Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ukraine's War of the Pews

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ukraine's War of the Pews

Article excerpt

Wars often have multiple fronts, and not all military. With an upsurge of fighting in Ukraine since Jan. 11, that war's other "fronts" - diplomacy, economic sanctions, financial aid - are receiving more attention. President Obama is even weighing lethal military aid to Ukraine's weak forces to help battle armed separatists backed by Russian forces.

Yet Ukraine has one little-noticed "front" -- religion -- that both drives the conflict and could also help end it.

The Kremlin sees the conflict in Ukraine as part of a larger struggle against a unified Europe that it contends may someday be a threat. President Vladimir Putin seeks to reverse Ukraine's bid to join the European Union. He portrays Europe as morally weak and as a declining civilization, compared with Russia's. And he has enlisted the Russian Orthodox Church to act as a "spiritual shield" in this struggle on behalf of "Holy Russia." On Jan. 22, for example, the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, spoke to parliament - a first in Russia - decrying the "pseudovalues" of the West.

Yet this religious tactic has a problem. That church's branch in Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox-Moscow Patriarchate, is fast losing members as more Ukrainians take sides with a new, pro- European government in Kiev. Many of its members are joining two other Orthodox churches.

Meanwhile, some members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is popular in western Ukraine, are providing assistance to Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the largely Russian-speaking east. And many of the Moscow-tied Orthodox churches are helping the rebels.

Yet even as these churches struggle with taking sides in what is mainly a battle over national identity, they have also managed to keep talking to one another. In November, they signed a memorandum to recognize and pray for an integrated and unified Ukraine. …

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