Pavlo Smytsnyuk on War and Churches in Ukraine

2022-03-21 12:15

Mikko Ketola corresponded with Dr Pavlo Smytsnyuk who is the Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv for Vartija.

Pavlo Smytsnyuk mentioned that in many countries of Eastern Europe, religion plays a major role, as compared to Western Europe. For example, in Ukraine, sociological polls show that people trust churches more than they trust the government or public institutions. Catholics and Protestants, and, over extended periods of time, Orthodox, in Ukraine were not part of the ruling system, but rather on the side of the marginalised and persecuted. This gives religion a certain moral authority, and ability to influence what is going on. Due to this authority, churches can mobilise popular support for certain ideas and even affect policymaking. Religion is also linked to identity: national, cultural, ideological. While in the European West, religion has often been de-politicised and relegated to the sphere of sexual ethics and spirituality, in the East, it is often part of everyday life.

This does not mean, however, that the current war is a war about religion. But it has a religious dimension. President Putin is not attacking Ukraine because he wants it to be converted to Russian Orthodoxy. He probably does not care about Orthodoxy as a belief system. However, he consistently uses religious ideas—generously provided by the Russian Orthodox Church —in order to frame this war as acceptable to the Russian population.

Let me give you a few examples. In an hour-long speech by Putin on the 21st of February, which announced the recognition of the two separatist republics, one of the reasons stated for why Russia must intervene in Ukraine was as follows: “In Kyiv, they are preparing reprisals against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”. However, the leadership of this church has rebutted Putin’s claim, saying that they do not need Russia’s protection. In the same speech, Putin argued that Ukrainians are not a real nation, and therefore Ukraine is an artificial state, which can be dismantled without any regard to its political sovereignty. Now, this argument goes hand in hand with the narrative of the Russian Orthodox Church that Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Moldovans are, strictly speaking, one people, or “Holy Russia”.

Read the whole interview here…