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How to not Build a “Potemkin Village” of Ecumenism and Peacemaking

15. Juni 2023

Cyril Hovorun

I have noticed a tendency that the current global conversations about peace in Ukraine in the context of the ongoing war are becoming as important or maybe even more important than conversations about the war per se. I believe this is a promising tendency. Everybody in Ukraine wants peace. Therefore, talking to the Ukrainians about peace is like preaching to the choir.

One can observe two kinds of conversation about peace. One is firmly based on the understanding of the reasons and nature of the ongoing war. Of course, it is probably an overstretch to claim that anyone understands why Putin started this war. Even Putin does not understand it, if you ask him what his real motifs for the war are. The complete understanding of the war is still ahead of us. Still, people and agencies that really care about peace for Ukraine, try as much as they can to grasp what is behind this war. In describing the war, they try to avoid euphemisms and explicitly name both its victims and the perpetrators. Based on their understanding of how the war started, they try to figure out how it should end. They realise that February 24, 2022, happened because the peace initiatives after February 2014 had failed. Those initiatives failed not only because Russia decided so, but also because they sometimes were naive and unrealistic; sometimes they sought peace at the expense of the victim and not the perpetrator, which only encouraged the latter. Peacemakers in this category learn lessons from their previous mistakes and in most cases do not want to repeat them.

Another kind of peacemakers repeat their mistakes, either consciously or unconsciously. The latter are incurably naive, and the former do not seem to really care about peace. What they care about is how their peace-making can help them as institutions or their agendas. Take, for example, Xi Jinping and Noam Chomsky. You cannot imagine people with more opposite political and ethical principles. Yet, they converge in how they want peace for Ukraine. Their formula of peace envisages preserving Russia as a global player, even if that would mean that it can start another war sometime rather soon, and diminishing the global role of the West, especially the United States. They say they do care about Ukrainian life, but we in Ukraine are afraid that this care will cost even more Ukrainian or other peoples’ life in the long run.

There are also professional peacemakers. Many of them are affiliated with the churches or inter-church agencies. They often indulge themselves by being in the centre of the peace-making process more than they want sustainable peace to be actually achieved. Sometimes they promote peace without really thinking about the consequences of their efforts. They forget about the basic principle that every doctor knows: before suggesting any cure, one must make sure to avoid harm. Some of them act as populist politicians. They are in effect populist peacemakers. Or, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, they pursue cheap peace.

Unfortunately, the World Council of Churches, an organisation that is supposed to advocate for peace by its own nature, so far has demonstrated that it belongs more to the latter than to the former category of peacemakers.

Following its General Assembly in Karlsruhe in September 2022, I had a chance to explain how this organisation missed an opportunity to help the Russian Orthodox Church to change its mind (through metanoia) about the war. Instead, the WCC allowed to be used by the Russians for the purposes of their propaganda — in the name of dialogue and peace-making, of course. Let me recap here some points that I indicated in the piece published in October 2022.

The ongoing war started in February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and waged a proxy war in Donbas. The WCC reacted belatedly, by sending its delegation to Ukraine in March 2015, more than a year later. The delegation published a communique, which explained the war as being driven by “the competing nationalisms.” The statement, thus, implied a “Ukrainian nationalism” as the main reason that had provoked the Russian aggression.

Seven years later, the Russian propaganda inflated the “Ukrainian nationalism” to a “Ukrainian neo-Nazism,” which was presented as the main pretext to start a full-scale war. The WCC’s statement facilitated this inflation. Of course, this was not the delegation’s intention, but its visit to Ukraine was used by the Russian Orthodox Church to promote messages it wanted to broadcast globally through the platform of the WCC. It is also worth noting that the statement put the two sides of the “conflict” on an equal footing – a malicious tradition that somehow continues even to our days.

Soon after the war escalated in February 2022, in response to the Ukrainian First Lady’s plea to the WCC to become Ukraine’s “moral and active ally,” the acting General Secretary Fr. Ioan Sauca, to whom the letter was addressed personally, published his own letter addressing both President Zelensky and President Putin. In this letter, he continued the tradition of putting Russia and Ukraine on equal footing. This and other signals emitted by the WCC were not helpful for the Ukrainians and those in the world who solidarized with them. They looked forward to the upcoming 11th General Assembly of the WCC in Karlsruhe with the hope that it would send a clearer message regarding the war.

The war in Ukraine was widely discussed both in the official meetings of the General Assembly and in its corridors. The Ukrainians were given floor to bring up their concerns. The conversations about Ukraine in Karlsruhe culminated in the discussions of the statement “War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region.” This statement came out to be better than many, including myself, expected. At the same time, the statement in many respects continued treating Ukraine and Russia on the equal footing. In the line with the malicious tradition of the earlier WCC statements on Ukraine, it appealed “to all sides in the conflict to respect the principles of international humanitarian law, including especially with regard to the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.” The WCC also renewed its call for “an immediate ceasefire to halt the death and destruction, and for dialogue and negotiations to secure a sustainable peace.” However, it did not specify to whom this call was addressed.

Following the General Assembly, the WCC official delegation headed by Fr Ioan Sauca, visited Moscow and met Patriarch Kirill there. They believed they achieved a breakthrough in the conversation with the Russian patriarch. The WCC official website on its front page published in a celebratory mood: “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, WCC acting general secretary meet in Moscow, agreeing that war cannot be holy.” I believe there was not much to celebrate, as, first, the patriarch had never stated that any war could be holy. Second, he had never called the war in Ukraine a “war”: according to the Russian propaganda, it is a “special operation.” Therefore, by condemning wars, the patriarch by default excludes the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine from this category. Third, he had called this war “metaphysical,” which is not the same as holy.

In the communique, which was agreed upon by the WCC delegation and its Moscow hosts, the patriarch, while condemning wars in principle, made an explicit exception for the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine. He explained that it is supported by “the political context,” and the churches “must not add fuel to the fire.” A well-intended Western ecumenist would read this message as following: the war is waged by the Kremlin, and the Russian Orthodox Church wants to abstain from supporting it. However, the patriarch meant exactly the opposite: the war happens only because the Western politicians want so, and the global Christianity should not solidarize with what they impose on Russia. Unfortunately, many in the global ecumenical community, especially from the global South, would agree with such reading of the events. The patriarch tried to reach out primarily to them. He managed to use the platform of the WCC and its loud-speaking facilities to address the ecumenical urbi (Geneva) and orbi – through the frontpage of the WCC website. He channelled through it the main message of the Kremlin’s propaganda: this is a war of the West against innocent Russia; the West should stop punishing Russia for that through sanctions; and the churches across the globe should advocate for that.

The WCC, thus, again allowed to be instrumentalized by the Russian propaganda. Although its sincere intention is to stop the war, it continues, against its will, contributing to it, by offering a platform to this propaganda. Such helplessness also indirectly boosts the legitimacy of Putin’s regime, by legitimizing its main legitimizer, the Russian Orthodox Church. We observed the same pattern in 2015, and we observe it still. Lessons have not been learned.

It seems the lessons have not been learned by the new leadership of the WCC elected at the General Assembly in Karlsruhe. It continues making the same mistakes. This became obvious during the visits of the new General Secretary of the WCC, Jerry Pillay, and his companions to Kyiv and Moscow in May 2023.

The WCC delegation’s visit to Ukraine was facilitated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has preserved its implicit relations with the Moscow Patriarchate. The WCC officials not only met the UOC MP leaders in the first place immediately after their arrival at Kyiv, but also accepted that this church reportedly covered a significant part of the expenses of the visit. This fact immediately puts into question the impartiality of the WCC’s delegation and the objectivity of its judgements.

The UOC MP made its generous contribution to the visit not because of its sincere commitment to ecumenism. It had sent to Karlsruhe a tiny delegation of lay people whose only task there was to push as hard as possible the narratives about the alleged “persecutions” against this church in Ukraine. The same reason was behind the invitation to the WCC delegation to visit Kyiv this time. The Primate of this church, Metropolitan Onufriy, refused to meet the delegation personally. For him, the danger of “apostasy” through encountering what he perceives as untouchable “heretics” was more important than even an opportunity to personally convince them of the “persecutions.” He entrusted this task to the church’s chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony of Boryspil and Brovary.

When the WCC delegation met the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, it received a different message. The Lutheran bishop Vyacheslav Horpynchuk, who at that time presided in the Council, stressed on behalf of its members:

Freedom of religion is respected in Ukraine and there are no religious persecutions even during the war. Instead, what the believers on the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia… experience remains extremely dangerous. Terrorising the civilian population, especially religious figures, is a common intimidation and subjugation tactic practised by the Russian occupation authorities. We hope that the voice of the WCC will be heard in the world in defence of the believers who suffer daily due to the presence of the Russian occupiers on Ukrainian soil.

Contrary to the wishes of the Ukrainian Lutheran bishop, this collective voice of the Ukrainian churches and other religious communities was not heard or recorded by the WCC. Its press release reported only “concerns regarding religious freedom and rights in the context of government measures to remove the UOC’s institutions and monastic community from the Lavra.” At the same time, none of the WCC’s statements has uttered a single word about multiple violations of religious freedom on the occupied territories or in Russia. One cannot exclude that such apparent bias of the WCC press release could be explained by the generous contribution of the UOC MP to organising this visit. This bias was praised by Patriarch Kirill during his meeting with the WCC delegation on May 17, 2023.

Earlier similar double standards had been condemned at the special meeting of the UN Security Council. In January 2023, Russia called for this meeting to discuss the assumed “persecutions” against the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine — a favourite trope of the Russian propaganda, which the UOC MP happily corroborates. Most of the Security Council’s members dismissed the Russian assumptions. The French ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Rivière summarised their position. In his words, the Russian initiative was “another example of the Russian Federation’s cynical misinformation strategy, namely claiming to defend ‘religious freedom’ even as it openly defies a ceasefire and civilians continue to suffer.” He added: “Since the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine, the Russian Federation has continued to commit serious human rights violations, including forced displacement, sexual violence, deprivation of the right to freely practice religion, and crimes against children.”

As was mentioned, not a single hint of such violations was indicated in the WCC’s press release about its delegation’s meetings in Moscow or in the interview that the General Secretary gave after coming back to Geneva. These meetings, by the way, happened in the days when the Kyivans experienced the most massive Russian missile attacks since the beginning of the war. Needless to say that this fact was not mentioned at all anywhere, even though the delegation just left Kyiv.

Instead, the official information about the visit published on the website of the WCC is cautiously laudatory for the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. I did not find any contradiction between the WCC and ROC’s reports about the meeting. In his interview after the visit, Jerry Pillay stated that the way in which Moscow presented the visit does not cover what the WCC delegation responded to the patriarch’s point’s. However, he did not mention any contradiction in the reports. Moreover, he decided not to reveal his or his colleagues’ concerns, even though he stated there are concerns. The only concern he explicitly mentioned is nationalism. However, Ukraine and not Russia is the “usual suspect” when nationalism is mentioned in the context of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Putin and the Russian propaganda insist that they are against nationalism. Moreover, in their words, Russia started the war to contain the Ukrainian nationalism. What they promote instead is a form of imperialism.

The General Secretary did not notice the elephant in the room – the Russian imperialism and neo-colonialism. The Russian church speakers do not even try to hide this elephant. Thus, an influential Russian hierarch and a key ideologist of the “Russian world,” Metropolitan of Pskov Tikhon Shevkunov, had admitted in his interview that “The only thing that the Russian people can build is an empire.” In my opinion, Jerry Pillay’s references to “nationalism” brought the WCC back to the unfortunate statement from 2015 about competing nationalisms. They again put Russia and Ukraine on the equal footing when the victim and perpetrator are blamed for the same thing. A vicious circle of poor arguments that help the perpetrator more than they help the victim made a complete turn.

The primate of the ROC was much more careful and articulate when he stated his concerns and accusations during the meeting with the General Secretary and his companions. Unlike the WCC delegation, the patriarch mastered and controlled the narratives surrounding the meeting. It seems that the most important point, which he really cares about, and which has been meticulously described in the Russian reports, are the sanctions. In the patriarch’s interpretation, “After the XI General Assembly of the World Council of Churches… the President of Ukraine imposed personal sanctions on three members of the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church for the mere fact of informal participation in the discussion of the Ukrainian problem.”

One of them was Leonid Gorbachev, who after the General Assembly was defrocked by the Patriarchate of Alexandria for violating the integrity of this patriarchate in Africa. In Karlsruhe, Leonid’s public rhetoric was hateful towards the Ukrainians, and after Karlsruhe it became even more hating and warmongering. He went as far as suggesting nuking Ukraine. A recent publication of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta compared him with the notorious leader of the Wagner group Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the chief Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. He speaks the same language of hatred and expresses the same desires – to extinguish Ukraine altogether. He is indeed the loudest church-affiliated megaphone of the Russian propaganda in its most radical form. Not his alleged “informal participation in the discussion of the Ukrainian problem,” but his hating words and deeds became the reason for the Ukrainian sanctions. But the WCC’s delegation did not seem to bother itself with such nuances.

The General Secretary, according to the Russian report, concurred with the interpretation suggested by the patriarch of Moscow: “You mentioned the Assembly in Karlsruhe, and now we understand that our statements and actions can have certain consequences, especially on the part of the President of Ukraine.” If Jerry Pillay’s words have been rendered correctly, and he has not objected in any of his own statements the Moscow Patriarchate’s rendition of the conversation in Moscow, then it is an insult to the Ukrainian President and the people he represents.

As far as I know, the WCC delegation, before visiting Kyiv, approached the Presidential Office asking for a meeting with the First Lady. The fact that the request was not gratified, can be justified retrospectively given the insulting remarks made in Moscow. The earlier disastrous response of Fr Sauca to the First Lady’s letter also played its role in the cold reactions from the Ukrainian President to the WCC initiatives.

To add to the insult, the patriarch awarded with a prestigious order the Russian representative to the WCC, Fr Michael Gundyaev, right during the meeting with the WCC delegation. Fr Michael has been sanctioned by the Ukrainian government together with Leonid Gorbachev. The WCC was not bothered that a person under the sanctions was celebrated in such provocative way in its General Secretary’s presence, as it is not bothered that he continues working in the WCC offices in Geneva.

Another point that the patriarch stressed in his address to the WCC delegation relates to the “humanitarian aid” for the Ukrainians on the Russian territories, as well as on the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. He stressed the role of the Russian church, but also acknowledged the input of the WCC and its humanitarian agencies. In particular, he mentioned with appreciation how the Director of International Affairs of WCC visited in May 2022 the facilities with displaced Ukrainians in the Rostov region of Russia, as well as how the acting General Secretary of the WCC at that time, Fr Ioan Sauca, visited a humanitarian centre of the Russian church in Moscow. As far as I know, the WCC delegations asked to see not only the places with the Ukrainians suggested by the Russian side, but also those indicated by the Ombudsman office in Ukraine. Their request was not gratified, and they saw only what the Russians wanted them to see. They did not see the Ukrainian prisoners of war and deported Ukrainians held against their will. They also did not see the Ukrainian children whose deportation has been qualified by the International Crime Court as “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children.” The representatives of the WCC were aware that the Russian church would show them humanitarian “Potemkin villages.” Still, they accepted to participate in this farce in the name of dialogue and peace-making. This farce was intended by the Russians to cover up their crimes. This reminds me what I saw during my visit to Auschwitz. In the local museum, a part of the exhibition is dedicated to how international organisations inspected the camp. Of course, they were shown only the facade. They probably suspected that there was something worse behind it. However, they still participated in covering up the Nazi atrocities.

In the end, I want to say something positive about the initiatives that the WCC’s delegation came up with and discussed with its interlocutors in both Kyiv and Moscow. I really appreciate the WCC’s idea to bring to the same table the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which still do not accept each other. This is an excellent idea. The Council has rich experience and various instruments to facilitate such conversations. From the interview of Jerry Pillay, I concluded that this was the main reason why the WCC’s delegation undertook its visits. Probably it is the reason why it swallowed all the insults from Moscow.

However, the WCC decided to also bring to the same table the Russian Orthodox Church. Over many years, I observed the attitude of the Moscow Patriarchate to the possibility of a dialogue between the branches of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Never this attitude was even slightly constructive. The ROC always did everything possible and impossible to torpedo such dialogues or to turn them to simulacra. My personal story is connected with this. When in the summer 2009 I initiated a dialogue between the Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates in Ukraine, a few days later I was removed by Moscow from my position as the head of the Department for external church relations of the UOC MP.

I am aware that all three sides of the potential conversation, the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Moscow Patriarchate as such, in principle agreed to sit together. However, one should not be naive to expect that Moscow has accepted the offer to facilitate the dialogue. Its purpose is to control it and make sure it does not bring real reconciliation. I think Patriarch Kirill made it quite clear when he offered his own interpretation of the church situation in Ukraine.

If the WCC wants its plan to work, only the Ukrainian churches should be invited to the round table. In such a case, the WCC can somehow restore its reputation. If it brings the Russian church to the same table, it will demonstrate that it does not understand and does not want to understand the real situation; that it prefers the process of peace-making to its results. Such a round table will be a farce, just another “Potemkin village” of ecumenism and peace-making.

Cyril Hovorun, professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios College, University College Stockholm, and director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Based on the presentation at the webinar organised by the Working Group for Central and Eastern Europe of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland on June 2, 2023.