Priesthood, politics and propaganda: the life of a clergyman in war-torn Ukraine

Reverend Sergiy Berezhnoy in the center of Irpin, just outside Kyiv, in April 2022. Photo courtesy of Kyiv Saints Cathedral

(RNS) — “Father, is it a sin to kill the enemy?” This is the question the Reverend Sergiy Berezhnoy, an Orthodox priest and chaplain to the Ukrainian army of the 42nd battalion in Kyiv, hears most often from soldiers heading to the front lines of the war with Russia.

The 38-year-old cleric – who, although he spends his days packing humanitarian aid for hard-hit areas and presiding over frequent funerals in cemeteries and crematoriums, exudes genuine pastoral warmth – said that he answered that question amid the bustle of military buildings and the candlelit calm of the church.

Soldiers often come to the parish of Berezhnoy, located just off a busy road in a semi-industrial district north of the city center, to confess and take communion before going into battle.

The church, named for the saints of Kyiv, stands between a gas station and the shores of Lake Jordan. While the small wooden structure looks more like a heated house than a large cathedral, Berezhnoy enthusiastically points out that the parish is on an auspicious site.

According to Berezhnoy, local historians consider the nearby lake to be the remnant of the historic Pochaina River, where the historic baptism of the Kyivan Rus took place, an event that was commemorated in both Ukraine and Russia last Thursday (28 July).

The Baptism of Kyivan Rus commemorates the medieval mass baptism in Kyiv in 988, commissioned by Grand Prince Volodymyr. While Christianity existed in parts of the medieval Slavic kingdoms before this time, large-scale baptism in Kyiv is remembered as the Christianization of the region, with Christianity officially becoming the state religion for the first time.

Contrary to how Russian President Vladimir Putin has long characterized the event for saying Ukraine should be part of Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced Ukrainian Statehood Day, which will be celebrated alongside to the story of historical baptism.

From these shores of the national myth, soldiers visiting Berezhnoy head to the most affected areas of the country, such as the Donbass region in the east. Or the southern city of Kherson, where the Ukrainian army has launched an ambitious attempt to retake the city from Russian control.

So what is the chaplain’s response to these men and women who have chosen to defend a country besieged since February?

“My answer for them is you’re not going to kill an enemy,” Berezhnoy told Religion News Service on Zoom from Kyiv earlier this month, his black clergy shirt and white collar sticking out from under his military jacket. camo. “You will protect our children, our wives, our sisters, our brothers, our fathers, our mothers – all Ukrainians.”

The question of Ukrainian identity, and what is needed to protect it, is not isolated from life on the front lines.

For many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, and the clergy in particular, the question of religious identity in relation to the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly inescapable.

The choice comes down to which church you want to join: the 3-year-old Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or the older Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has historical ties to Moscow.

Long before becoming a priest, Berezhnoy helped as an altar boy on Sundays in an Orthodox parish in his hometown in eastern Ukraine. “I saw how the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Federation were playing on the religious feeling of our people in Donbass,” Berezhnoy said, recalling pamphlets frequently distributed to worshipers in the early 2000s, calling on worshipers to vote for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian politician who became president of Ukraine before being ousted in the 2014 Dignity Revolution.

The creation of three separate post-Soviet states – Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – has been compared by Orthodox Church leaders to an attempt to split the Holy Trinity.

“Absolutely, the church was used by Russia for propaganda purposes,” said the Reverend Cyril Hovorun, a Ukrainian priest and professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at the Stockholm School of Theology.

In a recent interview with RNS, Hovorun noted that this type of political propaganda was not unique to Orthodox churches closer to the Russian border, but could be found throughout the country – including at major Orthodox holy sites, such than the Pochayiv Lavra, just a few. hours drive from the Polish border.

“There has always been a fusion of national and religious identity in predominantly Orthodox countries,” said Catherine Wanner, a cultural anthropologist at the Penn State School of International Affairs, whose research focuses on the politics of religion in Ukraine.

But she added that Ukraine “is a really interesting example where you see a real deepening of religiosity (since the fall of the Soviet Union)”, at the same time as politically there has been “ongoing secularization and sustainable – secularism as a political principle.”

Despite stories from Donbass, some Orthodox followers in the post-Soviet era did not see their Ukrainian national identity at odds with their Orthodox faith. One such person was the highest official of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kyiv, Metropolitan Volodymyr, who ordained Berezhnoy to the priesthood in 2012.

During Volodymyr’s tenure, Berezhnoy assisted Hovorun, who at the time was the head of the Church External Relations Department for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with a project to reconcile the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with two small groups of Orthodox churches – each of which has also claimed to be the country’s national church while rejecting ties to Moscow.

It was a very good time for the church,” Berezhnoy said. “The father (Cyril) has prepared a very big project – the project of how to unite all the jurisdictions.”

But the idea of ​​dialogue, not to mention the possibility of a unified Ukrainian church with a strong national identity, was a threat to Moscow.

Hovorun’s long-planned dialogues began in the summer of 2009. By September of that year, Russian church leaders removed him from his position in Ukraine and reassigned him to an office in the church in Russia.

“I considered it a clear move (from Moscow) to stop the dialogue,” Hovorun said of the change.

Berezhnoy was also removed from his position at the Kyiv Theological Academy, run by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the famous Kyiv Perchersk Lavra, shortly after signing a petition supporting a peaceful dialogue between pro-European Maidan protesters. and state military groups in 2014.

He was reassigned to a pro-Russian parish in Kyiv, where the chief priest expected him to sign another sort of petition – this time to protest the establishment of a new Ukrainian church bearing almost the same noun: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (as opposed to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) aimed to exist outside the authority of the Church leadership in Moscow.

“When I saw how the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine was fighting with our civilization and our society, with their brothers and sisters in Christ, I understood that this was not the right way,” Berezhnoy said. “You have only two choices,” he added, “keep silent or help support this Russian ideology.”

So he left. In 2019, Berezhnoy joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which had obtained Tomos – self-government – ​​from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul earlier this year, going against Moscow’s refusal to recognize the new church.

“I’m so proud of this decision,” Berezhnoy said.

But what might appear to be convoluted church politics came at a high personal cost for Berezhnoy, whose wife was the daughter of a prominent priest with ties to the Moscow Patriarchate.

When his in-laws learned that Berezhnoy had joined the independent or autocephalous church, they severed ties with him. Then his wife too. He occasionally sees his teenage son who he says understands his decisions well. “You know, this Russian world and this Russian propaganda,” Berezhnoy said, his usual pep waning slightly, “also targeted the hearts of my loved ones.”

Three years later, and under the continuing pressures of war, the young independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine continues to play a leading role as a partner of the Ukrainian government in opposition to Russia, both politically and religiously.

“We honor the choice of our ancestors – the choice of the true Orthodox faith, which joined us to European civilization in the 10th century,” read the official Twitter account of Metropolitan Epiphanius of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on Thursday, the party day. of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus.

“There are tendencies, indeed, in this (independent) church to act in a way that is not very different from Moscow in terms of alignment with the state and the nation-building process,” Hovorun said. “But unlike the Moscow Patriarchate, the Autocephalous Church is more democratic and much more open-minded.”

“I see our world as one big mosaic,” Berezhnoy told soldiers waiting to leave Kyiv. “Every nation is like a piece of glass. And without any (one) of the pieces of glass, our picture is not whole.

“God cares about every nation. And when we have more nations, when we have different people with their points of view, this mosaic becomes more wonderful.

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