept a radical statement, and has difficulties of being blunt and straightforward because the Russian Orthodox Church is a member. The delegates of ROC raised already their blue cards [indicating that they object the statement]. And you saw the reaction of the Russian delegate [Archimandrite Philaret Bulekov] who went to the microphone, one could see how they act on the global stage, not respecting the rules of the house, blaming others, and telling lies. Important is that we were present here, raising our voices in the plenary, and sending our amendments to the text in very short time. We are obliged to do that, and at least we tried. We did what we could.

How have you been preparing for the Assembly, was there a common preparation of the members of the Ukrainian delegation?

Oleksandra: We both took part in the Ecumenical Youth Gathering, 27-30 August. There we received information on how it works in an Assembly. Besides, Roman was a student at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey and I have a degree in religious studies. So we have some background for an ecumenical assembly. As delegation from Ukraine, we had no common preparation. We didn’t know before exactly who would be in the delegation from other churches. In fact, there were more like three delegations: the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the others.

Ukrainians and Ukrainian churches are quite skeptical about Pope Francis’ position on the war in Ukraine. Do you see a difference between the position of the World Council of Churches and Pope Francis?

Oleksandra: I do see some similarity between the Pope and the WCC in the sense that both are seeking for a balanced statement by not calling Russia the aggressor. I know that the Public Issues Committee has worked very hard. Perhaps this statement is the highest possible, and the WCC at the moment is not ready to make a stronger statement.

Roman: They are two different institutions by nature: the Pope is one person who is head of the Catholic church, and the WCC declares itself to be a platform for dialogue. So, these are two different bodies. Also, the personal position of the acting General Secretary of the WCC, dr. Ioan Sauca, is not like the position of the Pope. When it comes to the statement on the war, also thanks to its conciliar nature, the position of the WCC is more flexible. We see over the last six months in WCC a development towards more just statements.

What do you expect when Ukrainian churches become in future a member of the WCC?

Oleksandra: It will be good for our churches to be in an international fellowship, then they can engage with all the topics that are discussed here. Also, in Ukraine we have good ecumenical cooperation. In Kyiv I am active in a group of people from various Christian churches, and also people from Jewish and Islamic background take part. There is a good interest and potential for ecumenism in Ukraine. We can share such experiences in the wider fellowship of WCC.

How will you go home now?

Oleksandra: I look forward to go home, I will be happy when I am back in Kyiv. It is for me the most beautiful place in the world. In the beginning of the war I had to flee the city to the West, but I was restless, my heart kept longing for Kyiv. For me this Assembly was an opportunity to spread the information about what is going on in my country to as many people as possible. I hope they have a better view now and share it with others. I feel calm now. I have made my comments, I spoke up in the plenary, Roman too. What more can we do?

Here are the comments made by Roman Sigov and Oleksandra Kovalenko in the business plenary of the WCC Assembly on September 7, after the first draft of the public statement on the war in Ukraine was presented:

Roman Sigov:

“Thank you, moderator. Roman Sigov, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. One minute. That long a Ukrainian can contribute to the statement on the war in Ukraine. I cannot express how much it hurts to hear the statement which treats the victim and the aggressor in the same way. I hope the Committee will receive and consider our written comments on the statement. Let us hear the voice of Ukrainians when talking about the war in Ukraine!

Because Russian Orthodox Church not only was participating in writing this document, but also has the biggest number of representatives in the Central Committee and here at this Assembly. Meanwhile, the members of Russian Church support the war. Two weeks ago a Russian bishop posted a video of Ukrainian prisoners and mocked of them. He sits here and vote for the statements with orange and blue cards. I am talking about Metropolitan Leonid of Klyn. I know at least 16 Russian bishops who support the war, including the Patriarch Kirill. It’s unacceptable. Let us transform the injustices and speak the truth loud and clear. Thank you!”

Oleksandra Kovalenko:

“My name is Oleksandra Kovalenko, I am from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and I will be speaking in English.

Dear brothers and sisters, I am asking you to hear me and to not compromise the obvious truth in sake of diplomacy. Just name it as it is - Russian agression against Ukraine. If churches aren’t the ones raising their voices when there is violence and injustice happening, will we still be ‘the salt of the earth’? I also appeal to the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church and ask them - if you are against the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, please, raise your blue cards. It is very sad that you compare the blood of Ukrainian people to Starbucks and McDonald’s. I will raise my badge as I don’t have a card to vote. This is it. Thank you!

Pictures from the WWC website