The Russia-Ukraine war exemplifies the clash of fundamentally different value systems, ethical frameworks and historical narratives. So where can we find shared interests? Ecumenical peacebuilding could guide the way.
By Peter Prove
The Black Sea Grain Initiative demonstrated “the importance of discreet diplomacy in finding multilateral solutions”. It was negotiated in response to spiralling global food prices and heightened famine risks in countries around the world due to the disruption of exports of wheat, other staples and fertiliser from the region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As of 17 November 2022, approximately 11 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs had been exported from Ukraine, thanks to this agreement, contributing significantly to the stabilisation of global food prices.
As Richard Wilcox of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue is reported to have written in a concept note that provided a key foundation for the initiative, “Irrespective of the course of the war, active mediation diplomacy could align actors’ interests.” “Ukraine”, he wrote, “would benefit from export revenues. Russia could protect its interests with key countries in Africa and the Middle East and mitigate perceptions of its global role. Russian wheat exports, being avoided by traders even if not directly under sanctions, could also be included in the deal.”
Despite a brief suspension in late October 2022, the success of this initiative illustrates the feasibility of achieving agreement through dialogue on the basis of mutual interests and the common good, even in the midst of a kind of conflict, confrontation and division unprecedented in over a generation. In a context where there are very few other signs of possible compromise, it’s a beacon of hope.
"In a conflict where fundamentally different value systems, ethical frameworks and readings of history are evidently at play, where might shared values, interests and identities be found, and which actors might be positioned to help build a bridge across the divide?"
So, what more might be achieved in 2023 through “jaw-jaw” in this time of “war-war”? In a conflict where fundamentally different value systems, ethical frameworks and readings of history are evidently at play, where might shared values, interests and identities be found, and which actors might be positioned to help build a bridge across the divide?
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has come under heavy pressure to suspend the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) – which joined the WCC in 1961 – from WCC membership. These calls have been provoked especially by statements made by ROC Patriarch Kirill that are widely interpreted as offering support and justification for President Putin’s “special military operation”. While the suspension of membership is vanishingly rare in WCC’s history, the strength of sentiment in the WCC’s wider constituency on this matter was indicated in the message issued by an ecumenical roundtable meeting on the Ukraine crisis convened by WCC on 10 June 2022:
“…we strongly reject the apparent instrumentalisation of religious language by political and church leaders to support an armed invasion of a sovereign country. We cannot see this as anything other than fundamentally contradictory to our common understanding of core Christian and ecumenical principles.”.
The fact that the WCC’s 11th Assembly was to take place in Karlsruhe, Germany, in the first week of September 2022 presented a special challenge. WCC Assemblies are only convened at eight-year intervals (though this particular Assembly had been delayed even longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and all member churches are invited to send delegations. However, in the prevailing geopolitical circumstances, the prospect of a ROC delegation attending the Assembly raised serious concerns not only among other WCC members but also for the German government.
Nevertheless, in resisting pressures for the ROC to be excluded, WCC Acting General Secretary Rev. Prof. Dr. Ioan Sauca repeatedly emphasised that the WCC exists not because its members agree but precisely because they disagree and that WCC’s primary purpose is to serve as a platform for dialogue in the midst of disagreement. And so, in due course, a 20-member ROC delegation was present in Karlsruhe to hear President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s very pointed remarks in the opening session:
“The heads of the Russian Orthodox Church are currently leading their members and their entire church down a dangerous and indeed blasphemous path (...) The fact that [the ROC representatives] are here is not something we should take for granted in these times. I expect this Assembly not to spare them the truth about this brutal war and the criticism of the role of their church leaders. (...) The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has aligned itself with the crimes of the war against Ukraine. This totalitarian ideology, disguised as theology, has led to the complete or partial destruction of so many religious sites on Ukrainian territory. (...) No Christian who is still in possession of their faith, their mind and their senses will be able to see God’s will in this.
Nevertheless, the worst fears of the German government that the ROC delegation would misuse the platform offered by attendance at the Assembly in Germany to promote political propaganda were not realised. On the contrary, the ROC delegation consciously refrained from obstructing consensus on a public policy statement on the war in Ukraine, which, among other things:
- Denounced the war as “illegal and unjustifiable”;
- Appealed for respect for the principles of international humanitarian law, “especially with regard to the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war”;
- Affirmed that “war is incompatible with God’s very nature and will for humanity and against our fundamental Christian and ecumenical principles”;
- Rejected the “misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred”; and
- Appealed “to our Christian brothers and sisters and to the leadership of the churches in Russia as well as in Ukraine, to raise their voices to oppose the continuing deaths, destruction, displacement and dispossession of the people of Ukraine”.
At the same time, the Assembly statement called “for a much greater investment by the governments of Europe and the entire international community in searching for and promoting peace… rather than in escalating confrontation and division”. The Assembly observed that “WCC has a critical role to play in accompanying its member churches in the region and as a platform and safe space for encounter and dialogue in order to address the many pressing issues for the world and for the ecumenical movement arising from this conflict.”
"There is a chance that “ecumenical peacebuilding” – whereby WCC member churches enmeshed in wider conflict situations are engaged in a kind of inter-church “Track 2” process – could in 2023 build upon the kind of humanitarian dialogue that produced the Black Sea Grain Initiative (focusing on the humanitarian consequences of conflict) and add a further dimension focusing on some fundamental conflict drivers."
Based on these developments in 2022, there is a chance that “ecumenical peacebuilding” – whereby WCC member churches enmeshed in wider conflict situations are engaged in a kind of inter-church “Track 2” process – could in 2023 build upon the kind of humanitarian dialogue that produced the Black Sea Grain Initiative (focusing on the humanitarian consequences of conflict) and add a further dimension focusing on some fundamental conflict drivers. There are some important reasons why this might be the case.
Religion – and especially Orthodox Christianity – continues to play a very influential role in the identities and perspectives of the people of the region. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicated that 71% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians. Likewise, in Ukraine, an estimated 78% of the population adheres to Orthodox Christianity. However, a shared religious identity as Orthodox Christians does not mean that it necessarily provides an easy bridge for dialogue. Tensions and conflicts within and amongst the Orthodox churches and communities of the region have been brewing since 2014, at the very least, and escalated massively following the February 2022 invasion.
The Russian Orthodox Church heads the Moscow Patriarchate, which has historically encompassed demographic majorities in Ukraine and Belarus, as well as in Russia. These communities now find themselves on very different sides of the current conflict.
Given the fundamental issues of moral reference and identity that are in conflict – or, at least, being appealed to – and the salience of religion in this context, the WCC’s role may have a particular significance in the search for a peace that is more than the mere absence of conflict. Moreover, the “stress test” of the WCC’s recent Assembly – and the manner of the ROC delegation’s participation therein – gives a sufficient minimum basis on which to proceed.
And just as for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, WCC’s location in Geneva is seen as a conducive factor for pursuing such initiatives, the Swiss Federal Government’s participation in the international sanctions against Russia notwithstanding. The role of “International Geneva” as a space for and enabler of diplomacy and dialogue remains of distinctive and demonstrable value, even – or perhaps especially – in a world in which the geopolitical terrain, the relative positions of States, and the importance of non-State actors have changed so markedly.
About the Author
Peter Prove is the Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) at the World Council of Churches (WCC). He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and an LLM from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.