Is There a “Frozen Conflict” in Orthodoxy?
And If So, What Can We Do About It?

by Regina Elsner

Kyiv in Winter

During a conference on the crisis in Orthodoxy caused by the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, several participants used the concept of a “frozen conflict” to describe the “stable unresolved conflict” (Georgij Kovalenko). Given that the term is commonly used for several deadlocked conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union with crucial participation of Russia, it seems plausible to link the conflict around the Ukrainian church to this concept. Yet, at least in two regards, the description of the conflict in Orthodoxy as a “frozen conflict” fails. First, the conflict is not frozen. The conflict between the churches is quite hot, with both sides using all possible means to establish their superiority and blame the other for recent tensions. Moreover, the armed conflict in Ukraine continues and people are dying on the frontline almost every day—a fact we all must not forget. Second, the church usually refuses to be judged with political concepts, claiming that the way the church deals with conflict should transcend the worldly manner.

Nevertheless, the fact that theologians try to frame the conflict within the political concept of a “frozen conflict” points to the helplessness to find ways to make sense of this painful situation. Therefore, it is worth taking a closer look at the concept to find out how experts construct perspectives for such deadlocked conflicts. I would like to focus on three noteworthy aspects.

Ceasefire

The key goal for all frozen conflicts is to stop the active armed conflict. Only once a ceasefire is reached and no one has to fear for one’s life or integrity, a process of reconciliation can begin. What could this mean in the context of churches and the ongoing conflict between them? Which “weapons” are they fighting with?

One the one hand, this could be the use of Eucharistic communion as an instrument to draw boundaries. Can there be a real and credible dialogue about potential solutions as long as the Eucharistic communion between the churches is missing? Wouldn’t common prayer and liturgy be a crucial part of a synod trying to find a solution?

Yet another form of “weapons” is far more practical, especially when looking at the ongoing processes in different social media channels. Here, the churches, their speakers and affiliated groups lead a rather hot conflict, keeping it “burning” by blaming each other for harmful and violent actions, illegal measures, internal conflicts. While the churches’ leadership tries to balance wording and actions, they often fail to distance themselves actively from radical propaganda, thus legitimizing it.

If you have an honest interest in finding reconciliation and a lasting solution of a conflict, wouldn’t you try to avoid any escalating actions, even if you perceive the situation to be unfair? Couldn’t it be a strategy to keep silent or take a prayer every time you want to dismiss the other? And isn’t it possible to influence your flock not by censure, but by just taking a clear stance against propaganda in your own community?

Dialogue and the role of third parties

In order to find a solution for a frozen conflict, experts widely discuss the importance of an ongoing multi-level dialogue between the conflicting sides, as well as the role of “third parties”. In the case of political conflicts, this primarily means creating the possibility to meet and talk in a neutral space. Third parties are international communities or nations with a direct interest in resolving the conflict due to political, security, economic and humanitarian reasons. How can this be applied to the situation in the Orthodox world?

All proposals to solve the conflict emphasize the importance of starting a new dialogue between the churches. The vast amount of unresolved theological, historical and canonical issues is obvious, and the need to talk to each other is more urgent than ever. Yet, until now, most of the theological input and perspectives remain in the form of unilateral scientific discourse.

The Roman Catholic as well as the Lutheran churches have stressed repeatedly that they share the pain of the conflict of their sister churches. Yet, they do not want to interfere in order to avoid aggravating the conflict. In reality, providing a neutral space for the conflicting parties would be a form of valuable support. Offering the possibility for all parties to meet in a neutral environment where all are treated equally could facilitate serious discussions without the risk of losing face. Inviting all sides to come to the table and ensuring that they jointly discuss the issues and understand each other would be a huge improvement compared to the usual monologues of well-meaning arguments. Lastly, having everyone in one room could offer a chance to overcome the “doublespeak” common in other ecumenical contexts.

Renunciation from power and violence

To overcome a frozen conflict, all parties have to be willing to concede power. Every such conflict is about unwillingness to give up power and influence over territories and people, which was gained through some kind of aggression and manipulation. They are about powerful actors who keep a whole region locked in instability to prove their own superiority. It is, therefore, a necessary preposition to concede at least some leverage in order to resolve the conflict.

Much like in politics, this aspect is the most complicated, unlikely, and important one in church. Remarkably, the question of power is also the main reason for the current crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, much like the hierarchs there, the hierarchs of the Orthodox church show no signs of genuine willingness to give up power. Yet, without such steps, all theological dialogues and efforts to stop the propaganda will remain at the level of unofficial consultations and personal opinions without any authority.

Finally, the situation in the so-called de facto states in the zones of frozen conflicts demonstrate that the everyday life of the affected population offers more reason for hope than high-level negotiations. Provided that the ceasefire is upheld, people find ways to continue interaction and everyday life at the local level. They have, to put it bluntly, more pressing concerns than geopolitical power battles. This proves true for the believers affected by the conflict between the Patriarchates, in Ukraine as well as in other countries. They face the challenge of balancing church politics independently with their sense of faith. Looking at local initiatives in Ukraine and the ongoing joint commitment of believers in officially conflicting churches in Western Europe and America, we may have hope that they will cope well with this challenge. The bishops and patriarchs may have other plans, but these plans may be irrelevant for the faithful and their lives.


Regina Elsner is a Catholic theologian and research fellow at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS).

This text was given as a talk during the theological conference “Ukraine: Die orthodoxe Kirche vor dem Schisma?” in Munich (February 7-8, 2020) and slightly edited for Public Orthodoxy.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.