Friday, December 29, 2023

Pope, Zelenskyy speak as war grinds on and religious freedom concerns grow

Pope Francis meets Ukrainian President Zelenskyy at Vatican, pleads for  peace - Ripples Nigeria

Pope Francis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke by phone Thursday to exchange Christmas greetings and to discuss Ukraine’s peace plan, at a time when the country faces mounting religious freedom concerns for banning an Orthodox church with ties to Moscow.

In a Dec. 28 post on social media platform X, previously known as Twitter, Zelenskyy said had spoken with Pope Francis that day and thanked him for “the spiritual support” he has given to the people of Ukraine.

On Christmas day, the pope prayed for peace in Ukraine, which has been at war since Russian forces invaded in February of last year, during his traditional Urbi et Orbi address, asking faithful to pray for Ukraine and to “renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people, so that through the support of each of us, they may feel the concrete reality of God’s love.”

Pope Francis in a Dec. 26 special Angelus address marking the feast of Saint Stephen, the church’s first martyr, prayed for Christian communities “that suffer discrimination” and urged them to “persevere in charity toward all, fighting for justice and religious freedom.”

Ukraine itself has faced increased criticism in recent months over a government decision to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church due to its alleged collaboration with Russia following their February 2022 invasion.

There are two primary Orthodox churches in Ukraine: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC), and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is independent and falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In October, the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of a bill banning the UOC. However, the UOC has pushed back against the move, arguing that it violates religious freedom and Ukraine’s own constitution, noting that nowhere in the constitution, or international law, or the laws of war, are there provisions for banning a religious denomination.

Though historically loyal to Moscow, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the UOC has increasingly distanced itself from the Patriarchate of Moscow, with believers drifting at an increased pace to the OCU, at times with whole parishes switching through a two-thirds vote during a parish meeting.

The UOC insists that it has been independent of Moscow since last summer. However, Ukrainian authorities have closely scrutinized the church and its activities, with the Secret Service of Ukraine opening nearly 70 criminal proceedings against the church over the past 18 months, according to local media.

Several high-level leaders in the UOC have been charged with crimes such as treason, collaborationism, and aiding and abetting the aggressor, with Ukrainian authorities insisting that they are not prosecuting anyone for their religious beliefs, but for actual crimes.

The actual text of the bill under consideration, which received preliminary approval from Ukraine’s parliament on Oct. 19, forbids “activities of religious organizations that are affiliated with the centers of influence of a religious organization (association) whose management center (management) is located outside of Ukraine in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine.”

Claims of religious discrimination have had some traction among conservative American critics of aid to Ukraine, including former Fox new host Tucker Carlson, who’s called the suppression of the Moscow-linked church “barbaric” and argued that the U.S. shouldn’t be proving aid to a country that engages in such practices.

On his phone call with Pope Francis, Zelenskyy said he thanked the pope for his Christmas greetings to the Ukrainian people, and for his public expressions of his desire for a “just peace for all of us.”

Zelenskyy said they also discussed Ukraine’s Peace Formula, a 10-point plan Ukraine has put forward for achieving peace, with steps including the restoration of occupied territories and respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, among other things.

Over 80 countries are already involved in the Ukraine Peace Formula, and “there will be more,” Zelenskyy said, saying, “I am grateful to the Vatican for supporting our work.”

The Holy See has not directly voiced support for Ukraine’s formula, but Pope Francis over the summer appointed Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference as his personal peace envoy for Ukraine.

In that capacity, Zuppi has made visits to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington DC, and Beijing, with the humanitarian situation and the return of Ukrainian children abducted to Russia being primary points of discussion and collaboration.

After visiting Pope Francis at the Vatican last year, Zelenskyy appeared to snub the Vatican’s offer to mediate the conflict, saying they do not need mediation, but weapons, and insisting that any peace agreement must be made on Ukraine’s terms.

However, he has been open to the Vatican’s assistance on prisoner exchanges and the return of Ukrainian children, as well as its efforts on the humanitarian front.

In his Dec. 26 Angelus address, Pope Francis again prayed for peace for countries at war, offering a specific greeting “the martyred people of Ukraine,” calling the country a “desert of death.”

This year also marked the first time that members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine celebrated Christmas together with Catholics in the Latin rite.

On May 24, the Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine voted nearly unanimously to switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar as regards most major feasts, except for Easter and a handful of other feast days, such as the feast of the Trinity.

In a statement following the Council’s decision, Metropolitan Epiphany, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said the decision “is not an easy one, we have been coming to it for a long time, gradually, step by step, and we are making it carefully.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, one of several Byzantine-rite churches in full communion with Rome, was the first to make the switch to a new calendar in early 2023.

This move from both churches signals an increased distance from Russia and the influence of the Moscow patriarchate since the outbreak of the war last year.

In his own Christmas message, Zelenskyy noted that Christians were largely celebrating the feast together this year, saying, “All Ukrainians together. We all celebrate Christmas together. On the same date, as one big family, as one nation, as one united country.”