by: John Calhoun

“Be Peacemakers, Strive for Reconciliation!”
The United Methodist Church of Eurasia Holds a Ukrainian-Russian Peace Dialogue

It is now more than three years since armed conflict erupted in the heart of eastern Europe. In February 2014, the center of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was engulfed by violent confrontations between protesters and police that left more than 100 people dead and many more injured. The upheaval led the (former) President Victor Yanukovich to flee Ukraine, resulting in a newly-elected government to serve the country. In late February, Russian troops entered the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and quickly assumed control of government buildings; in March, Crimea became a Russian territory. In April 2014, a portion of eastern Ukrainians with the support of Russian military personnel, took up arms against the Ukrainian authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.

According to a March 2017 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, more than 9,900 people have been killed, and more than 23,000 injured. And although updates from eastern Ukraine no longer make regular international news headlines, the conflict continues. Every month, dozens of casualties are reported along the line of conflict that separates Ukrainian forces from pro-separatist militias. Ukrainian citizens who have the means to escape the conflict seek shelter in other regions of their homeland, or in neighboring countries. The most vulnerable—the elderly, the physically challenged, the impoverished—have little choice but to remain in their homes, hoping to survive the continuing hostilities.

This humanitarian crisis has impacted not only those living in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine. According to multiple sources, more than one million residents of the east have fled the conflict, with most of them settling in other regions of Ukraine, or across the border in Russia, straining the resources of families and communities hosting these displaced persons. Over the last three years, the economies of Ukraine and Russia have contracted, and their currencies have devalued. Many soldiers of both countries have died in warfare. Propaganda and false reporting in state-controlled media have fueled confusion, misunderstanding, and mistrust among Ukrainians and Russians alike.

United Methodist communities in both countries have also been affected. A United Methodist congregation in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk was forced to disband, its members fleeing to other regions, when fighting overran the community. United Methodist congregations across Ukraine and in western Russia have provided emergency humanitarian assistance and spiritual care in support of displaced civilians. At the same time, Methodists in both Ukraine and Russia have joined their fellow citizens in grieving over the loss of life, the separation of families, and the growing sense of despair.

Bishop Eduard Khegay, the episcopal leader of the United Methodist Church in Eurasia, which includes Ukraine and Russia, is acutely aware of the pain and fear experienced by many United Methodist in his episcopal area. In his pastoral visits to local congregations in the affected regions, Bishop Khegay has witnessed the impact of war and displacement on congregations and families. He has heard clergy and lay members express their frustration over the failures of political leaders to resolve this crisis, and their desire to try to build bridges of peace with people of faith on the other side of the divide.

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To help promote reconciliation and healing, from May 31 to June 5, 2017, Bishop Khegay hosted a Peace Dialogue for United Methodists from Ukraine and Russia. Ten people, both clergy and lay, from each country traveled to Birštonas, Lithuania, for a time of fellowship, reflection, worship, and prayer. In his letter of invitation to participants, Bishop Khegay expressed his hope for the gathering: “As Christians and members of the United Methodist Church in Eurasia, we have been called to take active steps towards peaceful dialogue, and to establish good relations, healing, and reconciliation. I believe that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ has the power to renew our relationships and bless our nations.”

Over the course of five days, delegates to the Peace Dialogue engaged in open and honest discussion about the conflict that has divided the region. They accepted their calling to serve as agents of reconciliation and peace. To that end, the agenda of the dialogue focused on three areas:
• examining how Christian communities historically have contributed to peace and reconciliation in conflict and post-conflict situations;
• combatting through personal testimonies the misconceptions and misunderstandings that continue to fuel the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia;
• outlining specific actions that United Methodist leaders and communities in the two countries can undertake, to promote peace, reconciliation, and love.

On the opening day of the dialogue, Bishop Khegay delivered two lectures on the vital role that Christian leaders and communities have played in healing societies torn asunder by violence and conflict. Most notably, Bishop Khegay highlighted the prophetic and pastoral ministry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Following the end of the apartheid regime and the election of Nelson Mandela as president, Archbishop Tutu was named chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Under his leadership, the commission gave victims of violence an opportunity to speak the truth of their suffering and oppression, and sought to promote social reconciliation through public acts of contrition and forgiveness. Bishop Khegay also encouraged leaders to take courage in God’s calling of Moses to lead God’s people out of Egypt: “Like Moses, we are being called to provide spiritual leadership in the midst of a political crisis, to promote love and reconciliation.”

During the dialogue, Bible study was led by the Rev. Vasily Vuksta, Superintendent of the Ukraine district, and the Rev. Irina Margulis, Superintendent of the Moscow (Russia) district. Rev. Vuksta related that many church members in his district have relatives and friends living in Russia; as the conflict between the two countries has continued, these personal relationships have deteriorated to the point that many Ukrainians no longer speak with their loved ones living across the border. Yet, as Rev. Vuksta reminded the delegation, “Jesus had many opportunities to break relations with those who opposed him, like the Samaritan woman. Yet Jesus never gave up extending his love to others. As written in Acts chapter 1, we are called to share the gospel with all people, regardless of where they are, or whether they stand with us or oppose us.”

Rev. Margulis, who also serves as the Eurasia organizer for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, referenced the work of the philosopher Viktor Frankl, who wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.“ Rev. Margulis urged those gathered to choose a response of reconciliation and love. She recognized that the current conflict has caused pain and created wounds, but implored the delegates to follow the guidance of St. Augustine and to forgive one another, so that, in the words of the saint, anger may not grow into hatred.

On several occasions throughout the Peace Dialogue, United Methodists from both Ukraine and Russia met in small groups to share their feelings about one another, and their perspectives on life in each other’s country during this conflict. As a result of these conversations, many participants recognized that their perception of the other has been negatively influenced by propaganda campaigns waged through traditional and social media outlets in their country. During a time of reflection, a lay member from Russia confessed: “When I came to this gathering, I wondered how I would get along with my fellow delegates from Ukraine. The conflict has led me to break off relations with many friends and old schoolmates who now live in Ukraine. But this gathering has helped me better understand life in Ukraine. It’s been a blessing to have fellowship with you. May God with us both.” A pastor from Ukraine learned for the first time that his fellow Methodists in Russia were holding the Ukrainian church in prayer, and expressed gratitude: “Thanks to our Russian friends for your support. Love conquers all!” A lay person from western Ukraine admitted a certain feeling of guilt: “I feel sorry for people in eastern Ukraine, but the conflict has only affected me indirectly. This gathering has led me to ask God to increase my concern, and concern in others. Because I believe that if we try to make a difference, we can change the world.”

The need to advocate for peace and reconciliation was further affirmed by a group visit to the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania. For centuries, Lithuanians have been erecting crosses on this sacred site to honor those refused a proper burial because of their Christian faith, and to proclaim their own faith during times of religious repression. During their pilgrimage to this holy site, members of the Peace Dialogue prayed for an end to the conflict, for reconciliation between peoples, and for the courage to be advocates for peace. Bishop Khegay and the church leaders also placed a cross on the hill, adding their witness for peace to the estimated 200,000 other crosses at the site.

As the gathering in Lithuania drew to a close, the members of the Peace Dialogue issued a call to action, affirming their own resolve and encouraging others to rely on Biblical principles “to be peacemakers and strive to achieve forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and spiritual unity in relations between Ukrainians and Russians.”

Additionally, church representatives proposed specific and practical steps that would address this call to action, including:
• Invite United Methodists from Ukraine and Russia to participate together in regional mission initiatives.
• Develop a liturgy for joint worship services in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.
• Collect donations from congregations in Ukraine and Russia to assist persons suffering in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
• Establish a course on reconciliation at the United Methodist seminary in Moscow.
• Hold prayer meetings for peace and reconciliation during Lent, Advent, and other seasons throughout the year.
• Gather youth from both countries for Biblical study, fellowship, and sport.

As members of the Peace Dialogue departed to return to their homelands, they blessed one another in the name of Jesus Christ, praying God’s strength to witness the gospel, work for reconciliation, and be peacemakers in a troubled world.

In conclusion, Bishop Khegay expresses his gratitude to the German Central Conference, the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, the General Board of Global Ministries, and the General Board of Church and Society for their financial and prayerful support of this dialogue. Bishop Khegay also offers special appreciation to the Lithuania District of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area for graciously hosting the dialogue. “We give thanks to God for our friends across the United Methodist connection who have sustained us in prayer. I ask United Methodists around the world to pray for an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for the well-being of the people of Ukraine and Russia, and for the spiritual growth of the United Methodist Church of Eurasia.”

By the Rev. John Calhoun, a missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, serving as coordinator of international ministries with the United Methodist Church in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photos – courtesy of Ivan Perestov and Ullas Tankler.

June 5, 2017