Priesthood, Politics and Propaganda: One Clergyman’s Life in War-Torn Ukraine - Word&Way

Priesthood, Politics and Propaganda: One Clergyman’s Life in War-Torn Ukraine

The Rev. Sergiy Berezhnoy in central 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 Rev. Sergiy Berezhnoy, an Orthodox priest and chaplain with the Ukrainian army in Kyiv’s 42nd Battalion, hears most often from soldiers headed to the front lines of the war with Russia.

The 38-year-old clergyman — who, despite spending his days packing humanitarian aid headed for hard-hit areas and presiding over frequent funerals at cemeteries and crematoriums, exudes sincere pastoral warmth — said he fields this question amid the bustle of military buildings and the candlelit quiet of church alike.

Soldiers often come to Berezhnoy’s parish, situated right off a busy road in a semi-industrial neighborhood north of the city center, seeking confession and Communion before leaving for combat.

The church, named in honor of the Kyivan saints, stands between a gas station and the shores of Lake Jordan. While the small wooden structure looks more like a warming house than a grand cathedral, Berezhnoy excitedly points out that the parish stands on an auspicious site.

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

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

In opposition to how Russian President Vladimir Putin has long characterized the event to claim Ukraine should be part of Russia, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, introduced Ukrainian Statehood Day, to be celebrated alongside the story of the historic baptism.

From these shores of national mythos, soldiers visiting Berezhnoy make their way to the country’s most heavily hit areas, such as the Donbas region in the east. Or the southern city of Kherson, where the Ukrainian army has launched an ambitious bid to retake the city from Russian control.

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

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

The issue of Ukrainian identity, and what is required to protect it, is not isolated to life on the front lines.

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

The choice comes down to which church to be a part of: the 3-year-old independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine or the older Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has historic ties with Moscow.

Long before he was a priest, Berezhnoy was helping out as an altar boy on Sundays at an Orthodox parish in his hometown in Eastern Ukraine. “I saw how the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Federation played on the religious feeling of our people in Donbas,” Berezhnoy explained, recalling pamphlets frequently being distributed to churchgoers in the early 2000s, calling on faithful to vote for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian politician who went on to become Ukraine’s president before being ousted during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

The creation of three distinct post-Soviet states — Ukraine, Russia and Belarus — was likened by Orthodox church leaders to an attempt to split the Holy Trinity.

“Absolutely the church was used by Russia for propaganda,” said the Rev. 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 this sort of political propaganda was not unique to Orthodox churches nearer to the Russian border, but could be found throughout the country — including at major Orthodox sacred sites, such as the Pochayiv Lavra, just a few hours’ drive from the Polish border.

“There’s always been a fusing of national and religious identity in predominantly Orthodox countries,” said Catherine Wanner, a cultural anthropologist with 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’s been “an ongoing, enduring secularization — secularism as a political principle.”

Despite stories from the Donbas, some Orthodox faithful in the post-Soviet era did not see their Ukrainian national identity at odds with their Orthodox faith. One such person was the top Ukrainian Orthodox church leader in Kyiv, Metropolitan Volodymyr, who ordained Berezhnoy to the priesthood in 2012.

During Volodymyr’s tenure, Berezhnoy assisted Hovorun, who was at that time the head of the department of external church relations for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with a project aimed at reconciling the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with two smaller Orthodox church groups — each of which also claimed to be the national church of the country while rejecting ties with Moscow.

It was a very great time for the church,” said Berezhnoy. “Father (Cyril) prepared a very great project — the project of how to unite all the jurisdictions.”

But the idea of dialogue, let alone the possibility of a unified Ukrainian church with a strong national identity, was a threat to Moscow.

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

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

Berezhnoy was similarly removed from a position at the Kyiv Theological Academy, run by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the famous Kyiv Perchersk Lavra, not long after signing a petition that supported peaceful dialogue between the pro-European Maidan protesters and state military groups in 2014.

He was reassigned to a pro-Russian parish in Kyiv, where the head priest expected him to sign a different sort of petition — this time to protest the establishment of a new Ukrainian church with nearly the same name: The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (as opposed to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) aimed to exist outside the authority of church leadership in Moscow.

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

So he left. In 2019 Berezhnoy joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which had been granted Tomos — self-governance — by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul early that year, flying in the face of Moscow’s refusal to recognize the new church.

“I am so proud about this decision,” Berezhnoy said.

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

When his in-laws heard the news that Berezhnoy had joined the independent, or autocephalous, church, they cut ties with him. Then his wife did too. He occasionally sees his adolescent son, who he says understands his decisions well. “You know this Russian world and this Russian propaganda,” said Berezhnoy, his usual pep diminishing slightly, “also targeted the hearts of my relatives.”

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

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

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

“I consider our world as one whole great mosaic,” Berezhnoy explains to the soldiers waiting to leave Kyiv. “Each nation is like a piece of glass. And without any (one) of the glass pieces, 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.”