Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Religion and Resistance: The Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches in Resistance Efforts in the War Against Russia
Religion and Resistance: The Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches in Resistance Efforts in the War Against Russia

Religion and Resistance: The Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches in Resistance Efforts in the War Against Russia

Editor’s Note: This article is based on the 26th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion & World Affairs, given by Dr. Heather S. Gregg on November 01, 2022.


Carol “Rollie” Flynn:

Good evening and thank you for coming this evening. We realize there’s a very exciting event tonight, so we are starting right on time by popular request. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Rollie Flynn. I’m the president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). We’re a nonpartisan think tank here in Philadelphia. I’d like to first thank the Museum of American Revolution for hosting us tonight. We’re very pleased to have this facility and as many of you know, FPRI’s annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs is a very special occasion for FPRI. This annual tradition has become, again, one of our enduring traditions, and it was begun in 1996 with a gift from the late John M. Templeton, Jr., MD. And this tonight will be our 26th annual Templeton Lecture. We welcome not only our audience that’s here in person, but we have 150 signups to be on Zoom this evening. So it may look like a relatively intimate gathering here, but we have a large, large number in the Zoom audience.

By way of background, John (Jack) Templeton was president of the John Templeton Foundation and had a decades-long association with FPRI, serving as vice chair of FPRI’s Board of Trustees. Jack Templeton, along with his beloved wife Pina Templeton, provided critical support to FPRI for many, many years and we’re deeply grateful to them both and to the Templeton Foundation and the Templeton family and the Psalm 103 Foundation for their ongoing support to FPRI and its mission. Simply put, FPRI would not be the organization it is today without the support of the Templeton family.

This year we’re very fortunate to have our Templeton lecturer, Dr. Heather Gregg, who was going to talk about how the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches have played a role in the resistance in Ukraine. Heather Gregg, Dr. Heather S. Gregg, is a professor of military strategy and policy at the US Army War College in the Strategic Studies Institute. And she has written extensively on the topic of religious conflict. Prior to joining the US Army War College, Dr. Gregg was an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, where she worked primarily with Special Operations forces. She is also the 2017 recipient of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Hamming Award for Excellence in teaching. She earned her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also holds a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School where she studied Islam and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology with honors from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

We’ve also discovered that we hail from the same part of California and that our fathers were both in the Forest Service at roughly the same time. Shout out to California. Dr. Gregg has published extensively on irregular warfare, religiously motivated conflict, and extremism. And her recent books include Religious Terrorism published by Cambridge University Press in 2020, Religious Violence published by Oxford University Press in 2016. She has several other books as well. Before I turn the floor over to Dr. Gregg, I’d just once again like to say thank you to all of you, our supporters and some of you are board members, and tell you how much we appreciate what you do for us. We could not do these programs without you. Dr. Gregg, the floor is yours.

Dr. Heather Gregg:

Wow. Good evening everyone. It is such an honor to be here. I’d just like to begin by thanking the family of Dr. Templeton for their attention and continued support of this topic of religion and global affairs. For me, this is such an important topic and it’s one that doesn’t always get the attention I think it needs. So I just want to thank the family for their continued support of this effort. I also want to thank the Foreign Policy Research Institute for selecting me to give the talk this evening. I’m truly honored and thank you Rollie for that amazing introduction. And I’d like to thank you guys all for coming. I know this is a big night for Philadelphia, and so I’m very excited to see the outcome and of course, I am rooting wholeheartedly for their victory.

So I imagine that everybody in this room has been concerned about the current war in Ukraine and have spent considerable time reading and studying the war as its and its development since Russia’s invasion in February. And since that time, we’ve seen incredible acts of bravery from the Ukrainian population and it feels like just about from everyone.

This includes a number of ranging from average citizens getting rapid military training and volunteering to actually put their lives on the line, groups of people making Molotov cocktails and then using those against Russian vehicles, the sabotage of Russia’s logistic lines, the emergence of something called cyber elves that are fighting Russian trolls in cyberspace, which is an extremely important fight that’s going on right now to counter misinformation and disinformation. And my personal favorite and elderly woman giving a handful of sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier and telling him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies, his body will fertilize those seeds and grow flowers. I would even point here to President Zelensky refusing to leave the country. These are all incredible acts of something called resistance, which I will describe a bit further in a moment.

Within Ukraine’s resistance of the Russian occupation. I’d like to discuss specifically tonight how the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church are both contributing to efforts to fight Russia’s invasion since February, 2022. So this is going to be the topic tonight. And in order to do this, I want to do five things together this evening. I first want to start off by talking about what is resistance, and we’ll talk about this as a military concept or a strategy when in the face of occupation. I second want to talk about how religion can help inform resistance. And then I’m going to talk a little bit about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Within that fourth, I’ll talk a little bit about what they’re doing to help with resistance. And then finally, I’m going to end with a cautionary note about bringing religion into military conflicts and some of the problems that might arise from doing that.

So the first topic is what is resistance? In 2019, the Swedish Defense University together with US Special Operations Command Europe created something called the resistance operating concept (ROC). This is a document that you can download on the internet. I highly recommend you do it. And what it is, it’s a how to manual for how to resist an occupation and how to resist a country’s invasion and occupation. So the ROC is broken into three parts. The first part is called resilience, and the ROC defines resilience as the will and ability to withstand external pressure and influences and/or recover from those pressures and influences. So critically, the ROC argues that in order to have a successful resistance movement, you have to start before you’re occupied. That makes sense, right? And the population should be prepared in a number of ways.

Resilience also includes planning for the next stage, which is resistance. So resistance starts when a country invades another country, and the ROC defines this as a nation’s organized whole of society effort encompassing the full range of activities from nonviolent to violent by a legally established government to reestablish independence and autonomy within its sovereign territory that has been wholly or partially occupied by a foreign power. So for me, a couple of things are really important about this definition. First of all, resistance theoretically begins when a country physically invades, but I’d like to suggest that it may actually begin before that. Today we know that in the cyber domain, we may actually have invasions through misinformation, through disinformation, through hacking and other means. And I think that preparing the population for this is important. So even the United States can learn from this document the ROC, I think it’s a very useful document.

I think the other thing that’s very useful about this document is that resistance requires all of society. And it’s not saying that all of society needs to fight violently, it’s saying all of society has a role to play, whether it’s nonviolent, non cooperation, mass protests, just being difficult or helping those that are fighting and so on. But this idea here is it’s a whole of society effort, and I think this is really important. And then finally, resistance is it has a range of activities from nonviolent to violent. So this document was created by the military, so they’re going to include violent activity in it. So we’ll talk a little bit more hopefully about this in the Q&A.

But then the third stage, which I think is the most important stage of this document is called legitimacy. And the idea here is that legitimacy is the return of the legitimate government and the full sovereignty of the country, and that involves getting the occupying power out of the country. So the ROC defines legitimacy as a key factor in how a social unit structure or formation is held together. And legitimacy plays a critical role in cohesion and appeal of a resistance movement. So the idea here is that this is different than say, organized crime or transnational criminal organization. The goal here is to restore legitimacy to the country, and that is to restore the legitimate government. So again, the presence of President Zelensky and his continued presence inside the country is deeply important. This is something I don’t know if you remember in the first days of the conflict, I think most people expected him to flee, and the fact that he didn’t was truly courageous and deeply important for the stage of legitimacy and returning the country to sovereignty and legitimacy.

So to sum all this up, these three pieces together, resilience, resistance, and legitimacy, create something called total defense. And total defense is defined as a whole of government, a whole of society approach to defense, which includes interoperability among its forces and those of its allies and partners. But within this, the primary actor are the population, are civilians. So to sum all this up, the critical component of total defense is an average person. And I think if you think about this, it’s deeply empowering. If you think about being occupied by a foreign government or a foreign military, the idea that everyone has a role to play in resisting that is a deeply empowering thing. And I think this document does that.

And so the other thing that’s very important is that resistance movements require external support. So even though we know that Ukraine is not part of NATO, even though that is true, there is still a lot of foreign support going in supporting the Ukrainian cause. And not just military support, right? Moral support. I was just talking with one of your colleagues before the start of our talk this evening. And in Carlisle, a lot of people are flying Ukrainian flags. I live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a lot of people are flying Ukrainian flags. And this is a show of support. This is moral support for Ukrainian people, and I think it’s really powerful. So okay, that is resistance.

Now let’s talk a little bit about point number two, which is how can religion help with resistance? So interestingly in the ROC, the resistance operating concept, religion barely came up at all. And I find this really surprising because religion can play a deeply important role in all stages of total defense, and there’s a lot of resources available. I think it’s also interesting because religion has played an important role in resistance movements in the past. So here I’m thinking about the solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. That’s one example where obviously the connection at the time Pope John Paul II was Polish, and that connection was deeply felt and the church played roles in mobilization. So I think this is an important part of resistance, religion, and it’s interesting that the ROC doesn’t talk about it.

But here I’d like to suggest that religion is a ready made toolkit for resistance. And so let me give some examples of things religion brings. It brings an ideology. So ideologies as I define them, are a complex set of beliefs that tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we ought to behave. And ideologies are everywhere. So we’re a liberal democracy. There is an ideology attached to that. There’s an ideology with being American. A lot of these things are under dispute right now and possibly even under attack. But religion provides yet another ideology that could be useful in the face of occupation.

Somewhat controversially religions also prepare people for suffering for hard times, and this is something that could be extremely useful under occupation. Religions also have belief in divine guidance and supernatural intervention. So if for example, you feel like you’re losing in the near term, it could provide hope for long term success. Religions contain seasoned leadership. And we’re going to talk in a minute about how in the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church, there were significant leaders that have fought Soviet occupation and Soviet, Soviet of Ukrainian identity. Religions also tend to have networks at the community, the national, and even the transnational level. And so this is extremely useful if you’re trying to build a resistance movement.

And then finally, religions have material resources. They have things like buildings, like money printing presses, and these can be extremely useful under times of occupation. So I’ve added here one last thing, is critically, if occupying powers target religions, that often doesn’t go well for them. It raises international concern about religious freedoms. And so often times religious spaces and religious leaders are left alone, not always, but they’re given more space to operate because occupying powers know there’s a cost associated with targeting those groups. And I would just finally add that religion can inform legitimacy as well. And here this wouldn’t look like a government per se, that it would be legitimacy of leadership and of a cause. And we’re going to see that both of these churches have played a very important role in shaping identity and legitimacy in Ukraine.

Alright, so that brings us to point number three, and this is the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic church in the Ukraine. So before we discuss these churches, I’m going to take a second to describe the background of each of these denominations because they may not be familiar to everyone in the room. So let me start with the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is part of what we typically call in the West Eastern Orthodoxy … Eastern Orthodoxy. And here’s a history lesson began to emerge after what was called the Great Schism in 1094. And this is when the Pope excommunicated the patriarch, so the father of Eastern—what became Eastern—Orthodoxy in Constantinople, they got in a irreconcilable disagreement over doctrinal issues and the patriarch refusing to recognize the Pope as the legitimate authority of his churches. So at the time of this schism, this Great Schism, the churches already looked very different. So in the West, Latin was the language used in the mass. In the East it was mostly Greek. And so there was also things like the use of icons. These are things that we don’t normally see in Western Christian traditions. So today Eastern Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian denomination. The largest is Roman Catholicism. So there’s the people that are loyal to the Pope. And then the second largest is Eastern Orthodoxy. And it has roughly 260 million members worldwide.

Now, significantly, the largest church inside Eastern Orthodoxy is the Russian Orthodox Church, and that’s about a third of members worldwide. So this is going to be very significant for when I talk about the creation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Okay, one last important distinction to make here is that Eastern Orthodoxy is not organized like Roman Catholicism. They don’t have a figure like the Pope. And in fact, what they have are called autocephalous churches. And that means self head or self leading churches. And within that, there are fourteen or fifteen independent or self-leading churches, and the patriarch of Constantinople, which is in Istanbul today, he’s considered the first among equal. So he is not like the Pope, but he does have some influence.

The reason why there is not agreement over how many heads there are in the Eastern Orthodox Church is because in order for that number to be agreed to, everyone has to unanimously agree on each of the independent heads, and some heads do not have unanimity with the members as recognized as independence, and you may not be surprised to learn that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is one of those churches.

So I know this is, bear with me because this is a lot of history, but I think it’s significant. So the Ukrainian Orthodox Church actually requested to break with the Moscow patriarch—so this is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church—in 2018. And very significantly, this letter to break with the Russian Orthodox Church was signed or was also accompanied by a letter from the Ukrainian Parliament and from President Zelensky. So this was not just a religious thing, it was also deeply political. On January 6th, 2019, the patriarch of Constantinople agreed that Ukraine should be its own independent head. It’s probably not going to surprise you to learn that Russia absolutely disagreed with this decision. So it was a deeply religious decision, but also had political consequences.

Both Patriarch Kirill, who is the Moscow patriarch, so the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin spoke out against the decision. So Patriarch Kirill said, “It is impossible for us to separate Kyiv from our country as this is where our history began. The Russian Orthodox Church preserves the national consciousness of both Russians and Ukrainians.” And then Vladimir Putin added to this that the decision was designed to, quote, “Divide the people of Russia and Ukraine to sow national and religious divisions.” So, Putin and Kirill’s comments are consistent with a wider Russian narrative. And I think this is very important for understanding a dynamic of the conflict today.

This narrative argues that Russia is fighting in part a cultural war. So not a war over territory or resources, but over culture and identity. And it’s a war against Western European liberal values and that they are defending Russian identity. Putin has further called Western liberal values a quote, “pseudo religion,” and therefore Russian Orthodoxy should play a role in resisting this cultural aggression.

So this request to split and create an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church was not only seen as culturally threatening, but also something that was designed in part by the West to further divide the Russian identity. A European CFR report notes that this Russian narrative argues that, “Modern militant secularism is seen as a worldview that came to replace the Christian worldview.” So this is, it’s interesting, right? And we can talk in the Q&A who believes this and how and why. But Putin further declared that Russia belongs to a civilization that is wider than the Russian Federation, we call the civilization the Russian world. This is not the world of the Russian Federation, nor the Russian Empire. The Russian world starts at the Kievan baptismal font. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians belong to it.

So again, a very strong argument here that this bid for independence was deeply culturally threatening, not just religiously threatening. I think it’s also interesting again that he blamed the West for this move, which is just really interesting.

Okay, one last thought on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church before we move on to Greek Catholics, because that’s another thing, which is that while the bid for Ukrainian Orthodoxy caused a split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it also caused a split within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So today there are still Ukrainians that identify with the Russian Orthodox Church and recognize the patriarch of Moscow as their leader. Now, before the war, this number was roughly, we had 28.7 percent, this is according to a Pew study, 28.7 percent identified with the newly emerging Kyiv patriarch, 23.5 percent identified simply as being Orthodox and 12.8 percent identified with being attached to the Moscow patriarch. So my guess is that since the war broke out, that 23.5 percent that was not identifying one way or the other, has had to pick a camp. But we’ll see that this split even within the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine is significant.

Okay, so that’s Eastern Orthodoxy. We still have one more church to go, and this is the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine. So the name of this church might be surprising and kind of confusing. It was to me when I started looking at this originally. So remember we just discussed the Great Schism in 1054, okay? This caused a split that eventually split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism that’s loyal to the Pope, so Roman Catholicism. At that time, there were churches in the east that kept the Byzantine Rites. So they spoke Greek, they looked like Eastern Orthodoxy, but they stayed loyal to the Pope. There were many efforts over the centuries to try to bring them into Eastern Orthodoxy and it never succeeded. So today these Christians are called Greek Catholics and Ukraine has its own Greek Catholic church and that it’s called several things, but we’re going to call it tonight just for simplicity’s sake, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

It was recognized as uniquely Ukrainian in 1963. So if you think we started all the way back in 1054, this is a lot of history and we’ll talk about that in a second. It’s the single largest Greek Catholic church. So again, very significant in numbers in size. It has just under 4,000 parishes worldwide and between 4.1 and 5.5 million members in Ukraine. So about 10 to 12 percent. This is pre-war numbers, so we don’t know where that is now. And they’re mostly in Western Ukraine. So in Lviv, if you know that city.

Okay, significant for our discussion this evening. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic church has a long history of resisting Russian and Soviet advancements. So they fought the Red Army in the 1920s when they advanced into Ukraine. They fought during the great famine in the ’30s, if you’re familiar with that. They fought Sovietization after World War II, and in fact, their metropol, which is their leader, Josef … was imprisoned by Soviets in 1946 for resisting forced reunification of the Greek Catholic church to Eastern Orthodoxy to the Russian Orthodox Church. He was exiled in 1963 where he lived in Rome. And there he was instrumental in getting the official recognition of this church as Ukrainian. He strengthened the diaspora, he started a theological school. He helped start something that would later become a university back in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed.

So this is also a really powerful story, if you’ll remember from the Resistance Operating Concept, the idea that external support matters a lot. This is a great example of this. Okay, with encouragement from the diaspora, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church continued to resist Soviet socialization up through the 1980s. By one account it was estimated that every neighborhood in Lviv had a secret Greek Catholic priest, and that children were baptized in secret in that church as a form of resistance. And in the 1980s, these churches were responsible for creating youth groups, kind of like the Boy Scouts. So one was called the Lion Society, the other was called the Lviv Youth. And a 2016 article from The Atlantic by Nadia Duke, which I recommend you check out, chronicled these events. And she noted that despite all efforts to Sovietize, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the quote flame of resistance endured and provided inspiration as stories of brutality and courage were shared among trusted family members and passed down from one generation to another. So again, these stories of resistance then became inspiration for more resistance.

After 1991 in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the universities that were started in exile were moved back to Ukraine and graduates from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, these members became active participants in what was called the Revolution of Dignity. This was the protest in 2013 when the elections were rigged and they very courageously took to the streets and demanded greater democratic reforms in some way. This is what started the whole ball rolling with Russia feeling like it had to invade because they realized they couldn’t manipulate the elections and the people they thought they could. So I would argue here, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church is really, really important for resistance today.

All right, so with all this in mind, what’s resistance? How does religion influence, what are these two churches? Let me give you at least four ways that I think these churches are helping with resistance in Ukraine today. First, and perhaps most importantly is the role that these churches are playing in strengthening national identity. So again, this may sound a little bit perplexing or I don’t love as American, I don’t love the sound of this because we have a strong separation of church and state, right? But that is not necessarily the case around the world. And in Eastern Orthodoxy it’s probably not the same. So there’s a German theologian named Thomas Brammer. He’s a professor in Munster, and he describes this phenomenon of a state religion and the Eastern Orthodox faith and how it informs state identity in a really interesting way. He wrote, “Nevertheless, in predominantly Orthodox societies, the church is traditionally regarded as the bearer of national identity and a guardian of national consciousness to an even greater extent than the state.”

So again, Eastern Orthodoxy, and I think here the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have both played a role in preserving, in both shaping and preserving Ukrainian identity. He notes here the same professor with regard to Russia that 57percent of Russians see the Orthodox church as an important part of their national identity, and that even though they profess being Orthodox, large numbers say they don’t believe in God. So again, this is a kind of confusing conundrum, but again, this is an issue of identity. And I would say this is the most important thing these two churches are doing for the Ukraine today.

George Weigel, who is a distinguished senior fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, he makes a similar observation, noting that here in this case, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church became one of the principal safe deposit boxes of Ukrainian national identity during the hard decades when the Soviet Union did everything in its power to Russify Ukraine and bring the country to heal.

So again, this language is just fascinating to me. He argues that the church became the safe deposit box of Ukrainian national identity. It’s just really fascinating to me. So I believe here that both the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church have played an important role in identity. So connected to this is something that’s called strategic narratives. And this is something I study from a security standpoint. It’s one of the things I look at at the US Army War College. Strategic narratives are basically how, they’re the macro or meta stories that nations tell to their own populations and to the world what they’re trying to do.

So as I just mentioned, Russia’s strategic narrative is something along the lines that Ukrainians aren’t really Russian, that there’s no such thing as a Ukrainian Orthodox church, that their special operations are designed to protect Russians which are in danger from both Western incursion and from the Ukrainian government.

Dr. Cyril Hovorun, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and professor at the Stockholm School of Theology has gone so far as to say that this narrative professes that Russians believe Ukraine has a kind of mystical, almost mythical connectedness with modern Russia. So this idea that these things can’t be separated, this is an integral part of Russia’s narrative. And we’ve seen from the quotes from Patriarch Kirill and from Putin that this is absolutely what they’re arguing. Both Ukrainian churches are offering, not only they’re challenging that narrative, but they’re offering an important counter narrative. So it’s not enough just to say that’s not the narrative. You got to come up with a narrative that fights that narrative. And I think both churches have done this well.

So first, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, it has this history of resistance and it’s built its counter narrative on that. And it can point back to before the 1920s and say there was a unique Ukrainian identity, and we’ve been fighting for it for about 100 years at least. This is, I think, significant.

A PBS article quoted an Easter Sunday sermon from a Ukrainian Orthodox priest saying, “Even before this war for generations, we’ve had this saying, Christ has risen, Ukraine will rise too. We have the hope that maybe after having celebrated the resurrection of Christ, we’ll have our own resurrection.” So I would summarize here that the Ukrainian strategic narrative is one of a persistently unique identity that Russian aggression is attempting to eradicate that identity. And both the Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches are resisting these efforts and providing a counter-narrative. So I think this is significant.

All right, a third way in which I think and is connected to the two in which I think both churches have made important contributions to resistance is their connection to the outside world. So for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church here, I would point to the patriarch of Constantinople saying, “We recognize this church is distinct.” And I think that’s significant.

It’s also, I think, important to acknowledge that both the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, they have significant communities here in the United States. So Eastern Orthodox churches are present in large numbers in New York, Pennsylvania, California, and New Jersey. And then the Greek Catholic church in the United States is actually extremely active here. This is one of the key places that this church is organized. I would also point the quote I just had from Professor Weigel, he was writing about the Greek Catholic church, and he was writing about it for Catholic social services. So a US based organization that goes out to the single largest member or single largest church in the United States. So it’s touching a lot of people, and I think that’s really significant.

The last way that I think these churches are helping with resistance and not to be overlooked is care for refugees and internationally displaced people, so IDPs. We have examples. If you were to Google support Ukrainians, just Google that. Most organizations that come up are faith-based, and I think that’s interesting, but Vatican News, which is something that comes out of the Vatican, has reported that it is giving money for IDPs through their monasteries in Western Ukraine. So I think that’s very interesting. And the reason why I think this piece is particularly important and not to be overlooked, is that caring for refugees and IDPs is going to be absolutely critical for the restoration of Ukraine when the violence stops. And the terrible, terrible news is the restoration is going to be massive and it’s going to take time. So I think these churches are going to be very instrumental in helping with that process.

Before I leave this topic and end with my cautionary note, and I very much look forward to our conversation, I have one initial note here, which is that I could not find any examples of either church supporting violent resistance. And I looked through whether they were organizing it or leadership was blessing it or calling for it networks, material resources. I couldn’t find any examples. The most I could find was praying for the soldiers, which I don’t think is the same thing. And so it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, it just means I couldn’t find any examples of it. It might be happening at the individual parish level, but there is not, as far as I can tell, an organized effort to work through these churches to organize gorilla movements, for example.

Now, this may sound obvious because again, I think in at least maybe in most denominations in the United States, we don’t think of religion … We don’t want religion tied to violence, but I think that this is really significant because I think that this is going to shape long-term success for what’s happening in Ukraine. So as a cautionary note, then I’d like to finish by talking about why I think it’s significant that we’re not seeing a lot of violent activity being organized through the churches in Ukraine.

The first is that I think using religious leaders, groups, and resources and times of conflict, it can politicize religious space. And that can be particularly true if violence is used and this could compromise legitimacy. So this is part of what we want in the long run, is to have legitimacy connected to this point. Politicizing religious space can divide communities, and it may force parishioners to choose sides. It could cause a split within religious communities. It could close the door for those communities to be part of the healing process on the back end.

So here I would point out, there’s a really interesting article March 22, 2022, New York Times article that was talking about the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Manhattan, believe it or not, there’s one each in Manhattan. And prior to the war, these churches had a pretty good relationship. They had a high degree of collaboration. You had Russians going to Ukrainian churches, Ukrainians going to Russian churches. And then since the war, this has been a deeply difficult thing for both communities. And not only has it caused a split between these two communities, but a split within them as well. And so I’ll just say here that this is an incredibly, incredibly difficult decision that a congregation, a community, and its priests and its leadership has to make, because I feel like there’s no easy answer here. On the one hand, if you say we’re not going to be political and there’s something egregious happening that’s deeply problematic. But on the other hand, if you take a stand, it’s almost always going to split the community. So being very careful about what to do here, I think matters a lot.

So the last two points I’d like to make is that third, what gets created during times of conflict usually persists beyond the conflict. So this is something I study and it’s concerning to me. So if the churches are used for violent activity or for something that’s that compromises legitimacy, you may actually have trouble shutting that down after the war and that that’s problematic. So we have some examples of this in history, again, controversial. We had something called liberation theology in Latin America during the Cold War. This fought corruption. It was communist based. So fascinating combination of communism and Christianity, I’ll let you think about that for a few minutes.

But again, the groups, some of which were violent, they tended to kind of create a life of their own. And it was very hard to keep those on task for what they were supposed to be doing. And I would argue here that we’re seeing some very problematic developments in our own Christian communities with the relationship between politics and violence, and that that’s something we should all be concerned with. And then I would also point out to the politicization of Islam during colonial times, and then groups that were stood up to fight colonialism, then reemerged to fight governments and governments that were received as being corrupt. And it’s been very hard to shut those narratives down. So organizations and narratives can beget organizations and narratives and how to manage that is pretty tricky.

And with all of this in my closing thoughts as I think it’s deeply important to think about what comes after the violence. So what’s the future of the religious community, the nation, the legitimacy of the leaders and its practitioners, the precedents that justifying violence could create for future conflict? And what is the peace we’re trying to shape? Because eventually the war is going to stop and what is done in the war is going to matter. So with that, I will say thank you so much for your attention. And I very much look forward to your thoughts and questions.


Thank you. Yes, thank you, Heather. And now we’ll take questions not only from our in-person audience, but also those of you on Zoom. Please put your questions in the Q&A box.

Speaker 3:

Thank you for your very, very interesting remarks. You have very persuasively shown the ways in which religious organizations can support and back the resistance. And in passing, you mentioned that the Russian counterpart religious organizations are supporting the Russian position and possibly the invasion itself. If it’s possible to actually look at them and compare them, which is having greater effect, the Russian backing of the invasion or the Ukrainian churches that you’ve discussed helping the resistance?


Great, really interesting question and a very, yeah, just really interesting. So let me step back here and say a tiny bit about the Russian Orthodox Church, because I think this is really interesting. There was a Deutche Veka [sic.] article that I read. It was translated, I use Google Translate, so here we go. But it was a really interesting discussion about this very point. And they were arguing that actually Patriarch Kirill in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, that church leaders including Kirill, spoke out and condemned the invasion and then got a visit. And so they’ve been told to get in line, and it seems that they have. The same article notes that 286 Russian Orthodox priests signed a document calling for an immediate ceasefire in February 2022. But that was out of 36,000 Russian Orthodox priest. So while I’m a big fan that small resistances got to start somewhere, but that it’s still a pretty small number. It’s a courageous number, but a small one.

So I think you’re asking a really good question here, which is what’s the degree of influence that the Russian Orthodox Church has on average people and possibly the leadership? And so this is great because my husband’s here and he’s my Guinea pig, and we went through this talk a little bit earlier today, and this was actually the question he asked as well. And so something along these lines, and I think that he asked me specifically, “Do you think Putin goes to church? Is he recorded going to church?” And I think all of these things are really interesting questions that are not easy to answer. But let me offer a few thoughts. So one is that, again, I think this narrative is what’s significant here. So in the West we tend to think of you’re either you’re religious by how much you go to church or to mosque or to synagogue or fill in the blank, and that’s called religiosity. That’s how much you actually practice your religion. This is making an argument here that the Eastern Orthodox Church, several scholars have made this argument that it’s more about identity. So it’s saying, “I know which church I go to and which church I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” So that’s significant.

I do think that is, I believe that this is an important piece we need to get at. And it seems to me there’s evidence to suggest that there are a significant number of Russian people that buy into this strategic narrative. It’s a very hard thing to study right now. What would our evidence look like? We can’t poll them. We can’t ask them, would it look like refusing to enlist? Would it look like fleeing the country? We’ve definitely seen those things, but as for who’s left, what do they believe and what’s informing that? And I think we have this very dangerous cocktail there where Russian media is deeply and tightly controlled. There’s not a lot of access to information. And I think that it appears that by and large, the Russian Orthodox Church is on board with that.

As for the Ukrainian churches, I think if it’s as far as resistance goes and or is supporting the war, so to speak, on the resistance side, it seems that there is just tremendous courage. And it seems, I wouldn’t be surprised if those churches are having tremendous renaissance, both of them having a renaissance where you see more people going to church on a regular basis. Again, does that actually influence what you believe and act? These are very hard things to measure, but I would say that they both have influence, but maybe in slightly different ways right now. So it’s a great question that I didn’t provide a very precise answer for. But thank you, sir.


I’ll take a question from our Zoom audience and then we’ll go to a question here in the hall, not just Ukraine and Russia, but how have other western governments co-opted religion or religious rhetoric to frame or reframe strategic narratives? Is this conflict a harbinger of future conflicts?


Wow, fantastic question. No landmines there whatsoever, so that’s great. So I’ve lucky enough to, in my job, I get to work with European counterparts and one of the things that has come up over and over in the classroom over the years is that they’re surprised by how much religious rhetoric we have in this country and how much it’s infused with our politics. I think we’re seeing, I’m worried all this is just Heather speaking here. I’m worried. I think we’re seeing lots and lots of religious rhetoric being bantered around, thrown around. And I worry about it.

This is slightly off topic, but I just saw over the weekend that CBS News, how they have a streaming device, CBSN, they’ve done a documentary on a growing schism inside evangelical Christian communities in the United States. And I absolutely want to see this. I didn’t get a chance to see it before I came here tonight, but when you start to politicize and use this religious rhetoric, I think it can be uniting, but it can also be divisive. So trying to figure out where those fracture lines are and the implications is, and if it’s a thing of the future, I think there’s a lot of people that have argued in the last 20, 30 years that religion has played a very important role for political mobilization. Not even just in the West, but you could look to a range of countries, everything from India to Burma, Myanmar, and see how religion is being used to mobilize people for various political ends. So it’s an excellent question. Thank you.

Speaker 4:

What is the reaction of the religious people in other countries? So you have the Orthodox and you have the Catholics. How are they supporting one faction or another?


Yeah, this is a great question that I don’t unfortunately have any visibility on. So for example, I mean if I’m understanding your question, which I think I am, it’s really interesting. So say refugees come to, say you have Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians that come to Southern Germany and there’s Catholic churches, but no Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Are they coming to church? Are they being supported? Is that kind of where you were? Right. Right. Of each one? It’s a great question and the only thing I can say here is that it seems that the Roman Catholic Church, irrespective of whether you’re Greek Catholic or Latin Catholic or any of the other are meaning Catholic and so on, that they have been deeply mobilized and they are supporting financially, at least financially, but in other ways they’re supporting the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox, or sorry, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic community. So yeah, it’s a great question.


Another question from our audience on the Zoom. Pope Francis has in the past offered the Vatican as neutral ground for peace negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, although his offers have been rebuffed. Have the leaders of the Greek Catholic church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church taken a stance on Pope Francis’s peace efforts?


This is interesting. So this for me is a wider question that I struggle with, which is that to what extent do we talk with our adversaries and to what extent do we not, right? So if there’s a lot of violence occurring, is there a point where we say “We’re not willing to talk with you because of what happened in Bucha, or what happened in some of these other cities,” which has been atrocious. But my personal take on this is we should never stop talking to our adversary. Maybe we shouldn’t do it in public, maybe we shouldn’t do it in a way that’s negotiating. But if we have no communication with our adversary, at some point we got to start talking, we got to start talking. And so how do we do that?

And I think finding this neutral space is very interesting. And so, I mean, I can give another example that is hopefully helpful. It was actually Norway that started inviting Palestinians and Israelis to Oslo back when it was literally, I think, illegal for them to talk to one another, to be in the same room together. And very low level as academics they started discussing the way forward, which ultimately led to the Oslo Peace Accords. And while that didn’t produce the fruit that I think we all hoped, it still gave a great example of talking with your adversaries. So I think the Pope’s call is interesting, but obviously a little bit controversial.


Thank you. I think we have time for about two more questions. I saw one over here.

Speaker 5:

Thank you for your presentation. It was fascinating. I have a question. I had a grandfather and an uncle who were members of the US Army Chaplain Corps as Lutheran ministers. And I always as a kid was wondering, do you listen to the Lord and it’s peace or do you respond to your battlefield commander? And are there chaplains in the Ukrainian military that are out there supporting the Ukrainian troops?


Yeah, this is a great question. I’m not sure, sir, but I do, I remember in the very beginning, seeing again, I couldn’t tell you if it was a Greek Catholic priest or an Eastern or Ukrainian Orthodox priest that was actually blessing what looked like an armored personnel carrier. So it was actually putting holy water on it and doing some sort of religious right over that piece of equipment. And so for me that was a really interesting little moment. But yeah, sir, that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I would suspect yes.


Thank you. We have time for one more question. There was a gentleman here.

Speaker 6:

Thank you.


And Dr. Gregg will be around there.

Speaker 6:

I think when we talk about religion, you seem to have the impression, at least give me the impression that these are good things that the Greek and Orthodox churches are doing. But perhaps hundreds now, probably thousands of years, most wars and things of that nature were caused by religious beliefs and leadership, the programs in Europe, the anti-Muslim people, the Crusades, all of those things. So we can pick the people on our side and say they’re doing good things, and say the people on the other side are doing bad things. But I think your comments at the end when you say worry about these things are more what’s happening in the world, than in fact the benefits of religions getting involved in this.


Sir, yeah, thank you for your comments. I think this is … I agree with you. I agree with you. I think that we should be deeply worried about the politicization of religion. I think that even as it starts to happen, there should be discussions about what are the long term consequences of doing this. And so I would just like to offer as maybe food for thought. I think that wars are deeply complex and rarely caused by just one thing. But you’re absolutely right in saying religion has been a contributor to lots of conflict and lots of bloodshed. And so I think this matters. And I think that a congregation should absolutely, as they consider this, consider the ramifications of what the long term effects might be.

Now, I think this also brings for me the observation that I couldn’t find organized violent activity occurring through either of these churches. And so there’s a tiny bit of a heartening message there. But this is a toolbox. I think of this as a toolbox. And those tools can be used for lots of different things, good and bad. And so those tools should be used very carefully and leaders should be careful, practitioners should be careful. So thank you for reiterating that because I think it’s a tremendously important point.


Dr. Gregg, I would just like to say thank you for a fascinating presentation and truly relevant what’s going on in the world right now. And I have only one last thing to say tonight. Go Phillies.


Thank you everyone.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: Adobe