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Another peace effort for Ukraine seeking to unite Orthodox leaders

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 30, 2023

Pope Francis has launched one effort to bring an end to the warfare in Ukraine, by sending a personal envoy to speak with political leaders in Moscow and Kyiv. As we wait for that initiative to begin, however, it may be worth noticing another effort, by the World Council of Churches (WCC), to unite religious leaders—specifically, the influential prelates of the Orthodox communities in Russia and Ukraine—to work for the cause of peace.

Earlier this month the general secretary of the WCC, Rev. Jerry Pillay, was in Moscow to speak with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. His mission: to promote a “roundtable” that would include the Moscow patriarchate and—here is the difficult part—both of the rival Orthodox groups in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).

The difficulties facing that initiative are considerable. The Russian Orthodox Church still considers Ukraine as part of its “canonical territory.” Moscow has steadfastly refused to accept the one Orthodox body that has declared itself independent (autocephalous), and is increasingly at loggerheads with the other, which has edged further and further away from Moscow in the months since the Russian invasion. And, of course, the two Ukrainian bodies are in competition with each other.

Nevertheless the WCC proposes to bring leaders of all these groups together. If successful, the WCC plan would create a very powerful bloc promoting peace; the Orthodox churches have enormous influence in both countries.

Rev. Pillay, who heads up the WCC initiative, reported that his talks with Patriarch Kirill were tough, very engaging, and very challenging but in a very cordial spirit.” The WCC leadership had previously met with prelates of both the UOC and the OCU, and “they were showing very keen interest in taking part,” he said. To date, none of the proposed parties to the roundtable has accepted the WCC invitation. But none has rejected the initiative, either, and that in itself is significant.

In all likelihood the Moscow patriarchate will not agree to participate in the roundtable. The Russian Orthodox Church has been supportive of the Russian war effort, and may not want to cause complications for the Kremlin’s political strategists. Even more important, the Russian patriarchate would surely be leery of promoting an initiative that could bring together the OCU and the UOC, creating the possibility of a single, united Ukrainian Orthodox body, independent of Moscow, challenging Russia’s status as the largest of the world’s Orthodox churches.

Still the WCC perseveres, with Rev. Pillay aiming for the roundtable talks in October, “but it will take place as soon as possible.” He explains:

… as I put it to the Patriarch, the task of the WCC is not to get involved in politics even though this is necessary for peaceful solutions to real problems. We do not have a political agenda, and we believe that the Bible calls us to peace. Our mandate is to fulfill the will of the Triune God to bring peace to the world.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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