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L'Eglise Orthodoxe au cœur des négociations entre Etats ? (échange de prisonniers en Ukraine 2017)

Décembre 2017

Article en anglais

On Wednesday, December 27, there took place a large-scale exchange of prisoners in Donbass. Until the last moment it was on the verge of failure, therefore the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Onufry called on all believers to pray so that this exchange could happen and all prisoners

of war could be able to see in the Christmas holidays at home.

Apart from its significance, this event has caused a number of important questions: why had this exchange not taken place before? Whom do the former prisoners owe their release to? Who is trying to arrange a tinsel hype for this event? And who is working further on so that other prisoners, who still remain in captivity, will be released?

To begin with, let us recall the chronology of events related to the release of prisoners. The first exchange arrangements were reached on September 5, 2014 at a meeting of the contact group in Minsk. They were promptly implemented. On September 12, 14, 20, 21 and 28, 2014 exchanges of prisoners took place, after which the SBU reported that 468 citizens had been released from captivity, although this was a significant exaggeration.

Inspired by successes, the newly elected (at that thime) President Petro Poroshenko instructed to release all prisoners in the Donbas by the end of 2014: "I demand clear, coordinated work between the Security Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on accelerating the return of our soldiers to their homes. We are tasked to have all those listed as prisoners (currently they are more than 600) come back home before Christmas." These words were just a bubble, inasmuch as Poroshenko’s pre-election promises to end the war within three days after being elected president.

On February 11-12, 2015, a meeting was held in Minsk in the "Norman format" at the highest level. The leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine held talks for almost 16 hours, which resulted in two documents. The first is a set of measures aimed at the implementation of Minsk agreements; the second is a declaration in support of this set, adopted by the leaders of the Norman Quartet. After that on February 21, 2015, a large-scale exchange of prisoners took place – 139 Ukrainian soldiers got exchanged for 36 representatives of the unrecognized republics. But this exchange became, in fact, the last major one. The reasons for this were explained by the leader of the Contact Group from Ukraine, former President Leonid Kuchma: "Today there is virtually not a single team at the state level that would deal with this problem, important for people."

This is important: Kuchma stated about the lack of the desire of the state (and perhaps the opportunities) to negotiate the exchange of prisoners and actually implement it.

Since then, exchanges of prisoners have been sporadic. No one spoke any more about Minsk agreements to exchange "all for all". Attempts by individual politicians or public figures to organize the exchange failed. Desperate to get help from the state, the relatives of the captured Ukrainian soldiers began to appeal to the Primate of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufry.

In 2016, at a meeting with the delegation of the All-Ukrainian Movement of Mothers and Relatives of Participants of Combat Operations Bereginya (“Guardian of the Hearth”), Metropolitan Onufry said: "We work a lot in this direction and we give petitions to bishops who perform their service in those regions. They turn to people on whom the release of prisoners depends. Something comes out, something does not. But we do not fall into despair. We will pray and do everything we can to ensure that those who are in captivity get released. The weapon of our Church is a request. We can only make requests. The Lord said, "Ask, and it will be given to you."

Why were the requests for the release of prisoners directed to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its Primate? The answer is obvious: because from the very beginning of the conflict the UOC refused to take sides on this war, and called for peace and brotherly love. The UOC did not abandon its flock either in the territory under the control of Kiev authorities, or in the territory of the unrecognized People's Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Despite persecutions and outright harassment in the media, the Church continued to carry its saving mission to people, no matter what side of the conflict they were.

On the contrary, the Uniates and the schismatics took a very tough politicized stance. It will just suffice to mention Mr. Denisenko saying that the inhabitants of Donbas suffer completely deservedly and must shed their blood for the "sin" of voting for the independence of LDNR. After such passages, after the calls for a "war to the victorious end," the representatives of both the UOC-KP and the UGCC for ever lost the opportunity for themselves to negotiate with the authorities of the unrecognized Republics, even through intermediaries. Therefore, despite all the statements and beautiful photographs, the merit of the UGCC and UOC-KP in the release of prisoners is zero. These structures and the words of their representatives are merely not perceived on the other side of the front line.

The UOC, on the contrary, proved that its consistent peacekeeping position, despite all the plights and attacks, is positively perceived on both sides of the conflict. All this time the UOC has pursued with the work so that the prisoners on both sides could return home to their families. The first positive result of its efforts was the release on December 18, 2016 of paratrooper of the 80th airborne brigade Taras Kolodiy from the two-year captivity, who had participated in the hostilities for Donetsk airport.

Bishop Kliment (Vecheria) and Taras Kolodiy after the release

An exceptional merit hereby belongs to the UOC, which was confirmed in particular by Advisor to the Chief of the Security Service of Ukraine Yuriy Tandit. Bishop Clement (Vecheria) when Kolodiy was set free said, "This is a holiday for all of us. We do not lose hope that we will have more holidays like this one." And the UOC carried its work on the organization of a large exchange of prisoners.

The scheme of such efforts was announced by the Moscow Patriarchate: "His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and All Ukraine addressed His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia with a request for assistance in the release of Taras Kolodiy, to whom, in their turn, the relatives of the above serviceman appealed as well. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia supported the petition of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry and addressed the persons on whom the positive decision on this matter depended. The liberation of Taras Kolodiy is the result of the peacekeeping participation of the Church in resolving the conflict in Ukraine, and also testifies to the high authority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The prisoner was freed without any preconditions as an act of goodwill. The Russian Orthodox Church prays for the end of the fratricidal confrontation in Ukraine, considers it important to release the persons held by both sides as soon as possible, no matter where they would be.”

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