Andrew Bennett blasts Russian efforts to foment division in Ukraine

02.06.2015, 15:05

Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett blasted Russian efforts to foment religious division in Ukraine, especially propaganda regarding anti-Semitism.

The Canadian government and the Office of Religious Freedom want to counter the "pernicious lies of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine," Bennett told a Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada fundraising breakfast for Ukraine May 29 that raised $20,000.

Jewish leaders in Ukraine have assured him these claims are not true, Bennett said. He noted a Jewish candidate in the recent election received more votes than all the right-wing candidates combined.

"As you know, for centuries Ukraine's diversity has been reflected in the multitude of different Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish congregations, and Muslim communities such as the Crimean Tartars," the ambassador said. "During visits to the country in January and October of last year, I witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of these communities, who, during the Maidan Revolution last year, all came together to call for democracy and respect for human dignity."

The All Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations has been a counterweight to the "rhetoric and propaganda coming from Moscow," he said.

The religious leaders recognize "the important role" they are playing in creating a political space that is "democratic and recognizes human dignity," he said. They are helping to "promote a dialog among all Ukrainian citizens" and are held in high regard.

"Regrettably, a number of religious communities are now being threatened by the campaign of intimation being waged by a resurgent Russia, which as you know threatens Eastern Ukraine militarily and continues to undermine the democratic government in Kyiv," Bennett said.

"Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has seen a rapid expansion of nationalist and neo-imperialist fervour, including through the deployment of the concept of the 'Russian World' whose boundaries are assumed to correspond, at the minimum, to the borders of the core territories of the old Russian empire," he said.

"Simultaneously, the Russian Orthodox Church has grown in power and political influence in Moscow during the post-Soviet period, with Russian Orthodox bishops increasingly integrated within the circles of the Russian elite."

"This mirrors the Russian past, where close cooperation between the clergy and the Tsarist regime held the key to political and social control across the empire," he said. "This has implications for Ukraine.

Russia is engaging in a "campaign of intimidation" following its occupation of Crimea, he said.

Bennett explained how Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity consists of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has administrative but not ecclesiastical autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church; and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, which separated from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992 and is not recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church. They exist alongside the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

"It is in fact a church divided," Bennett said, noting all these bodies owe their origins to the Church planted by the Kyivian Rus in 988.

Recently the Moscow Patriarch Kirill declared all of Russian, Ukraine and Belorus as "one spiritually" and "one people," and this "message of spiritual union has been hijacked by the Kremlin," Bennett said. This view is "being used to manufacture divisions in Ukraine along sectarian lines."

The ambassador stressed the difference between the Russian government and faithful Russian people "who are not interested in differences with their brothers and sisters in Ukraine."

The Russian takeover of Crimea led to seizures of Kyivian Ukrainian Orthodox churches and Greek Catholic churches and caused priests and their families to flee for their lives, Bennett said. Their homes were desecrated with hateful slogans. Members of these churches have been subject to "regular surveillance and intimidation" as well as "abduction and murder" by Russian militia.

Russian agents are now coming to churches and carrying out surveillance and intimidation during church services, he said. Muslim Tatars have also been subjected to house to house searches on charges they are concealing radical material.

The ambassador applauded the work CNEWA is doing with its partners in fostering interfaith dialog to promote tolerance and mutual respect, with the help of money from his office's Religious Freedom Fund. "They are helping Ukraine reject Soviet era stereotypes" and thwart the "Russian propaganda campaign."

CNEWA Canada director Carl H‚tu told the gathering Caritas partners in Ukraine are the Eastern Catholic Churches but they help everyone in need, regardless of whether they are Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim.

Recent fundraising efforts for Ukraine would soon add another $20,000 to that raised at the breakfast, for a total of $40,000, he said. He noted Caritas is the second largest charity in Ukraine after the Red Cross.

Russian and Ukrainian forces are mobilizing along the frontiers, raising fears of "full-fledged war," H‚tu said. Meanwhile, 1.5 million Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country have been displaced; another five million are directly affected by the conflict; more than 6,200 soldiers and civilians have lost their lives and a deepening recession has hurt the economy.

It's not just a question of housing, food and hygiene but also dealing with trauma and spiritual needs, he said.

Deborah Gyapong

30 May 2015 The B.C. Catholic