20 February 2023

Invasion of Ukraine
has both united and
divided churches

A Ukrainian refugee among choirs singing in a square in central Budapest (Photograph Charlotte Hunter)

Orthodox churches
in Russia and Ukraine
are divided while
churches in countries
bordering the war
share a common mission

Rite & Reason
Patrick Comerford

The first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine looms on Friday. The war has deepened the rift separating the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine, and has caused further divisions within the Orthodox churches inside Ukraine.

However, the response of churches to the refugee crisis in countries bordering Ukraine and Russia has strengthened ecumenical partnerships, giving many of those churches a new understanding of sharing a common witness and mission.

For six years I was a trustee of USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), one of the oldest Anglican mission agencies. In recent weeks, USPG invited me to visit the Anglican churches in Hungary and Finland to see how they are responding to the crisis and to the needs of refugees.

Hungary has a long border with Ukraine, and people have long memories of the cold war era, including the Soviet role in suppressing the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Fr Frank Hegedűs, the Anglican priest in Budapest, is a former board member of Next Step Hungary, where volunteers help 500-600 people at weekends, providing food, meals and clothing.

With support and funding from USPG and the Anglican Diocese in Europe, Fr Frank and his parishioners at St Margaret’s Church are working with support groups like Ukrainian Space and with other churches, including the Jesuit Refugee Service and St Columba’s, the small (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland in Budapest.

This ecumenical co-operation has helped the Jesuits to provide accommodation, furnish a chapel and develop community space in Uzhhorod inside Ukraine. Ukrainian Space is providing a day-care and after-school programme in Budapest for Ukrainian children.

Finland was occupied by Russia throughout the 19th century, was invaded by the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and now shares a 1,300 km border with Russia. The Anglican Church in Finland was formed by refugees who fled St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and who were forced to flee further west again during the Winter War.

The Anglican priest in Helsinki, Fr Tuomas Mäkipää, brought us to visit the Vallila Help Centre, where Eeva (she prefers that her surname not be used) and a team of volunteers respond to the urgent, daily needs of Ukrainian refugees. A grant from USPG and the Anglican Diocese in Europe funds her work as the Humanitarian Aid Co-ordinator.

The centre was up and running a week after the invasion of Ukraine and has become a shared space for several relief organisations and an information and assistance point for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. It began providing food for 140 families, but this number has reached more than 3,360 families.

Four of us – Rebecca Boardman, Charlotte Hunter and myself from USPG, and Amber Jackson from the Diocese in Europe – spent a morning working with Eeva’s volunteers, packing bags and essential food for distribution among 100 Ukrainian families.

One Ukrainian refugee, Natalia (42), who also asked that her surname not be used, told us how she fled to Finland, leaving her husband behind to look after elderly people in their apartment block. He was not involved in the fighting, but was killed by Russian troops after they took over the empty apartments in their block. Natalia has been back for his funeral, but now does not know whether she can ever return home again.

Fr Tuomas works closely with the Lutheran Church and the Finnish Orthodox Church. In Holy Trinity Church, the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Fr Heikki Huttunen celebrates the liturgy in Finnish, Church Slavonic and Russian, reflecting the diversity of his people and the conflicts that are redefining their identities.

“We are the closest church to these Ukrainians,” he says, “and we should be the first to open our arms to welcome them.” Vassili Goutsoul of the Ukrainian Association in Finland admits that in the first few months of the crisis everyone expected the situation to have stabilised by now. In a similar vein, Ákos Surányi of Menedékház, a refugee facility in Budapest, says: “No one expected the war to go on for this long.”

I asked Fr Frank how many families hoped to return from Budapest when the war ends. “They have nothing to go back for,” he says with sadness in his eyes. “They have lost not just their homes, but their entire towns and cities.”

Fr Tuomas says the response to the crisis has transformed the mission and outlook of his churches in Helsinki, and they are starting to learn the impact of what they are doing.

Sarah Tahvanainen, a Cambridge theology graduate, is administrator of St Nicholas’s Anglican Church in Helsinki. She sees the present crisis as “a gifted time” and “an opportunity to put faith into practice, an opportunity to show love and compassion. It’s faith in action.”

Rev Canon Prof Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest and a former Irish Times journalist now living in retirement in the Diocese of Oxford

This ‘Rite & Reason’column was published in The Irish Times on Monday 20 February 2023

No comments: