In the conflicts of Eastern Europe, Rome plays a diplomatic role with an aerial view
Thirty years after the dramatic break-up of the Soviet Union, the tremors of this socio-political earthquake continue to reverberate across the vast terrain it once covered. An uprising in Kazakhstan earlier this month. Political conflicts in Belarus around its 2020 presidential election. Ongoing conflict on the Ukrainian-Russian border, more worrying day by day.
How does the church understand these puzzling events? It orients itself in three instructive ways: as a local actor, as a neutral mediator and as a pacifist faith. Pope Francis – and Catholic teaching going back to Christ – believe that dialogue is the key to resolving misunderstandings, whether within families or on the eve of war.
Examining examples of recent and ongoing Church action in Central Asia and Eastern Europe provides insight into the unique Catholic mission to serve the common good, not just the faithful. It also helps explain why Washington and Rome differ in their perceptions of what is wrong.
Catholics live in each of the 15 former Soviet republics, so the church is local first. The Kazakhstan giant, as big as Western Europe, sits in a hot spot between two ambitious powers, Russia and China. It’s a prosperous place, laden with oil and gas reserves – and some 100,000 Catholics.
Kazakhstan suddenly came into the limelight in early January when riots, reportedly over gasoline prices, spread across the country. The Kazakh president called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional military alliance led by Russia, to suppress the uprising. With the internet disrupted and few independent journalists in the country, the conflict remained largely a mystery even after normalcy returned.
Enter Bishop José Luís Mumbiela, president of the country’s episcopal conference, speaking during an Italian webinar regarding the church in Kazakhstan. A Spanish-born missionary priest who has lived in Almaty since 1998, he reported on events in January, including ill-intentioned efforts to recover popular grievances. The Prelate saw strategically positioned snipers and “people prepared militarily for major action.”
Bishop Mumbiela confirmed the Kazakh President’s claim that the riots turned into a coup attempt. It is a trusted account because the priest is independent and a local citizen. He embodies Pope Benedict XV’s rule that Church leaders should remain “among the combatants instead of standing apart and preaching peace and harmony from a distance.”
Sharing the testimony is one thing, becoming a flashpoint in a national drama is another. To preserve neutrality, the church strives not to take sides in political or military confrontations.
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk, Belarus was associated with opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, particularly after the prelate warned of a potential civil war following a 2020 presidential election that Lukashenko has won 80% in a dubious way.
Soon after, Belarusian authorities prevented the archbishop from returning from a pilgrimage to neighboring Poland; they kept him out of the country for four months. As the crisis in Belarus took on a religious dimension, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, visited Minsk and shuttled for four days between government and Catholic leaders to defuse tensions.
As a result, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was finally allowed to return home for Christmas, and the Vatican promptly announced his resignation. He has remained silent ever since.
“Vatican neutrality is about bringing parties together,” not dividing them against each other, said Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a scholar from Georgetown.
The context of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz’s sacrifice was Rome’s cultivation of positive relations with Belarus, where about 15% of the population is Catholic. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, visited there in 2015, describing it as “a useful country, especially in the context of the events in Ukraine”. Minsk was the site of the 2014 and 2015 negotiations between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
The Holy See still believes that the Minsk II agreement could unlock peace between Ukraine and Russia – if its elements were respected and implemented by both parties. For example, the text specifies that the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where sporadic fighting continues, should become an autonomous region.
But the Ukrainian government has taken no steps to decentralize local government. In fact, citizens of Donbass, mostly elderly, are effectively disenfranchised: they cannot vote or receive pensions; they live, impoverished, in a frozen and stateless war zone. These are the people Francis wants church leaders in Ukraine to focus on.
Like his two predecessors, Pope Francis and his diplomatic team have prioritized closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church as part of an ecumenical commitment stemming from the Second Vatican Council.
When they met in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin reassured Pope Francis that he would encourage greater collaboration between the two religions. Eight months later, in 2016, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril of Moscow were face to face in an airport lounge in Havana – the first such meeting between the leaders of these two religious traditions, the two largest Christian churches in the world.
Pragmatic goals were at the heart of this event, including the need for Catholics and Orthodox to unite to save Christianity in the Middle East and their intention to push back against secular materialism in the West, both of which were discussed in a common accord. Mention was also made of “hostility in Ukraine”, without blaming. Pope Francis had previously described the Ukrainian conflict as “fratricidal violence”, rather than a Russian invasion.
Friendship has grown between Pope Francis and Metropolitan Cyril since that meeting. Now discussions are underway for another meeting in 2022, which is certainly tied to the pope’s belief that religious leaders can help shape the moral calculations of secular leaders.
Peace is an aspiration Metropolitan Kirill shares with the pope, a goal they should achieve together. During the Christmas service, on January 7 of the Russian calendar, the Patriarch thanked Pope Francis for a fraternal message and added: “I hope that these relations will result in many and many common actions, including those aimed at achieve peace where there is no peace today,” according to Tass, a Russian news agency.
But nation states, according to Pope Francis, are driven by interests, whether military, economic or national pride. The pope distrusts Russian imperialism no more than he distrusts what he sees as American imperialism – Moscow and Washington are equally interested and capable of being destructive.
Without naming either country in an address to diplomats on January 10, it seemed Pope Francis had both Russia and the United States in mind when he lamented the “proxy wars” fueled by a “abundance of weapons” and “the lack of scruples of those who make every effort to supply them”, thus exacerbating the conflict. On January 21, the United States Embassy in Kiev announced on Twitter 200,000 pounds of “lethal aid” to Ukrainian fighters.
Rome plays a diplomatic role with an aerial view: the Holy See often sees through the eyes of multiple parties at odds with each other and empathizes with these diverse perspectives.
For example, on January 23, Pope Francis called for a day of prayer for peace in Ukraine and warned that a possible Russian-Ukrainian conflict could “deal a new blow to peace in Ukraine and put into question the security of the European continent”, with even wider repercussions.
“Those who pursue their own goals at the expense of others despise their calling as human beings, because we were all created brothers and sisters,” he said.
Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, assistant director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, explains, “When I worked in the Holy See at the Council for Christian Unity, we received reports from different nunciatures (embassies), and he was extremely detailed information from the point of view not only of the nuncio (ambassador) himself, but also of the various parties in a conflicting situation.”
Rome’s ability to appreciate diverse perspectives is true in Ukraine.
Comments found in mainstream media focus on Russia massing some 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border without exploring the roots of this conflict, in particular the agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding NATO.
“Russia is extremely sensitive to foreign military activity near its borders, as any other country would be and the United States always has been. She has repeatedly signaled that she will stop at nothing to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO,” says former Ambassador Jack Matlock, who headed the U.S. Embassy during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Gorbachev was assured in 1990 that the (NATO) alliance would not expand,” Matlock told CNS in a phone interview.
The Holy See is keenly aware of this Russian sensibility, as well as the Russian belief that the 2014 Ukrainian revolution was a coup against an elected president sympathetic to Russia.
Former Georgetown professor Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, echoes Matlock’s reminder that since the proposal of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has rejected any foreign power asserting itself near American borders. Similarly, Russian agitation over NATO’s presence in Ukraine, right on its border, is predictable.
In a recent radio interview, Lieven notes that most current US stances on Russia are bizarre, as the US is unlikely to actually intervene in Ukraine and it is not not even in their interest to do so.
He offers a solution employed in Austria in 1955, when both the United States and Russia withdrew their troops, ensuring the country’s independence and neutrality. Ultimately, “Austria has developed a successful free market democracy”.
The Vatican, on the other hand, will rarely offer a specific solution to an international dilemma.
The Holy See believes in a process: “dialogue. Conflict will not solve this, dialogue must”, sums up Stephen Colecchi, former director of the international Justice and Peace office at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As Pope Francis has said, despite “the deafening noise of war”, the solutions at hand are “dialogue and fraternity, two essential points in our efforts to overcome the crisis of the present moment”.