World leaders aren’t the only ones trying to stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Representatives of church and religious organizations in Ukraine and Russia, including a United Methodist bishop, have gathered twice to pursue dialogue and strengthen the relationships between faith groups in the two countries.
More than 5,400 people have died since the conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and separatist fighters began last April, the BBC reports. While the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine gathered Feb. 11 in Minsk, Belarus, for peace talks, eventually reaching a ceasefire agreement, some religious leaders are working for peace on a smaller scale.
The most recent meeting, held Jan. 20-22 in Wuppertal, Germany, continued dialogue begun in September, noted United Methodist Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Area, which covers congregations and Bible groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.
The United Methodist Germany South Annual Conference sent an open letter to German officials in early June expressing concerns about a possible military solution to the Ukraine conflict.
German Bishop Rosemarie Wenner helped with arrangements for the January meeting. “I am so very grateful to the UMC in Germany and our global UMC for helping us with hosting this event,” said Khegay, a native of Kazakhstan.
The main task, the 44-year-old episcopal leader told United Methodist News Service, was to “prepare for a bigger meeting of religious leaders,” similar to an initial gathering in Norway last September. The coming meeting will include more major denominations.
Speaking as clergy, not citizens
The first gathering of religious representatives from Ukraine and Russia took place in Oslo, sponsored by the Norwegian Bible Society with support from the Norwegian government.
The goal was to speak together as clergy, not citizens of their respective nations. “It is important for us to speak with each other not from the perspective of our state governments' positions, but by the truth of God as the ministers of God,” said Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate and the current chair of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations.
During the Oslo meeting, Khegay pointed to what he had learned about peacemaking from one of his teachers, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
“When the war in Ukraine stops, religious leaders will have a special role for reconciliation,” Khegay said. “We teach people to forgive and not to hold a grudge; to love and not to take revenge; to reveal mercy and not to judge. All this is impossible without God's help.”
In a document issued at the end of the Oslo Roundtable, participants called “on all believers” to pray for peace in Ukraine and, when possible, cooperate in achieving that peace.
“Even though we may have both common views and differences of opinion regarding the causes, events and consequences of today's crisis, we aim through dialogue to achieve mutual understanding, realizing that our goal is to witness to the truth and to promote the achievement of peace,” the communiqué said.
Aid to the suffering
Religious leaders also have an obligation to respond to those who have suffered because of the conflict, Khegay said.
The Eurasia area has two churches in Eastern Ukraine – one in Lugansk and one in Krasnoarmeisk near Donetsk.
“The members of Lugansk church have scattered all over Russia and Ukraine – 62 of our 65 members left Lugansk last year,” the bishop said. “UMCOR helped us tremendously to provide food and shelter for our members and beyond. I am grateful for our connectional UMC and its efficient response in time of crisis.”
In an Aug. 14 letter, Khegay noted how the relentless shelling of Lugansk “was felt by many of our United Methodist people.” A special offering had been taken that month for the congregation there.
The Rev. Alexandr Merzlyakov, the pastor of the Lugansk church, has started a new faith community in Simferopol, Crimea, with some other members of that congregation. Crimea is now a Russian territory.
“Lugansk UMC (members) recently began to return home, but it is still uncertain how things will develop,” Khegay added. “We pray and hope that the war will end as soon as possible.”
The Rev. John Calhoun, a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries who serves in Kiev, is helping displaced people, “including African students who were members of Lugansk UMC,” Khegay said. A few other members moved to the Chelyabinsk region, where they are receiving support from the Satka United Methodist Church.
The statement crafted by religious leaders in Oslo supports humanitarian aid in eastern Ukraine and condemns actions such as torture, kidnapping and looting.
“As religious leaders we want to pay special attention to the need to ensure the freedom of religion in the war zone,” they stressed, adding that violence against clergy, lay people, religious buildings and houses of prayer “of any denomination” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions was “not permissible.”