Archpriest of the UOC Mykolai Danylevych: "Defending one's Motherland is the duty of every citizen"

Ukraine is going through difficult times. The war, which is now in its eighth year, has been supplemented by information about a possible large-scale offensive in the east, north and south of the country. The fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic does not add positive. In such times, more than ever, the issue of uniting society, faith, unity, including the Churches, is acute. Archpriest, Deputy Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the UOC, Rector of the Church of St. Spyrydon of Trimythous in Kyiv, Mykolai Danilevich, about what position the Ukrainian Orthodox Church takes on this matter and whether the likely meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill can help the world in Ukraine.

Such meetings are significant for the world.

– The entourage of Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril are negotiating a possible meeting, including to discuss peace for Ukraine – what do the UOC think about this?
– I think that such meetings are significant for the world. These are the heads of the Churches, which represent large, multi-million Christian communities. The RCC and ROC are not regional, but global Churches. This is not just church diplomacy, but also a sign that religion is something more than just a private matter of a particular person. Such an event would be a sign that religion has a place in public discourse and that it has the potential to influence our societies today. And if this meeting can positively influence the establishment of peace in Ukraine, then it can only be welcomed.
I also think that it was important for the development of interfaith relations between Orthodox and Catholics both in the world and in Ukraine. It is these themes that are mentioned in the document signed during the previous meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril in the joint Havana Declaration of 2016.

“Our dioceses in Donbass are guided from Kyiv”
– What can you say to those who doubt whether Ukrainians should defend their country as free and independent?
– Protecting one’s homeland is the sacred duty of every citizen, including a Christian. A Christian must be a good citizen of the earthly Fatherland in order to be worthy to be a citizen of the heavenly Fatherland, that is, the Kingdom of Heaven.

– How does the UOC feel about Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in the east?
– Our Church considers these territories and those living there to be part of Ukraine. Our dioceses in the Donbas remain part of the UOC and are guided from Kyiv, while the state has temporarily lost them, unfortunately. In my opinion, the presence of the UOC in the uncontrolled territories can be a factor that will contribute to the return and integration of the territories and our fellow citizens.
After all, what is happening in the East of Ukraine is not a religious conflict. In the beginning, there were sporadic attempts to present it in this way, but this rhetoric did not last long. In my opinion, this conflict has social, political, ideological, but not religious reasons. Today it is clear that significant groups of our believers are present on both sides of the demarcation line.
At the same time, not only territories are important for us, but above all people. That is why we do not divide people, we avoid political assessments in our temples, but we try to keep people in unity, to reconcile, to reassure. It is very easy to divide people, and politicians from different sides are doing it very successfully, but it is very difficult to unite and reconcile, and our Church is working very hard on this on both sides of the demarcation line.
We constantly communicate with our clergy and faithful from those uncontrolled territories. Bishops and priests, if possible, come to Kyiv or other settlements in the controlled part of Ukraine. I am convinced that communication between people from different regions and territories is a real basis for unity. In the church sphere, religious holidays and various events organized by the Church contribute to this. Among the last of these, I can recall the festival of carols that took place on January 12 in the Sviatohirska Lavra, in which 557 participants and 37 choirs took part. It is interesting that they sang not only carols, there was also a second part of folklore, where each choir sang ancient Ukrainian songs of their region.

Faith as one of the factors for uniting society
– In your opinion, can faith help consolidate our society in a political and geographical context?
- One of the factors of unification of society can, but completely - hardly. In order for faith to consolidate people, it is necessary that the vast majority of our citizens share faith in God, go to church every Sunday, and practice faith, as they say in Europe. But it's not. In reality, temples of different confessions in Ukraine are visited by 3-7%, perhaps 10% of the population. Although, according to my observations, probably more than 90% of the population of Ukraine believe in God and recognize His existence.
Also in this case, if such a task is set, then there is a risk of turning religion into a political ideology. And that would be wrong. Faith is a moral and spiritual force, not a political one.
In addition, Ukraine is diverse in confessional terms. The three Galician regions are dominated by the UGCC, which has about 3,200 communities across Ukraine. In Volyn, Rivne and partly in Galicia, the presence of the OCU is noticeable, the total number of actually operating communities of which is a little over 4,000. There are many Protestant communities of different directions throughout the country, which together number about 10-11 thousand. But at the same time, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains the largest denomination in the country both in terms of the number of communities (12,381 parishes) and the number of real believers who visit churches every Sunday. In terms of the number of parishes and clergy, the UOC is the largest denomination in all regions except Galicia. Our communities also predominate in Volhynia, Transcarpathia and Bukovyna. The above figures are statistics of real communities and active believers, not sympathy given by social surveys.

– In your opinion, is it worth looking for opportunities to compromise with opponents and enemies inside and outside the country in order to prevent an open war? Where are the red lines you can't cross?
- In my opinion, the state needs to do everything in order to unite and rally people within the country. It is necessary to form and promote inclusive ideas that unite the people, attract and include all our regional and ethnic diversity in the construction of our common Ukrainian home. At the same time, we must avoid an exclusive ideology, that is, the exclusion or discrimination of certain parts of our society, both political, social and religious.
I observe that President Volodymyr Zelenskyi is still trying to articulate unifying ideas. Let us recall his official speeches at the inauguration on Independence Day and during other holidays. “We are all Ukrainians: there is no greater or lesser, right or wrong” - these are the words from his first speech in 2019. Remember the speech on Independence Day last year, when the President listed almost fifty names of ethnic groups living in our country and forming the basis of our Ukrainian nation, but not as an ethnic, but as a political nation.
Accordingly, if we have a consolidated people, then we can not be afraid of any war and external threats. Even Napoleon said that "military forces are not enough to protect the country, while the country that the people defend is invincible."

Priest's behavior is decisive
– In the last decade alone, Ukrainians have experienced the Revolution of Dignity, the loss of Crimea. Our people have been living with hostilities in the country for the eighth year, and for two years now they have been living with COVID-19 that has swept the whole world. And now they are hearing about a new threat of full-scale military action that has arisen after the escalation of the conflict on the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine. In this regard, the question is: What do you, as a priest, say to your faithful (in sermons, drawing parallels with biblical times; in private) in these times of turbulence, when it is difficult to be sure of the future?
– There are many wise words and stories in the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints, acquaintance with which helps to survive any difficult times. I would not repeat all this in our interview. Mankind has already experienced much worse times many times. As the wise Solomon wrote: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
But not only the words are important, but the very behavior of the priest. People look up to him as a leader and listen to more than just what he says. I'll tell you one story. In 2016, I traveled to Avdiivka, carrying help from our parish. This is a controlled area. At that time, the city was shelled almost every day - people there constantly live in such conditions. I talked with our priest, rector of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Reverend Andrii, and we had the following dialogue:
– “Reverend, maybe you would at least go for a week to rest from all this somewhere further, to the territory of Ukraine?
- I can not.
- Why?
“I cannot leave the people and the parish. Here, people watch one after another, and if they find out that some prominent person in the city (lawyer, doctor, priest) is leaving, they will begin to think that he knows something more, and therefore runs away, and they will do it too. And therefore, while the priest is in place, people are calm and know that everything will be fine, even despite the shelling.”
Thus, people watch how the priest behaves. Therefore, in our parish, in addition to many sermons and words, I tried and still try to give people a sense of peace and confidence, and most importantly, a feeling of God. Because, as the Holy Scripture teaches: “If God is for us, then who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

In the matter of world-building, all Churches are united
– Despite the fact that recently the number of vaccinated Ukrainians has increased, there are still a lot of those who are against it in our society (there are especially many of them among Christians). Nevertheless, at the parish of the church of St. Spyridon of Trimythous, believers say that the priests bless vaccinations. Is this your personal position or is it the UOC in general?
- We are not what we bless, we are calm and balanced about this. According to the position of our Church, a priest can neither force nor forbid a person to be vaccinated. She must decide for herself. Vaccination is not a religious issue, but a medical one. The Church emphasizes that human rights should not be limited in this matter and vaccination should be voluntary. And everything else: which vaccine is better, what side effects, what consequences, and so on, this is a question for the doctor.

– In 2017, the Commission for Social Service of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) adopted the Strategy for the Participation of Churches in Worldbuilding. Its central idea is the Ukrainian world as a community of religious and public organizations. Does the UOC cooperate with other Churches or organizations for the sake of peacemaking?
– Yes, the UOC is included in interfaith cooperation. Our Church is a part of the AUCCRO. We adopted this document jointly with all members of the Council. In general, despite the fact that we belong to different Christian denominations, as well as religious organizations - because even Muslims and Jews are members of the Council - everyone has the same position on moral values. The same applies to the issue of worldbuilding. In this all Churches are united.

“Live the way you want! Let's set an example for our children in our lives."
– What, in your opinion, should parents and other adults do for children in order to: a) save the country for them? b) to educate them conscious and healthy values in order to build their lives and Ukraine?
- These are too complex and global questions to give a short answer to them. “If you lived the way you should, then there would be wisdom of your own,” Taras Grigoryevich Shevchenko wrote on a slightly different occasion, but these are good words. Live the way you want! Set an example for your children in your life.
One senior priest with a long white beard, who at the time of my communication with him, 12 years ago, had 18 grandchildren, said these words: “Do not play with children, otherwise they will play with you later! Whatever you do, take your children to do it with you. Do you make a hive? Are you doing something around the house? Take them, let them watch, help and learn.”
Of course, life in the village is one thing, in cities it is another. But the essence of what this white-bearded priest said is that parents should teach children their own examples, spend time with children, experience some emotions with them, talk with them, give themselves to them and be close to them. They need us. We are parents, like fish in an aquarium in front of our children. Children see us from all sides. And by the way, we forgive a lot. Much more than we do. At the same time, dad and mom are the best for our children. They truly love us. Therefore, we will be worthy of their hope for us, their sincere childish surprise at us, their love for us. And everything else will follow.

Natalia Matsipura

The interview took place at the initiative of the Peace and Development Foundation . The purpose of the Fund is to promote peace, the development of education and innovation for the future of the country.