The Institutionalized Ecumenism and the Ukrainian War: a Critical Approach

The World Council of Churches was established in the aftermath of the World War II. Therefore, it is supposed to embed in its very design the mechanisms of alarming about and dealing with military conflicts. The war in Ukraine was supposed to trigger such an alarm, but it did not. This war started in February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and waged a proxy war in Donbas. The WCC reacted belatedly, by sending its delegation to Ukraine in March 2015, more than a year later. The delegation published a communique with some ambivalent assessments, such as the following one:

During this visit, the delegation has heard different perspectives on the origins of the conflict. In any event, the delegation is convinced of the potential of the churches and faith communities of Ukraine to play a lead role in transcending the competing nationalisms (italics by CH) that predispose groups toward conflict.

In the WCC’s interpretation, the war was a competition of nationalisms. The statement, thus, unequivocally implied a “Ukrainian nationalism” as the main reason that had provoked the Russian aggression. This was a grave misreading of the events: the aggression became a reaction to the Ukrainian Revolution of dignity (2013-2014), which had been driven not by nationalism, but by the longing of the Ukrainian civil society for justice, transparency, and solidarity – the supposedly core values of the WCC’s own ethics. The members of the WCC’s delegation failed to see that Ukraine was effectively fighting for these very values.

Seven years later, the Russian propaganda inflated the “Ukrainian nationalism” to a “Ukrainian neo-Nazism,” which was presented as the main pretext to start a full-scale war. The WCC’s statement facilitated this inflation. Of course, this was not the delegation’s intention, but its visit to Ukraine was used by the Russian Orthodox Church to promote messages it wanted to broadcast globally through the platform of the WCC.

It is also worthy to note that the statement put the two sides of the “conflict” on an equal footing – a tradition that continues to our days.

After the statement was published in early 2015, for about seven years the WCC did not emit clear signals about the war that went on on the European continent, even though it had promised to “find the means and the methods by which it can accompany the churches and people of Ukraine in a pilgrimage of justice and peace.”

First signals came soon after the war escalated in February 2022, and some of them were even poorer than the one in 2015. Thus, in response to the Ukrainian First Lady’s plea to the WCC to become Ukraine’s “moral and active ally,” the acting General Secretary Fr. Ioan Sauca, to whom the letter was addressed personally, published his own letter addressing both President Zelensky and President Putin. In this letter, he continued the tradition of putting Russia and Ukraine on equal footing, as, for example, in the following passage:

On both sides there is suffering and despair and all are waiting for an end of the conflict… Excellencies, the end of conflict and the agreement on a peaceful solution is in your hands alone. Before your people and history, you will be the only ones responsible for it. No one from outside can solve or seek to impose any solution to this fraternal conflict.

This letter caused outrage not only in Ukraine, but also in some ecumenical circles, which exercised pressure. As a result, Fr. Ioan published a new letter, now addressed to the patriarch of Moscow Kirill. This time, the letter was closer to the reality of the war.

Notwithstanding this one, the signals emitted by the WCC were not helpful for the Ukrainians and those in the world who solidarized with them. They looked forward to the upcoming 11th General Assembly of the WCC in Karlsruhe with hope that it would send a clearer message regarding the war. Such hopes were based on the fact that many reputable international organizations had already clearly condemned the aggressor – Russia. And, when they could, suspended cooperation with it.

On different occasions, the WCC demonstrated a wide variety of instruments to deal with wars and military conflicts. One can see this variety by looking, for example, at the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in the wake of the upcoming General Assembly, the arsenal of anti-military measures was reduced to the discussions about whether to exclude or keep the Russian Orthodox Church among the WCC’s members. The leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate demonstratively endorsed the Kremlin in its war against Ukraine, which urged many prominent figures in the ecumenical movement to call for excluding the Moscow Patriarchate from the WCC. Such calls came, for example, from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, Prof Fr Andrew Louth, et al. There was also a similar public call to the leaders of the EKD and WCC signed by prominent public intellectuals. These voices were mentioned, but not taken into consideration by either the Central Committee that met before the General Assembly in June or the General Assembly itself. Fr. Ioan Sauca explained in his opening speech at the Assembly in Karlsruhe:

During this time, we received letters and messages from individuals and three churches asking us to “expel” the Russian Orthodox Church from the fellowship of the WCC. In consultation with the leadership of the Central Committee, I responded to such requests based on the history of the council when our fellowship was confronted with similar situations.

However, there were no “similar situations” in the history of the WCC. Such a brutal war has not happened in Europe or in the world since the WWII. Even apartheid, which Fr. Ioan mentioned in his address, however brutal and unjust it was, could not match the Russian brutality. The churches that had supported the regime of Botha and were not expelled from the WCC for that, still were not as directly involved as the Russian Orthodox Church has become involved in supporting Putin’s regime. There was a “similar situation” in Europe, but it happened before the WCC was established. Then the Deutsche Christen openly endorsed the Nazi regime. Would the WCC have expelled the Deutsche Christen if the WCC were established before the WWII and this group were its member? Now I am not sure about that.

Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine was widely discussed both in the official meetings of the General Assembly and in its corridors. The Ukrainians were given floor to bring up their concerns. Historically, the Ukrainians participated in the WCC as members of Russian delegations. Only a part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, those who belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, had such a privilege. After 2014, when Metropolitan Onufry, known for his anti-ecumenism, became the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, this church dramatically reduced its participation in ecumenical activities. Onufry did not authorize the participation of his bishops in the Russian delegation in Karlsruhe. He sent only a small group of lay people, who participated separately from the Russians. In the meantime, other Ukrainian Orthodox churches were persistently knocking at the doors of the WCC. They increased their efforts after they united in 2018 in one independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and some other Orthodox churches – members of the WCC. Despite such recognition and the persistence of this church to join the WCC, the Council’s doors remained locked for it.

Only after the war started, the WCC accepted the application from the OCU for membership. Still, because of the WCC’s by-laws, the OCU could not yet send a delegation with the right to vote, but only observers. At the same time, the leadership of the WCC wanted to rescue the Russian membership whatever it takes. It seems that the Council’s leaderscould solve their dilemmas by balancing the Russian participation with admitting the Ukrainians as observers. This looks like a classical formula quid pro quo. However, does this formula apply to this situation? The Ukrainian participation in the WCC is long overdue. For the Ukrainian church to belong to the Council is not a privilege, but a right. To be deprived of such right, as it had been, it did not do anything wrong. Its only “fault” is that it is hated by the Russians, who blocked its admission to the Council. In contrast to the Ukrainians, however, the Russians did a lot of wrong things, and yet their memberships is carefully preserved. Moreover, the WCC without questions cooperated with the Russian in blockading the Ukrainians after 2014 and 2018.

The WCC explained its desire to keep the Russian Orthodox Church in this organisation and welcomed it at the General Assembly by the need for dialogue. Fr. Ioan Sauca stated in the mentioned introductory speech: “The WCC was created as an open platform for dialogue and encounter, for discussion and challenging one another on the path to unity.” However, was there a real and meaningful dialogue that the Russian delegation became engaged in during the General Assembly? Indeed, it met several religious leaders, including the representatives of the WCC’s leadership. However, according to the relevant information published on the official website of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russians used these meetings to promote narratives and interpretations of the war in tune with the Kremlin’s propaganda. This has been also confirmed by a member of the Russian delegation, metropolitan Leonid of Klin, who posted on his social media on the last day of the Assembly: “Thanks God, we accomplished our mission and did what we could.”

Moreover, some Russian delegates used their presence in Karlsruhe to insult the Ukrainian delegation. The mentioned Russian bishop described “the Ukrainian ‘performance’ at the WCC” as “boring,” because, in his words, there was no “Femen group” (a group of Ukrainian activists known for their bare-breasted protests). “At the end, he continues, the violinist played something sad. He played out of tune putting a bullet in the general line of falseness of Ukrainian speakers.” The Russian delegation, thus, used this “platform of dialogue,” as it was presented by the WCC, mostly to propagate the Kremlin’s narratives and insult the Ukrainians. The Federal President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, therefore, was right when he warned the WCC in his address on the first day of the Assembly:

Dialogue must bring to light what is happening. Dialogue must draw attention to injustice, must identify both victims and perpetrators – and their henchmen. Yet dialogue that does not move beyond pious wishes and vague generalisations can, in the worst case, become a platform for vindication and propaganda.

The Russians were very upset by this speech and expressed their dismay both officially and unofficially. This is probably because the Federal President nailed down their real intentions. Even the most naïve Western politicians, such as Steinmeier who before February 2022 was notoriously shortsighted about the Russian intentions and advocated for dialogue at any price, finally learned their lesson that the Russians usually hijack dialogues to promote their own agendas.

The Russians interpreted Steinmeier’s speech as an illustration of how politicians in the West interfere in the matters of the church. This was a clear manipulation, and the Russians effectively extrapolated upon Germany the Moscow Patriarchate’s own experience in Russia. The mentioned metropolitan Leonid posted on his social media:

Steinmeier directly demanded from the delegation of the ROC to express a clear position. It was a public pressure, which mounted almost to threats. Well, our Church is accustomed to pressure. Peoples in many other regions of the world also know well, what the Western pressure and persecutions are.

Leonid concluded his deliberations on Steinmeier’s speech: “He finished to prolonged applauses.” The metropolitan’s Russian expression meant orgasm.

Debates in the sessions were important, but everyone’s attention was at the official statement of the General Assembly on Ukraine. The statement, titled “War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region,” came out to be better than many, including myself, expected. In general, it was not much different from the statements by other international organizations that have condemned the Russian aggression. The General Assembly’s statement also condemned the war and named the aggressor: “This Assembly <…> denounces this illegal and unjustifiable war.”

At the same time, the statement continued treating Ukraine and Russia on the equal footing. In the line with the ill tradition of the earlier WCC statements on Ukraine, it appealed “to all sides in the conflict to respect the principles of international humanitarian law, including especially with regard to the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.” The WCC also renewed its call for “an immediate ceasefire to halt the death and destruction, and for dialogue and negotiations to secure a sustainable peace.” However, it did not specify to whom this call was addressed. This is in contrast, for example, to the statement “Seeking Justice and Peace for All in the Middle East,” which used a much clearer language explicitly against the State of Israel. This statement speaks about “Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories” as “illegal under international law.” I wish the WCC used the same language regarding the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian territories or its violation of the international law. Otherwise, one has an impression that the policies of Israel concern the WCC more than the Russian genocidal war in Ukraine.

In the process of drafting the declaration on “War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region,” the WCC violated the basic principle of international diplomacy regarding Ukraine: nothing about Ukraine without the Ukrainians. The drafting group included a Russian representative, but not a Ukrainian one, which is absurd. In discussing the statement, the Ukrainians were again put to a disadvantaged position in comparison with the Russians. The two Ukrainian delegates were given only one minute each to express themselves about the draft, while the Russian delegate Fr. Filaret Bulekov was given six minutes, which is far beyond the reglament.

No doubt, he used his time, generously granted by the moderator, to promote the Russian narratives about the war. In particular, he likened the mentioned document to the statements coming from McDonald’s or Starbucks. A Ukrainian delegate, Oleksandra Kovalenko, during her one-minute intervention reacted:

Dear brothers and sisters, I am asking you to hear me and to not compromise the obvious truth for the sake of diplomacy. Just name it as it is – Russian aggression against Ukraine. If the churches aren’t the ones raising their voices when there is violence and injustice happening, will we still be “the salt of the earth”? I also appeal to the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church and ask them – if you are against the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, please, raise your blue cards. It is very sad that you compare the blood of the Ukrainian people with Starbucks and McDonalds.

Not a single Russian delegate raised his or her card against the war. The Ukrainian delegates could not raise their cards, because, unlike the Russians, they did not have rights to vote.

Although the war as such was widely discussed at the sessions and in-between, what was not properly discussed is the future of the ecumenical movement after the war. No doubt that many would want to keep the ecumenical business as usual and to preserve the ecumenical status quo. Some, however, don’t believe such a business and status quo are possible anymore. Ecumenism did exist before the WWII, but only after the war it received a new and more powerful momentum, which, among other things, led to establishing the WCC. Now we are facing a similar momentum. Business as usual will discredit the established ecumenical movement.

To reconsider its policies and partnerships in the wake of the ongoing war does not mean to punish the Russian church, as many have perceived and presented the campaign about its exclusion from the WCC. It is rather about facilitating its metanoia and catharsis after the crimes committed. Such a metanoia could be achieved through the pressure from the global ecumenical community, which the WCC represents. The General Assembly, unfortunately, missed the kairos to positively influence the Russian Orthodox Church. Moreover, it implicitly endorsed what the Russians believed when they started the war: violate the international law, kill and rape, and in the end, you will get away with that.

The WCC missed the same kairos again following the General Assembly, when the official delegation of the Council visited Moscow in October 2022. The WCC official website on its front page published in a celebratory mood: “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, WCC acting general secretary meet in Moscow, agreeing that war cannot be holy.” I believe there is not much to celebrate, as, first, the patriarch never stated that any war could be holy. Second, he never called the war in Ukraine a “war” – according to the Russian propaganda, it is a “special operation.” Therefore, by condemning wars, the patriarch by default excludes the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine from this category. Third, he had calledthis war “metaphysical,” which is not the same as holy. Being “metaphysical” could also mean infernal, which I would agree with when it comes to the Ukrainian war.

In the communique, which was agreed upon by the WCC delegation and its Moscow hosts, the patriarch, while condemning wars in principle, made an explicit exception for the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine. He explained that it is supported by “the political context,” and the churches “must not add fuel to the fire.” The well-intended Western public would read this message as following: the war is waged by the Kremlin, and the Russian Orthodox Church wants to abstain from supporting it. However, the patriarch meant exactly the opposite: the war happens only because the Western politicians want so, and the global Christianity should not solidarize with what they impose on Russia. Unfortunately, many in the global ecumenical community would agree with such reading of the events. The patriarch tried to reach out to them.

He managed to use the platform of the WCC and its loud-speaking facilities to address the ecumenical urbi (Geneva) and orbi – through the frontpage of the WCC website. He channeled through it the main message of the Kremlin’s propaganda: this is a war of the West against innocent Russia; the West should stop punishing Russia for that; and the churches across the globe should advocate for that.

The WCC, thus, again allowed to be instrumentalized by the Russian propaganda. Although its sincere intention is to stop the war, it continues, against its will, contributing to it, by offering a platform to this propaganda. Such helplessness also indirectly boosts the legitimacy of Putin’s regime, by legitimizing its main legitimizer, the Russian Orthodox Church. We observed the same pattern in 2015, and we observe it still. Lessons have not been learned.

Therefore, one should not be surprised that the Moscow Patriarchate, in its statements following the General Assembly and during the visit of the WCC leaders to Moscow, has been unusually generous in giving compliments to the council and its leadership. I believe it is not just a form of diplomatic appeasement – in this case, Moscow finally means what it says.

Cover photo by Brett Johnson on Unsplash.


  • Cyril Hovorun

    Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is a Professor of Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at Professor at Stockholm School of Theology (University College Stockholm).

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1 Comment

[…] Ein Besuch von ÖRK-Generalsekretär Ioan Sauca in Moskau im Oktober wurde von vielen Seiten kritisiert. Er habe mit Patriarch Kirill geredet, aber am Ende sei nur ein schwammige Statement zum allgemeinen christlichen Friedensideal. Der Patriarch hätte sich mit dem Besuch sogar als Friedensstifter darstellen können und der ÖRK stünde wiederum als zahnloses Gebilde dar. Eine gute Analyse dieser Aspekte lieferte der ukrainische orthodoxe Theologe Cyril Hovorun. […]

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