Religion and the Ukraine Crisis: Four Key Questions

Ukrainians gather in Maidan Square to protest Russia's entry into the Crimean peninsula, 2 March 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ukrainians gather in Maidan Square to protest Russia’s entry into the Crimean peninsula, 2 March 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the eyes of the world continue to focus on the crisis unfolding in the Ukraine, images are emerging from the conflict of religious leaders providing inspiration and blessing to participants from all sides of the conflict. But what exactly is the role of religion in the Ukraine crisis and how significant is it for how we understand the relationship between religion and politics in a global context? In today’s post John Rees poses four questions and some possible answers that can help us begin to make sense of the role of religion in the Ukraine crisis.

Researchers in religion and politics have long had an eye on the Ukraine. Situated on the fault line between what Samuel Huntington controversially called ‘Western’ and ‘Orthodox’ civilizations, the ex-Soviet nation is currently experiencing a seismic clash of interests, seemingly split in half by competing loyalties, languages and visions for the future. As we try and make sense of the unfolding drama, which will continue for some time as the Ukraine maps its future course, how can we understand the role played by religion? Here are four start-up questions to ask, along with some possible answers.

1. Is religious difference driving the conflict?

No, but it is an important question to ask. It is important because religious identity can be used to identify some competing interests in Ukraine, notably Catholics and Orthodox-style ‘Greek Catholics’ that look to the ‘West’, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that looks to the ‘East’, particularly to the ecclesiastical authority of the Moscow Patriarchate. Yet religious beliefs and divisions have not caused the conflict, which at its heart, concerns whether Ukraine’s economic and security links to the European Union are strengthened. Neither can the ousted regime, new government, nor the popular protest movement be divided along confessional lines. Rather, the ‘clash’ is better understood as being shaped by economic opportunity, democratic disgust at a return to autocracy, political inducements and coercion by powerful foreign interests, and differences in language and cultural background. Religion is certainly a part of the last element, and is thus a part of the tapestry of the Ukrainian crisis, but it is not the binding thread.

2.       Did religion sustain the protests?

Yes, and the world was watching. Some of the most striking images coming from Independence Square in Kiev during three bitterly cold months of demonstrations were of priests moving and ministering among the protesters. Many pictures have gone viral via social media, eliciting constant comments about the inspiration that they invoke. This is apt, for to ‘inspire’ is to ‘breathe life’ into an object, and the presence of clergy and the holy icons they bear was certainly a sustaining force for those involved in a dangerous struggle for political change. To the secular-modern mind, such images are strange, for robes and rituals are not readily seen in the public square, let alone at the heart of a political struggle. Yet an alternative, postsecular, view understands this as neither anachronistic nor a new development in religious behaviour. As the anthropologist Talal Asad once stated, religion ‘was always involved in the world of power’, practiced in the public domain and shaping political society. In this sense, the Ukraine example is dramatic but not exceptional.

3.       Is there a parallel to Poland in the 1980s?

No, even if the temptation to see one seems irresistible. In 1980, as the Soviet Union was beginning its decade-long collapse, the Solidarity Movement was born in the shipyards of the Polish city of Gdansk when striking workers affixed a large crucifix on the gateway to the docks. Over the coming weeks, priests received confession and inspired the strikers with courage as a violent regime was forced to retreat. Whilst the parallel to the Kiev protests seems compelling, three important differences exist. Firstly, the religious influence upon Solidarity was foundational, whereas in Kiev it is ancillary. Noted scholar of politics and religion, Scott Thomas, argues that ‘a prior moral, cultural, and religious revolution prepared the way for the Polish Revolution’ and can be traced to Catholic renewal strategies beginning in the 1950s.  In the Ukraine, religious elements are supporting a movement laid with economic, security and cultural foundations. Secondly, religious identity in Poland was a unifying factor against a more aggressively anti-religious and totalitarian regime. As such, it was much easier to identify the interests of religious authorities in respect to change. In the Ukraine, religious leadership and their communities exist on all sides of the conflict. This is powerfully illustrated by Orthodox support for both sides of Russia’s potential annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Analysts of religion will therefore have to work with more precision if sacral influences and agendas are to be identified and understood. Thirdly, the religious voice in Kiev is one of many in a diverse civil society movement of change. In Poland in the 1980s religion-led action occurred in a closed public square and is thus understood in a very different political context.

4.       Is there a role for religious actors in creating political stability?

Yes, at both the local and the transnational levels. Whilst religious adherence in Ukraine is variable, the cultural and political currency of religious authorities appears high. As elsewhere, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples become places where attitudes are shaped, powerfully reinforced by sacred rituals and messages often designed to bring order in an otherwise chaotic world. Thus, local religious leaders become key stakeholders in maintaining or destroying a sustainable civil peace in and through their religious practice, and in advocating for the rights of their constituents. Internationally, the Ukraine crisis is as regional in character as it is national, with European, American and Russian interests all vying for influence. In this context the diplomatic efforts of global religious organizations such as the transnational peak bodies of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions might be vital in brokering political unity. One should not be naïve about the challenge this represents, for longstanding religious disunity is itself a problem. Nevertheless, these sacral international organisatons are uniquely equipped among non-state actors, one might argue, to operate with authority both on the diplomatic ‘stage’ and ‘behind the scenes’. In a recent study titled Global Institutions of Religion author Katherine Marshall, a leading intellectual and policy maker on religion in world affairs, argues that ‘in approaching global issues, taking into account the religious institutions involved is a necessary part of understanding stakeholders and looking to solutions’. To this extent, with the story still a long way to run, researchers on religion and politics will have many reasons to keep an eye on the Ukraine for some time.

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