Seeking dialogue in the war zone – Interview with Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay on Ukraine and Russia

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Exclusive interview: World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay shares details on a recent meeting with Patriarch Kirill, including topics discussed at the meeting, what the WCC contributed to the dialogue, and steps forward.

You just returned from a visit with Patriarch Kirill in Moscow; can you tell us the purpose of the meeting?

Dr Pillay: The World Council of Churches made it very clear in its central committee and also in the last assembly that we as the WCC need to be doing as much as possible in addressing the war in Ukraine. The primary purpose of the visit with Patriarch Kirill was to talk about the war and to talk about the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in relation to this. In addition, to address the unity of the Orthodox family because we have seen clearly within the WCC how the issue of the war and the different perspectives have actually started to affect the unity of the Orthodox churches and create challenges for the global ecumenical movement. Our task is to address those specific issues in terms of trying to see how we can move forward.

Some people might be critical of the WCC meeting with the Patriarch under the current circumstances and his position on the war. What would you say to them?

Dr Pillay: Yes, I’m aware of that. I’m aware that a few people on social media have expressed some critical concerns and talked about the fact that we are taking photos with Patriarch Kirill, and about his own position on the war. That may be true and we certainly respect people’s perspectives on these things. I want to say very clearly and strongly that the WCC does not have the luxury of sitting back and doing nothing. There’s a war going on and we have to address this and work incessantly for peace. Since the Russian Orthodox Church is a member of the WCC, we have a right and an obligation to visit them, to listen to them, and of course to even challenge them on their particular position as related to the war. We do not have the opportunity to sit back and be armchair critics. We have to get involved.

What did you discuss with Patriarch Kirill?

Dr Pillay: I raised four important concerns in our conversation with him. First, the war in Ukraine: we said quite strongly that the war must come to an end. We have visited Ukraine. We have seen the impact of what is happening to people, the loss of lives and properties, and how this war is senseless in terms of its purpose and the tragic loss of people’s lives—which is really unacceptable. We related to him what we have seen and we said we need to work toward the cessation of this particular war.

The second point was that we expressed concern about the Orthodox family and the different views about the situation that requires us to work together for the unity of the Orthodox family. One must really understand that in this context of Ukraine and Russia, the Orthodox Christians are in huge numbers. They can play a very significant role and have an absolutely powerful influence in responding to the current situation. They can talk against the war; they can talk in favour of peace. The Orthodox family and the unity of the Orthodox family are essential in this. Therefore, we focused quite strongly on the fact that we need to bring together the Orthodox family in unity.

Third, we discussed what role churches can play in terms of bringing unity, in addressing the issue of war, and bringing a stop to what is taking place in this kind of situation.

The fourth aspect was to talk about the possibility of a roundtable and how we can come together to take this conversation further in dialogue so that we as churches freely seeking unity amongst ourselves can then actually work towards seeking peace in the context of Ukraine and Russia at this time.

Please describe the mood and structure of the dialogue.

Dr Pillay: We were very well received by the Patriarch, which I’m very grateful for. He welcomed the engagement of the WCC and its peace-loving mission. There was a great conversation in terms of information and, of course. it wasn’t an easy meeting because we are dealing with difficult situations and perspectives. So, it was tough, very engaging, and very challenging but in a very cordial spirit as Christians trying to understand and discern together the way forward. But these issues are complex so the discussions would inevitably be difficult.

The meeting started off with the Patriarch making a presentation, and in that presentation, he basically gave his perspective. He spoke first about his concern about the attacks on Christians around the world. Second, he spoke about the issues of the unity of the Orthodox family and his concerns about the increasing tensions. He apportioned blame to certain quarters in terms of the Ukraine situation which is obviously debatable, then he spoke particularly about the issue of the roundtable, and he gave some thoughts about that. Then we discussed how we could take this further.

Did you discuss the role and the responsibilities of the Russian Orthodox Church in the war?

Dr Pillay: My particular response to his presentation included these four points that I have spoken about: the war, the unity of the Orthodox family, the role of Christians and churches especially in the context of the Ukraine situation, and then of course further discussions on the roundtable. I reiterated that the WCC repeatedly condemned and deplored the illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine. I might say that this conversation actually took place for more than two-and-a-half hours. It was not a short discussion. We had one-and-a-half hours in the boardroom and a further hour in the dining room, where we continued to engage in challenging discussions. I am aware of a video in circulation of the Patriarch actually making a presentation, and that’s true, he made a presentation. But, what it doesn`t cover is our response as the WCC to the points made by Patriarch Kirill. Unfortunately, it gives a limited perception, so I would like to say that the WCC had a very detailed response, and in the time we had together, we made sure that we put on the table, quite solidly, what we felt about the situation of the war and the unity of the Orthodox family.

What discussions related to the ongoing series of roundtables the WCC is convening? How did the Patriarch receive the idea of a roundtable this year?

Dr Pillay: The WCC delegation has already met with the churches in the Ukraine. We met with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. We put forth the idea of a roundtable and they were showing very keen interest in taking part. The idea of the roundtable is to get the Ukrainian churches to a discussion on the first day, and on the second day to have discussions with the Russian Orthodox Church, and on the third day to bring them all together to be able to discuss the issues of the war and to work together to restore the unity of the Orthodox family. The response, as I said, from the Ukraine churches as very good so we put the same to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch—while affirming the potential of the WCC and acknowledging its role as bridge builder—did express concerns about the possibility of a roundtable, and his focus was specifically on the issue of other external influences—and particularly he mentioned the issue of the USA. He said unless we resolve those kinds of issues and influences, it would be difficult to come to a roundtable. But, as I put it to the Patriarch, the task of the WCC is not to get involved in politics even though this is necessary for peaceful solutions to real problems. We do not have a political agenda, and we believe that the Bible calls us to peace. Our mandate is to fulfill the will of the Triune God to bring peace to the world. Jesus Christ is the prince of peace, and he calls us to work for peace and live in peace with each other, so we have to put the scriptures in front of us to be able to put politics aside, to put nationalism aside. These, important as they are, are not our starting points. How do we actually understand what the scripture calls us to do? Let us start thinking spiritually. Let us starting thinking religiously.  Let us open the scriptures and ask what God is calling us to do, before we get influenced by these other forces. We serve a just God who calls all believers to work for just peace. WCC wants and calls for a just peace! In the end, the discussion came to the stage where the Patriarch was able to say that the Russian Orthodox Church will have some internal dialogue while we as the WCC will continue to work on the concept paper of bringing the roundtable together. That’s a positive indication in terms of the way forward. I expect and hope that all these things will come together in the end to achieve the purposes we are trying to actually bring together.

You have now visited both Ukraine and Russia in one week. What do you take with you as the WCC general secretary? 

Dr Pillay: I think one of the things we realized is that there are no “quick-fix” solutions. The issues are complex. It’s not going to change overnight; the war has been with us for over a year now. My main concern is the increasing rift that we experience between the Orthodox churches—and that needs to be addressed. I do believe when we speak into that, and if we have one voice, as churches, then we might be able to speak in a unified voice into the context of the war and to all the authorities that continue to perpetuate this unnecessary war. As the WCC general secretary, I realize it’s going to take time, patience, and willingness to journey with the people concerned. The issues are broad and complicated for a variety of reasons. It’s not just only a matter of spiritual and religious interpretations but there is a great sense of political interference and interventions. And, unfortunately, the saddest thing for me is that churches tend to be more attracted to issues of nationalism than they are to the gospel message.

I really pray that the day will come when we can see firstly what God calls us to do, and that we remain faithful to the calling of God in the context in which we live, be it in the Ukraine and Russia context, or anywhere else in the world.

May I add another point to what I would take forward as general secretary; it is the importance of ensuring women are also part of such delegations and processes. The WCC is very conscious of women, youth, and people with disabilities participating in the organization, and rightly so! This time, we had to put a delegation together rather speedily; we chose people by designation of role and function and, unfortunately, they all happen to be men. We will ensure that this will not happen in the future.

What are the next steps after these visits?

Dr Pillay: I realize that there are many churches that are working with the Ukraine situation. I wish we could pool our efforts together so that we could be unified in what we are saying, and it could give us strength in terms of our witness in this context. I am aware that the Roman Catholic Church is also embarking on certain peace missions, and that’s well-accepted and needed, and I know also that other churches are doing similar initiatives but I hope the WCC can be a platform through which we can all work together to address these things from our respective church traditions but yet realizing the common elements in terms of what we are facing. In terms of steps forward, we have met now with the churches in the Ukraine and with the Russian Orthodox Church. We have spoken to them about engaging in dialogue, and I will now, as general secretary, be in touch with these respective churches to seek a final commitment toward the process of dialogue. Once we get that, then we will set up a dialogue—a roundtable. We are working on a concept paper that will integrate the different views that we have encountered in different visits. We will put that together and see if there’s an agreement on where it will take place, who will be part of it, and the actual agenda in terms of the discussion. We will process this. We are hoping to have the roundtable possibly in October this year—but it will take place as soon as possible. We have put together these measures. We are hoping, in a short space of time, that there will be consensus among us concerning the roundtable, and from that, we will start the initial process of dialogue. We understand it’s not going to be one event. It’s going to be a continued discussion.

Would you like to share any final comments?

Dr Pillay: The fellowship has said to us quite clearly through the assembly that we cannot remain silent or quiet. We must be engaged in dealing with the Ukraine issue, as with other wars, conflicts, and situations in different parts of the world. Since we are specifically talking about Ukraine, the mandate is that we continue to work on this issue. I would like to say to our member churches and to all those who are partners with us in the World Council of Churches: continue to pray for the people in Ukraine and Russia. Pray that this war will end. Pray that the steps we are making with regard to unity in the Orthodox family and among the churches will materialize. Pray that we will remain true to the gospel in all of these endeavors so that we may indeed look toward a world that speaks of God’s justice and of peace where we live. My final word would be: Let’s keep on keeping on. Let’s never give up. There will always be voices of criticism, and that we accept, but let’s not work from the basis of emotionalism and be critical from the armchair perspective. We all are struggling as God’s people. We  are working together to find solutions to these difficult, complex problems but especially when a war is in our presence, it is our right and responsibility as Christians and as people to say “enough is enough.” Let’s stop this and work toward peace!

Interview by Marianne Ejdersten, Susan Kim

Watch the video interview

WCC general secretary after the visit to Moscow “WCC to be an instrument of dialogue” (WCC news release 18 May 2023)

WCC general secretary visits Moscow and Patriarch Kirill (WCC news release 17 May 2023)

WCC photo gallery of the visit to Russia

WCC leadership delegation meets with churches in Ukraine (WCC news release 12 May 2023)

WCC delegation visits Ukraine (WCC news release 10 May 2023)

WCC photo gallery of the visit to Ukraine

Post expires on July 26th, 2023

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