The inside story of how activists achieved a Christmas Truce in Ukraine

Following the surprise cease-fire in Ukraine over the holidays, faith leaders are renewing calls to end the war as the Abrahamic holy seasons begin.

In the year since the Russian Federation’s illegitimate and immoral invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of people have died and been injured in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, while an estimated 14 million others have fled their homes, either being internally displaced or forced into refugee status seeking safety in foreign countries. It is a level of tragedy very few would have predicted before the outbreak of war.

The immense devastation in Eastern Europe has had an incalculable impact on the human family and the Earth itself. The war has destroyed crops in the European “breadbasket” that normally would help feed hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and severely damaged global economic markets, irreparably harming developing nations in need of financial investment and support. And with concerns having risen in recent months about the prospect of nuclear strikes, leading the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the hands on their “nuclear doomsday clock” to 90 seconds before midnight, we are facing the real prospect of an unthinkable holocaust that could eliminate whole populations and forever damage the planet.

In the midst of these dramatic political headwinds, antiwar activists worldwide struggled throughout the first months after the Russian invasion to find mechanisms to successfully press political leaders to end the war.  

At the end of 2022, peace activists on two continents had the same creative idea — to draw on the historic “Christmas Truce” made between German and British soldiers in 1914, during World War I, as a model for initiating a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia during that holy season in late 2022 and early 2023. In the United States, leaders from the Fellowship of Reconciliation,  CODEPINK and the National Council of Elders argued that interfaith leaders from across the country could use their moral influence to pressure U.S. political leadership to help negotiate a cease-fire that could lead to an opening to end the war, drawing on power of the holy season.  Simultaneously in Europe, the International Peace Bureau determined to use its global network of secular anti-militarism movements to urge pressure on the U.N. and key member states to intercede, also with a Christmas focus.

Led by the U.S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or FOR, in late November, organizers of the U.S. interfaith appeal initially sought to get the endorsement of 100 faith leaders from across the country. Several high-profile names quickly signed on, including Bishop William Barber, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Daisy Khan, Rev. Liz Theoharis and Cornel West, which helped spark a remarkable response that far surpassed the organizers’ stated goal. By Western Christmas, more than a thousand clergy and lay leaders had signed on. A fortnight later, in advance of Eastern Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7), the tally of signatories had grown to more than 1,300 faith leaders, from every U.S. state and including several dozen religious leaders from other countries.

The multi-religious framework of support was a powerful sign that this clarion call for cease-fire and peace-building had transcended geography, theology and even political belief. The main religious practice in both Ukraine and Russia is Orthodox Christianity, and a half-dozen Orthodox bishops and archbishops joined the appeal, alongside the director of the international Orthodox Peace Fellowship — an outspoken sign of dissent, given the stated support for the war by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Faith community members representing diverse lineages within Baha’i, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and non-denominational Christian, Quaker, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian, and Indigenous/Native American traditions added their names. 

Heads of religious denominations and national faith organizations were accompanied by grassroots lay folk, nuns, and clergy from hundreds of congregations. Bishop Barber dedicated his Christmas Eve sermon to “No War: A Moral Call for a Christmas Truce,” a nationwide live broadcast hosted by Repairers of the Breach; in mid-January, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in the midst of the Eastern Orthodox season, religious leaders and secular antiwar activists highlighted the Christmas Truce during a live webinar, “Reimagining King’s Vision: The Fierce Urgency of Now,” which attracted more than a thousand registrants.

Previous Coverage
  • A people’s guide to stopping the war in Ukraine
  • The wide support of the 2022 Christmas Truce appeal drew attention from dozens of national independent media outlets and religious media sources. “Democracy Now!” provided headline coverage, including a lengthy feature interview by host Amy Goodman of Medea Benjamin, FOR’s Rev. Graylan Hagler, and Cornel West on Dec. 22, during Ukrainian Pres. Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House and U.S. Congress, as well as a followup discussion with U.K. political leader Jeremy Corbyn, former head of the Labour Party, on Jan. 20. Articles appeared in The Nation, Common Dreams, Religion News Service, and Vatican News. Grassroots people of faith wrote op-eds that local newspapers published during Christmastime. Amazingly, the Christmas Truce was even covered in right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax.

    Despite the growing pressure, mainstream media had avoided the story — until Zelenskyy, first, and then Russian President Vladimir Putin, each gave voice to their concepts of a “Christmas Truce” initiative. In late December, Zelenskyy referenced the idea, but said that such a truce could only be possible if Russia removed all its forces from Ukrainian territory. Then in January, just a couple days before Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill shockingly called for a Christmas Truce, belying his image as a warmonger; within 24 hours Putin had responded by issuing a unilateral cease-fire call for the holy observance of Orthodox Christmas Eve and Day.

    Western corporate media scoffed at Putin’s announcement, immediately adopting the Ukrainian leadership’s mantra that this was a military ploy by Russia that had no legs. On Orthodox Christmas and through the succeeding weeks, these media sources blared stories that parroted the harsh critiques of western military pundits who argued the cease-fire declaration was a trick and never held. The Christmas Truce was a trick and a “failure,” pronounced news outlets.

    Yet was it?

    Both Zelenskyy and Putin had clearly felt compelled by external pressures to address the concept of a Christmas Truce. Each initially did so from a political-military vantage point, though Putin ultimately succumbed to the spiritually-focused counsel from a trusted religious advisor. That individual, Patriarch Kirill, had himself been the target of countless appeals from global faith leaders, including the World Council of Churches and an increasing amount of dissent from within his own tradition (as exemplified by the signatures of Orthodox bishops to the interfaith Christmas Truce appeal). Their collected words and actions indicated the impact of the global call for cease-fire.

    The corporate media focused their critiques on claims that Russian forces in certain areas did not lay down their arms during Orthodox Christmas. The basis for those claims has been disputed, and Ukrainian and Russian spokespersons traded accusations that shelling and attacks were perpetrated by the other side during the armistice. No analysis has been done of what forces did cease fighting during their Christmas, and there is no way to quantify how many injuries and deaths may have been saved by even that two-day relief from fighting. (You can’t prove a negative.)

    This week marks the 20-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and armed actors.  Millions in more than 100 countries protested globally during the weeks beforehand. But the Bush administration used the false pretext of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” which the mainstream media faithfully parroted, to initiate massive bombing on March 20, 2003, and a full-scale invasion thereafter. 

    While some sectors had already been questioning the role of the press to hold power to account, the Iraq war played a key role in breaking the public trust that was once placed in mainstream media. That may be why the coverage of the 2022-23 Christmas Truce came from independent outlets on both the political left and hard right as well as non-corporate religious media.

    Most importantly, the appeal’s success has evidently influenced interfaith and antiwar activists to continue applying pressure on Russia, Ukraine and third-party actors to commit to a temporary cease-fire that would help create further space for diplomacy. Last weekend, thousands mobilized in Washington D.C. and U.S. cities nationwide to call for “Negotiations not escalation.” 

    Abrahamic faith leaders are brainstorming mechanisms to dramatize the necessity of peace, particularly with the confluence of holy seasons this spring. Building on the outpouring of support for its Christmas Truce campaign, FOR launched a campaign of prayer and interfaith engagement during Ramadan, Easter and Passover. Buddhists have commenced a 400-mile “Walk for a New Spring” from Massachusetts to Washington D.C., with planned stops including the U.N. headquarters (and the embassies of the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and NATO countries) in New York City on March 27, and the U.S. Capitol (on Easter weekend) to proclaim the urgency of a cease-fire in Ukraine and Russia as well as the need for nuclear abolition. There are even suggestions that Pope Francis may use his significant Holy Week pulpit to amplify his previous calls for peace. 

    The work of ending war is a long journey. “Peace is every step,” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh proclaimed. The Christmas Truce appeal for Ukraine has been one such step — a dramatic, creative call, linking our past to our present, with an eye on our collective future in which we will suffer war no more.

    This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

    Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

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