That it may please thee to make wars cease in all the world; to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord; and to bestow freedom upon all peoples,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord — The Great Litany, Book of Common Prayer, p. 151
The Russo-Ukrainian War is a conflict between primarily Orthodox Christian countries. For the first time since the demise of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995, devout Christians are killing one another on a vast scale over claims of territory and geopolitical power.
Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022, but Christians throughout the world have watched the region with concern since the 2014 Russian military annexation of Crimea. A dispute about ecclesiastical sovereignty preceded the invasion and resulted in a 2018 schism between the ancient see of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate.
Taking guidance from 2 Corinthians— “Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace”—Christian leaders were outspoken in their words of caution before the most recent outbreak of war. Since it began, they have been almost of one voice in offering words of comfort and solidarity to the Ukrainian people, asking God’s blessing on all who suffer violence and the effects of war—and giving reproof to the Russian leaders who have directed the invasion.
Echoing earlier papal pronouncements over the use of military force in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan, Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy in Rome on February 25 with an appeal “to those with political responsibility to examine their consciences seriously before God, who is the God of peace and not of war.” He designated March 2, Ash Wednesday, as an international day of intercession and fasting for the people of Ukraine, “in order to be near to the suffering Ukrainian people, to be aware that we are all brothers and sisters, and to implore God for an end to the war.”
Most Orthodox leaders have likewise spoken with clarity before and since the invasion to call for an immediate and non-violent end to the conflict. On February 27, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople voiced his support for Metropolitan Epiphanios of Kyiv and the people of his country:
“Our thoughts are constantly with the wounded and with the families of the innocent victims, irrespective of their ethnic identity, and we pray for the rest of their souls to the Lord of Life and Death.” “Let reason prevail, love for fellow human beings, reconciliation and solidarity, the light of the Risen Christ, the gift of life,” he continued.
Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America—which has remained miraculously outside the fray of the Moscow-Constantinople schism—was still more direct:
“I ask that the hostilities be ceased immediately and that President Putin put an end to the military operations. As Orthodox Christians, we condemn violence and aggression.” “To our beloved Ukrainian brothers and sisters, as well to all of you who are certainly troubled and concerned about these recent developments, I offer the words that the Lord Himself offers to us through His Psalmist: ‘The Lord will give strength to His people; The Lord will bless His people with peace (Psalm 29:11).’”
An indication of the close alliance between Putin’s Russian state and the Moscow Patriarchate, however, was clear in Patriarch Kyrill’s February 27 reference to Ukrainian soldiers and civilians resisting the invasion as “evil forces who have always fought against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church.” Notwithstanding this remark, he also called for prayer, relief efforts, and the avoidance of harm to non-combatants:
“I call on all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. I appeal to the bishops, pastors, monastics, and laity to provide all possible assistance to all victims, including refugees and people left homeless and without means of livelihood. I call on the entire fullness of the Russian Orthodox Church to offer a special, fervent prayer for the speedy restoration of peace.”
In the first week of the invasion, a group of 300 Russian clergy signed a petition carefully opposed to Kyrill’s state-loyalist emphases:
“We remind you that the Blood of Christ, shed by the Savior for the life of the world, will be received in the sacrament of Communion by those people who give murderous orders, not into life, but into eternal torment,” the letter says in continuity with St. Paul’s injunction against unworthy reception of the sacrament. “We remind you that the life of every person is a priceless and unique gift of God, and therefore we wish the return of all soldiers—both Russian and Ukrainian—to their homes and families safe and sound.”
The Christian communities of the West have been univocal in their sentiments of prayerful attention to the developing situation.
On February 24, the day of the invasion, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine as “an act of great evil:”
“Placing our trust in Jesus Christ, the author of peace, we pray for an urgent ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian forces. We call for a public decision to choose the way of peace and an international conference to secure long-term agreements for stability and lasting peace.”
The archbishops have called members of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion to regular prayer, repeated by the Diocese in Europe, Anglican mission agencies, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland, the Church in Scotland, the British Methodist Church, English Baptists, the United Reformed Church, and most other church bodies in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
On February 24, American religious officials also issued a wide-ranging appeal and prayer with unusual wording available to date only on the website of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but circulated internally by email and signed by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry along with leaders of the ELCA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Islamic Society of North America, the Moravian Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, Religions for Peace, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church:
“Oh Divine, most mighty, most merciful, our sacred stories tell us that you help and save your people. You are the fortress: may there be no more war. You are the harvest: may there be no more hunger. You are the light: may no one die alone or in despair. Oh Divine, most majestic, most motherly, grant us your life. Amen.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struck a different note on the first Friday in Lent, March 4:
“In this time of crisis, we echo the appeal by Pope Francis to those ‘with political responsibility to examine their consciences seriously before God, who is the God of peace and not of war… who wants us to be brothers and not enemies.’ We join with the Holy Father in praying that ‘all the parties involved refrain from any action that would cause even more suffering to the people, destabilizing coexistence between nations and bringing international law into disrepute.’ We also join in solidarity with the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. who are all united in prayer for their people and their homeland.”
Conciliar bodies such as the World Council of Churches, the Canadian Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA have also lifted their voices, expressing the good and pious awareness of Christians in any part of the body that we suffer in company with those who suffer anywhere.
Online commentators have questioned the audience for many of these sympathetic statements, prayers, and appeals, none of which appear to have been translated into Russian or Ukrainian. They are nevertheless an overwhelming expression of the global Christian mind in a moment when neutrality has become impossible.
Perhaps the most eloquent and powerful statement among many official pronouncements appeared as a March 7 letter to the editor in London’s Times over the name of the Rt. Rev. Lord Williams of Oystermouth, better known as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:
“Many will have hoped to hear from the Orthodox Church in Russia some acknowledgment of the shocking—not to say blasphemous—absurdity of Orthodox Christians engaging, at this season of all seasons, in indiscriminate killing of the innocent, insanely reckless attacks on nuclear facilities (endangering their own homeland as well as the wider environment), the unashamed breach of ceasefire agreements, and an attack on one of the most significant Holocaust memorials in Europe. It is not too late for the leadership of the Church in Russia to call for (at the very least) a credible ceasefire as Lent begins. Those of us who owe a lasting debt to the thought and witness of Christian Russia through the centuries find it hard to believe that all the moral norms of warfare painstakingly explored by Christians in both East and West from the earliest ages onwards have been forgotten.”
Richard J. Mammana is Episcopal Church associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also serves as archivist for the Living Church Foundation. Published by The Living Church. Used by permission.
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash