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Expert concerned Putin’s Syria intervention takes eye off Ukraine

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

10/07/2015

OTTAWA (CCN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria raises concerns that the crisis in Ukraine will be ignored, a Canadian historian told a seminar here Sept. 30.

“All Ukraine is worried at the moment about is what it means,” Toronto-based University of Alberta historian Frank Sysyn told students and faculty at the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University.

The migrant crisis in Europe and the war in Syria have diverted attention from Ukraine. “I can’t imagine how Germany can integrate 800,000 refugees in a short period of time,” Sysyn said. But Europe may see Russia as “part of a solution that stops refugees.”

While North America is willing to see that Ukraine remains a sovereign state, Germany is “much less so,” he said.

“Putin’s goal is to scorn the United States by keeping (Syrian president) Assad in power,” he said. While the Russians are propping up the “atrocious Assad regime” and the world’s attention is focused there, Putin continues to foment the crisis in Ukraine through an exploitation of religious allegiances.”

While the vast majority of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox, the Orthodox churches are divided into several bodies, with the most active and alive communities being those of the Kyivan Orthodox Patriarchy (38 per cent of Ukrainians).

Even within the Ukrainian Orthodox of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchy (20 per cent), the greatest numbers of both lay people and clergy are in Ukraine, he said. “The Russian Orthodox Church’s entire base is in Ukraine.”

“There has been a massive shift coming from Moscow” from both Putin and the Moscow Patriarch Kirill to “use the concept of a Russian world” to influence Ukraine and destabilize it. The Russian Orthodox Church is a state church, Sysyn said, and neither Russia nor the Russian Orthodox Church wants to lose Ukraine. Putin has said, “Ukrainians and Russians are one people,” he noted.

Some priests, who are more closely allied to Moscow than their parishioners, have refused to bury Ukrainians who have died in the conflict, Sysyn said. “The Moscow Patriarchy has a horrible problem,” he said. “Most of the living community” of this church found in the middle and western parts of Ukraine supported the Maidan in favour of democracy and a turn to Europe instead of Russia, but some of the clergy and pro-Russian factions are “pro-oligarchs,” and trade with Russia and are motivated by the need for financing.

“Moscow is stirring up tensions,” that might lead some Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchy to start “crying persecution” which would lead to a direct “intervention from Moscow,” Sysyn warned.

Another 39 per cent identify as “generic” Orthodox who may have a cultural relationship with the faith but do not go to church, he said.

There are also two Catholic churches in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (eight per cent) which shares a Byzantine liturgy with the Orthodox; and the Roman Catholic Church, which is about one to two per cent of the population, Sysyn said.

Sysyn said many of the NGOs involved in Ukraine have a better handle on the conflict than Catholic Church authorities do. He said many Ukrainians were dismayed when Pope Francis called the conflict there “fratricidal” without mentioning Russia’s involvement. Rome, however, may not want to offend Moscow for political reasons, he said.

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