His Eminence Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich) of Boryspol and Brovary, the Chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recently responded to a call from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky for churches in Ukraine to engage in dialogue.
Metropolitan Anthony, a noted theologian, is a native son of Transcarpathia, Western Ukraine, a historical region that produced many great saints who suffered under Uniate, Ukrainian nationalist, and Soviet persecution.
In this response, he explains that the canonical Ukrainian Church is not against dialogue, but believes any words of reconciliation must be genuine, and not empty.
He is pointing out what many Ukrainian Christians believe from their experiences: that various forces persecute the Church and then suggest that the Church should come together with them, even as they continue to persecute the Church at the same time. Many Ukrainians consider certain offers of dialogue from historical persecutors as cynical, or not genuine, because of these painful experiences.
An excellent example of this was explained in this article by noted Ukrainian Archpriest Rostislav Yarema from Lviv, who described hundreds of conflicts throughout Ukraine, particularly Western Ukraine, in the last hundred years. Fr. Rostislav described situations where Greek Catholics or schismatics seized an Orthodox church, and then the local authorities (rather than enforcing the law) told the Orthodox citizens that they really needed to come to dialogue with their Uniate “brothers” and improve their relationship, as if the Orthodox are somehow to blame.
With the context of these situations in mind, here are Metropolitan Anthony’s thoughts on the President’s call for dialogue:
On July 28, 2019 on the Day of the Baptism of Rus’, the President of Ukraine Vladimir Alexandrovich Zelensky called for inter-confessional dialogue so that faith would unite, rather than divide Ukrainians.
These are important and necessary words, since for several years now, the religious sphere of Ukraine has been in a state of immense turbulence. She is shaken by various blows—both planned and caused by emotions, which are fueled by the works of a number of unscrupulous media organizations. This concerns the adoption of “anti-Church” laws, the activities of the so-called black registrars (employees of some state administrations who, on the basis of forged documents, transfer UOC communities to another jurisdiction), information campaigns against a particular confession, and many other things that do undermine the inter-confessional and societal peace.
But even against this background, such blatant lawlessness like the large-scale and systematic campaign to seize churches of the canonical UOC stands out. Under these conditions, our believers are humiliated, beaten, maimed, and thrown out into the street from thoe churches that they built with their own hands, and into which they put a piece of their soul.
In some cases, the situation reaches quite unimaginable limits. For example, in June in the village of Postiine of the Rivne Province, supporters of the so-called OCU fought their way into the house in which believers of our Church were praying after the seizure of their church. Following the ensuing attack, three women from the UOC community were hospitalized.
And there are many such cases. Unfortunately, they are occurring even now, when the old government is gone, and there is hope that the situation will stabilize.
Of course, we are not against dialogue and have repeatedly stated this publicly. But any full-fledged and fruitful dialogue can be built only on trust, and of course, the absence of a desire of one party to break the other over its knee.
Back in 2015, we stated that it was impossible to advocate for reconciliation with words alone. We need concrete cases that would prove the sincerity of the words of the representatives of the other side concerning the desire to improve relations. On our part, it was stressed that the first important step on this path should be the return of all the churches seized from the UOC.
Unfortunately, our appeals were not heard. Moreover, we later faced an even greater scale of pressure and persecution.
Against this background, it is very, very difficult to talk about some kind of full-scale dialogue. Moreover, attempts of new raider-style seizures are still ongoing.
However, we will continue to hope for the best. Our conscience is clear—it is not us who seize churches, but it is our churches being seized. We do not violate anyone’s rights, but our believers suffer because of their loyalty to God. We do not shed blood and we do not provoke the incitement of sectarian strife.
If the violation of the rights of our flock is put to a stop, if the church seizures are put to an end, if all the churches which were seized are returned to our Church, then the prerequisites for dialogue are sure to appear.
If this does not happen, then any good words about reconciliation will, unfortunately, remain simply words.
After all, as the Venerable Nilus of Sinai said: “Never has the wolf talked friendly with the sheep, and so also, merciless and insatiable thoughts cannot be in advance of goodwill.”