Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Ukraine, also a religious battle
“Putin is after more than land — he wants the religious soul of Ukraine. Make no mistake, Putin is seeking full capitulation from Ukraine — both physical and spiritual.”
This was the lead for an article last week published by Religion News Service, written by Knox Thames, former special envoy for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State, serving during the Obama and Trump administrations. He notes that if Russia’s aggression succeeds then “religious freedom will be one of the many causalities.”
The predominant religion of Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is traced back to the 10th Century when Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) the Great brought it to Kyiv from the Byzantine Empire. Legend has it that he made this decision after sending his envoys to Constantinople. They visited Hagia Sophia, observed the Orthodox liturgy, noted its engagement of the physical senses, and felt God’s holy presence. They responded, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Vladimir, his family and associates were baptized in the Dnieper River in Kyiv and he installed it as the state religion.
Orthodoxy in Ukraine is divided into two sides, the Orthodox church under the Moscow Patriarch and the Ukrainian Orthodox, which was recognized by the patriarch of Constantinople as an independent church. This recognition made them considered to be “autocephalous,” or self-governing and able to appoint their own patriarch. This was protested and not recognized by the Patriarch of Moscow and became one of Putin’s excuses for invading Ukraine in order to “unite the church.” Should Russia win this war it will likely lead to persecution not only of the Ukrainian Orthodox church but also of other religious bodies that are currently recognized in Ukraine, such as Roman Catholics, Protestants and various evangelical denominations, as well as non-Christian minority groups such as the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu populations. It should be noted that Ukraine has in its constitution the freedom of religion.
Of particular note is the experience of the Jewish people in Ukraine who experienced the killing of between 1.2 million and 1.6 million people under Hitler’s Nazi rule. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, annual events commemorating that tragedy take place at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv, recognizing the site where 33,771 of the city’s Jews were systematically killed by machine-gun fire in a two-day massacre in 1941.
Last week’s Russian bombing near that site of the nearby Kyiv main television tower reminded the Jewish community worldwide of that terrible tragedy, leading to condemnation by the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in Israel as well as from leaders of the American Jewish Committee and from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was also a reminder of the way Jews were treated under Russian rule in the Soviet Union when thousands fled to the United States and to Israel.
It was an insult as well to the entire Ukrainian community who heard Putin claim he went into their country to rid it of Nazi influence, when they had just recently elected, by over 70%, a Jewish president. Volodymyr Zelensky has never denied his Jewish identity and three of his great uncles were executed by the Nazis. Shortly after the strike he tweeted, “what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”
Recent surveys by the Pew Research organization have found that Ukraine is the most accepting of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries. While nowhere near the number prior to Hitler, there are estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews currently living in Ukraine, and the Jewish religious, cultural, and educational institutions are being rebuilt and expanded.
Russian victory in this invasion would again be difficult for the Jewish community in Ukraine as it was during the Soviet days. In 2017 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Russia as a “country of particular concern” for creating an increasingly repressive environment for religious minorities. The Washington Post reported on a letter it obtained from the U.S. to the United Nations warning of further Russian human rights abuses against vulnerable groups in Ukraine. Religious minorities would be targeted, officials said, and they reported that Russian forces were creating lists of Ukrainians who would be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation.
In a recent commentary, David French, senior editor for the online conservative news source The Dispatch, wrote of Zelensky that he “was an ordinary man caught in extraordinary times, because evil often leaves virtue with few good choices.” He also noted the strong and deep bonds that have grown between evangelical churches (with which he identifies) and Ukrainian churches. He refers to these deep bonds and not yet knowing “the long-term political or cultural impact of those ties, but they’re very real, and they’re one reason why this war (and Zelensky’s courage) is hitting so very many Americans straight in the heart.”
The tragedy of war is always disturbing and protection of the rights of religious minorities is often the litmus test for democracy. It is a test that the region cannot fail without dire consequences. It is incumbent on all persons of good will to protect the freedom of religion and the security of democracy. Much is at stake.