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Russian, Ukrainian Faith Leaders Encourage Hope During Crisis


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're starting off today with Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we are focusing on the spiritual dimension of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. You may have seen the pictures of priests amid the conflict standing between soldiers and protesters in Kiev ministering to the wounded and the dying.

And as far away as it seems, it does have an impact on people here in the U.S., especially for those with close ties to the area. Also, this is the season of Lent, which began on Monday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It's a time that calls for deep reflection and sacrifice. So we wondered how faith leaders with ties to these areas in conflict are leading their congregations and believers through these uncertain times. Joining us to talk about this, we've called upon Father Victor Potapov. He is director of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist here in Washington, D.C. Father Victor, thank you so much for joining us.

FATHER VICTOR POTAPOV: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony. He is the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America, and he is with us from New Jersey. Eminence, thank you so much for joining us.

EMINENCE METROPOLITAN ANTONY: Thank you. It's a joy to be with you.

MARTIN: And, Metropolitan, do you mind if I - let me start with you and just ask you what do you see as your role at a time like this?

ANTONY: Well, our primary role is to encourage our faithful here in the United States, and I also have responsibility for other parts of the world in not allowing them to fall into despair. As you probably know, the Ukrainian nation has had a history of incidents like this or cataclysms like this, and they've endured all of them. And we're trying to ensure our people that they will, by the grace of God, also endure these times and that they will have the opportunity to become productive citizens of their own nation.

MARTIN: Father Victor, what about you? And I understand that your congregation is mixed, as it were, between people who identify as Russian and people who identify as Ukrainian. Would that be accurate?

POTAPOV: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: And so how do you see your role at a time like this?

POTAPOV: Well, first of all, at the issue of full disclosure, I am half Ukrainian myself, as is my wife. And a large portion of my congregation is as well. We have many people who arrived in the states five, six, 10 years ago who happen to be from Ukraine and are very, very concerned about the situation. And of course, the fact that this all happened, this blowup of tensions at the beginning of Lent - Forgiveness Sunday, actually, the day before Lent - of course, people are very upset.

They're very concerned because they have relatives back in the so-called old country, in Ukraine. There are many, many mixed marriages. For example, my parents were half Ukrainian and half Russian and there are hundreds of thousands of people like that - couples like that in Ukraine and in Russia. So this really hits home. And since this crisis has begun back in November, we have incorporated into all of our church services special prayers for Ukraine asking that calm settle in.

MARTIN: Metropolitan, what about you? Do you feel it is your role to speak with political leaders in this country on behalf of the people of Ukraine or on behalf of your congregants?

ANTONY: Absolutely. We have done just that. In fact, we just issued an epistle to our people encouraging them to contact their political representatives in Congress and their political leaders on the state level and the local level, to use every bit of influence that they have to try and encourage the necessary actions that should be taken in order to encourage the withdrawal of troops from the Crimean region and that the region be left intact as a part of a united Ukraine.

We've also called upon all of the Orthodox leaders throughout the world. His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of the - under whose jurisdiction we lie - has issued a strong message of prayer for the people of Ukraine. And I prayed specifically for the peace of the nation and that everyone there can show as much restraint as possible during these difficult times. Strangely enough, though, one of the possible benefits out of this may be a chance for the divided church in Ukraine to reunite itself into one single Orthodox Church there.

MARTIN: Father Victor, what about you? Do you feel called upon to weigh in on specific matters of territory or what the secular authorities in the U.S. should be doing? And if so, to what end?

POTAPOV: Well, no, not really. What I'm hearing from my parishioners, who are from Ukraine, they just hope that there's no bloodshed. They hope and pray that after the tensions die down the people will be given the opportunity to choose, to decide for themselves.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, Father Victor, about the whole question of Putin's argument to the world community about why it is that troops - and he's still denying that these are Russian troops in Crimea, by the way. He says that this is a self-defense force - and I think it is known that the American authorities and most of the other international leaders do not credit that - but his argument is that Russian speakers or people who identify as Russian in Crimea are under threat. And I wonder if you could speak to that? Do you have any information that that is so - or what are you being told or what people with relatives are being told to that effect?

POTAPOV: Well, I think that possibly, you know, Russian television has a big role to play here because I watch what's going on on Russian television. There's a lot of - well, hysteria, if you will. And of course, it's a matter of fact that a small minority from Western Ukraine, some political parties who hold ultranationalists views, are very Russophobic. And the first day after the so-called revolution, they passed a law to ban the Russian language as a second official language of Ukraine, which was a great provocation. And there are a lot of Russians who are afraid. That may be overblown, I don't know. But nonetheless, that is taking place. So - I mean, I think maybe to a certain extent, the Russian government exploited that fear, but the fear is there nonetheless.

MARTIN: Metropolitan, thoughts about this?

ANTONY: I think you're correct on that, Father. There are, unfortunately, radical groups on both sides. There are many in the eastern portions of Ukraine, particularly in the Crim (ph). There are a number of ultra-Russian nationalists also who are Ukrainian-phobic, and it's a two-way street unfortunately. But I think eventually those elements will be out of the picture. With regard to the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada taking the decision to remove Russian as the legal language of the country. They almost immediately recognized their mistake, and we were among the first who responded to that. And, my - for heaven sakes, the - half the people on the Maidan were only Russian-speaking people.

That's their native tongue. I think, unfortunately, too many decisions were made very too quickly in the excitement of everything that was happening. And I think it's stabilizing a bit. And I think that, as I said, those radical elements, they're certainly not going to hold the power in the end. And they're going to be going back to their secret meetings or whatever it is they hold and not have a significant amount of influence in the country.

MARTIN: Metropolitan, do people under your authority want to do something? Often, it is the case when you're far away and you see something happening in a place that you identify with, you want to do something.


MARTIN: What do people want to do? What are members of the Ukrainian diaspora wanting to do? What are you advising them to do? And what are you doing?

ANTONY: Well, first and foremost, it's the power of prayer and asking the Lord and the Holy Spirit to come down and guide everyone in every moment of the situation. But one of the things that our people wanted to do and they called for the collection of funds in order to take over to the makeshift hospitals that were created in several of the churches surrounding the Maidan. No one could really take, as individuals, any significant funds over there to help support the people who were being injured. And so that's what we have done in the past several weeks.

MARTIN: Father Victor, what about you? Do your congregants want to do something? And if so, what do they want to do? And what are you encouraging them to do?

POTAPOV: Well, again, prayer is the first thing that we all want to do. And of course, we're showing our - as much support as we can to Metropolitan Onufry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that he is successful in what His Eminence just spoke about a few minutes ago about getting all the churches, all the Orthodox churches together and using this moment to show an example to the Russian and Ukrainian people of coming together and uniting in one faith, in one Lord Jesus Christ.

MARTIN: In our final minutes together today - and we thank you again, both of you, for speaking with us during which is a very busy season for you as clergy, as faith leaders. This is the Lenten season. Do you feel that there's a special message or understanding of the Lenten season, or do these events influence your reflections during this time?

POTAPOV: Well, I think it's obvious that all these events in Ukraine are very distracting to the - what we should be dealing with now during Lent, which is spiritual perfection, limiting our desires and building up our virtues. But there may be a silver lining in all of this. I mean, you know, we're seeing the suffering of a lot of people. And, you know, we hope and pray that after suffering there will be resurrection. Maybe both countries will come out somehow through the mysterious grace of God better for what happened. I don't know. That's what I certainly pray for.

MARTIN: Metropolitan?

ANTONY: There's a prayer that we utilize during the great Lenten season, and a prayer which I use almost every day of my life because I need to remind myself. But it's a prayer in which we call upon - that we ask the Lord to take away from us all the spirit of laziness, of lust for power, of idle talk and despair. But give us rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. And finally, oh Lord and Master, enable me to see my own sins and to not to judge my brother.

It's the prayer of Saint Ephrem. And I think that if all the faithful of the churches in Ukraine and throughout the world prayed that prayer diligently during this Lenten season with more intent and more seriousness than perhaps they have done in years past or in days past, it could have a very powerful effect.

MARTIN: That was His Eminence Metropolitan Antony. He is the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America. Also joining us, Father Victor Potapov. He is rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. That's in Washington, D.C. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

POTAPOV: You're welcome.

ANTONY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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