Local Ukrainians say faith is a uniting force amid conflict

| Susan Klemond | March 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

Amid tensions between Ukraine and Russia following months of protests for government change, Ukrainians in Minnesota and Kiev say peacemaking and justice efforts promoted by many of the country’s faith communities are helping.

Orthodox clergymen pray near armed servicemen outside Ukrainian border guard post

Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine’s Crimean region March 1. Catholic leaders in Crimea say Ukraine has the right to determine its own future, and they urge prayers for peace. CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters

“I’ve never seen in the history, in centuries, that the unity of different churches was so strong and so supportive of the people,” said Taras Rafa, who attends St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church in Minneapolis. He and his wife, Maria, are natives of western Ukraine.

When peaceful demonstrations calling for the ouster of then-president Viktor Yanukovych began in November, many of the country’s five major Catholic and Orthodox churches united demonstrators in prayer and the sacraments, helped moderate radicalism, sometimes served as intermediaries in police confrontations and offered churches and monasteries as refuges and hospitals for protestors.

Following several months of protests, mainly in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan) against the former government’s corruption and its refusal to seek closer ties with the European Union, Yanukovych left Ukraine, and the country appointed its current acting government.

Ukraine’s churches have helped bring about unity, and even Ukrainians who are less religious became more faith-focused during the demonstrations, said Mykola Symchych, who teaches philosophy at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in Kiev and is a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Catholic church in Ukraine.

“It’s interesting because not only religious people were in Maidan,” said Symchych, who frequently prayed at the tent chapel in the square with protestors and brought them supplies. “There were different [leaders of church denominations], but everyone was united in prayer. The prayer was very important because it helped people to fight more. They knew that not only human powers help them, but also God helps them.”

While the Maidan movement brought about “an ecumenism of peacemaking, an ecumenism of justice” among different churches, Moscow Patriarch Kirill I, who is the head of Ukraine’s largest church — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — has not spoken specifically about the events in Ukraine, according to Pavel Gavrilyuk, theology professor at the University of St. Thomas and a native of Ukraine.

A deacon in the Orthodox Church in America (which is affiliated with, but not under the Moscow Patriarch), Gavrilyuk was among church leaders who wrote to ask the Patriarch to take a stronger position on the issue. He also is petitioning the Obama administration to take greater action on Ukraine’s behalf and is considering boycotting upcoming religious conferences and events.

Prayer needed most

Despite the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European leaders, Russia refuses to acknowledge the acting Ukrainian government. The country’s citizens are of Ukrainian and Russian ethnicities with differing views on Ukraine’s political orientation and involvement with its neighbors. Russian troops and ships are in and near Crimea in southern Ukraine, a predominantly Russian-speaking region.

Symchych said the Russian media isn’t giving the world a true picture of the events in Ukraine, adding that it has attempted to portray Maidan demonstrators as fascist and nationalist. The Maidan message has not been conveyed to eastern Ukrainians, many of who are ethnic Russians, Gavrilyuk said.

Yet many of the country’s factions are opposing Russian intervention, Taras Rafa said, adding that many are fasting and praying.

“There are very few people who want to give up what they gained [in the last 20 years],” he said. “And now the Church is a major uniting factor and a major support for all the people in their struggle.”

The threat of Russia’s military presence is “definitely devastating for the whole nation and for people like us in the [U.S.] and around the world, and even for Russians,” Maria Rafa said.

However, Russia’s actions may actually help Ukrainian unity, Symchych said.

“Now this threat from Russia, it is very good for Ukrainian unity,” he said, “for understanding that we are one nation, that we are not divided so much.”

Gavrilyuk said he hopes Ukraine and the world will recognize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “tremendous moral loss,” in his actions in Crimea.

It is an “imposition of brutal, cynical power,” he said. “To compound the problem . . . the escalation has happened as Lent was about to begin in the Orthodox Church. That’s also an interesting reflection on the extent to which Putin can credibly call himself an Orthodox Christian.”

Ukraine needs help from the West, not only in the face of aggression, but also to restore its economy, Symchych said, adding that prayer is needed most of all. “Our family, every day we are praying for our future,” he said. “Only God can help us. I am absolutely strong in such beliefs. I wanted to ask American Catholics to pray for Ukraine.”

The Maidan Minnesota Committee, supporting democracy in Ukraine, will host a fundraising concert featuring local Ukrainian performers from 5-10 p.m. on March 8 at the Ukrainian Center at 301 Main St. NE in Minneapolis. Proceeds will support victims of violence in Ukraine. For more information, contact Ophelia Karamushko at
(952) 393-2574 or o.karamushko@gmail.com.

Category: U.S. & World News

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