As Ukraine's political divisions play out on the geopolitical stage, the country also faces an unsettling schism among its main churchgoers. And, as with national politics, a tug-of-war between pro- and anti-Moscow factions may be fueling the centrifugal forces that threaten to unravel Ukraine.
Nearly half of Ukraine's population belong to the Orthodox church. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, a group of clergy broke away from the Moscow-run church, which continues to assert its primacy over Ukrainian's faithful. The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church claims to have 15 million believers, concentrated mainly in the west and center of Ukraine. The Moscow-aligned church has at least 10 million adherents, mainly in the east and central regions.
Given this geographical split, it's perhaps no surprise that the two churches took different sides when Kiev erupted earlier this year, forcing out Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Filaret, supported the uprising; his counterpart called for peace and dialog.
Now Filaret says that Ukraine's growing political crisis is a signal from above that it's time to unite all of the Orthodox faithful into a single church. The objective is to gain worldwide recognition for the Kiev church – and not his Moscow-run rival – as the sole representative of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, under his leadership.
"This task of unifying has become urgent, particularly now that there is tension between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia committed aggression by annexing Crimea," he says.
"We want a united, equal Ukrainian Church, which is independent of the Moscow Patriarchy. It will happen [amid these political events] because God creates such conditions that, even if [Moscow] doesn't want it, they will come to it."
Filaret, who wore simple crimson robes and a large medallion, spoke to The Christian Science Monitor in his palatial pre-revolutionary residence in downtown Kiev. The octogenarian, Ukrainian-born churchman spent most of his career in the Soviet-era Orthodox Church, before the break in 1990.
Now he sees no path back to Moscow's primacy. "We suggest uniting the two Ukrainian churches and separating from Moscow altogether. They [Moscow] propose that we unite and subordinate the whole church to the Moscow patriarchate. Hence, the Ukrainian church of the Moscow patriarchate is standing in the way of unity of the whole Ukrainian church," he says. "The Ukrainian state will continue, and this state will have only one Orthodox Church."
To add to the confusion, Ukraine has a third Orthodox church, known as the autocephalous church, created in exile by Ukrainians who fled to the West after the Russian Revolution. After Ukraine became independent in 1991, it failed to reconcile with either major Orthodox group.
In Ukraine's west, which was for centuries under Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule, an eastern-rite Catholic church remains popular. Since independence from the Soviet Union, other faiths have taken root in Ukraine; the country's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is a Baptist minister.
There are no significant differences between the three Orthodox churches, says Yevgen Kharkovshenko, a historian of religion at Shevchenko University in Kiev.
"They are practically one and the same church in terms of their doctrines, beliefs, rituals, holidays, and so on. There's no fundamental reason why they couldn't all unite tomorrow," he says. "The differences that divide them lie outside the confessional sphere – as has always been the case in Ukrainian history – and can be located in politics."
Filaret's Kiev-based church, and his title of "partriarch," are not recognized by the global Orthodox community. He argues that Ukraine should have its own national church along the lines of Georgia, Serbia, and Romania, particularly after Russian "aggression" against Ukraine that he sees as undermining its independence.
He sees no possibility of reconciliation with Moscow after Russian President Vladimir Putin acted "like Hitler" by seizing Ukrainian territory. "Our Ukrainian church supports the state, it supports the people and the Army. We pray for Ukraine as an independent state," he says.
Nikolai Danilyevich, secretary of external affairs for the Moscow-linked Ukrainian church, rejects this formulation. Such a church won't work in a deeply divided Ukraine, he says.
"In our church we straddle the divide. In our church there are two tendencies, pro-Russia and anti-Russia, and we try to maintain a balance. What has happened in Ukraine is because the balance was disrupted, and now that split is shaking the religious sphere," Mr. Danilyevich says.
Filaret insists that unification must take place in a peaceful and voluntary way. During the recent upheaval in Kiev, he says, some of his followers urged him to call for the seizure of Russian-linked properties, but he rebuffed them.
"We could have occupied their churches, our public organizations are strong enough, but we did not accept that," he says. "What is done by force is not strong."
However, Filaret was a vocal enthusiast for the Maidan protest movement, which peaked in February. Mr. Danilyevich says Filaret was wrong to take a political stance that ignored the sentiments of millions of Orthodox believers in the east, he says.
"The monks of our church came out [during the uprising] to stand between the protesters and police, and call for peace and dialogue," Danilyevich says. "That is the proper place for a church to occupy in times of civil strife. If we are ever to unite our churches, we must do so on the basis of universal values that are supported in both east and west Ukraine."
Nevertheless, he adds, there is no reason in principle why the churches can't be reunited one day, provided they can find common ground.
"Filaret is a divisive figure. Sooner or later we'll join our two churches, but it will have to be after he is gone. We'll need a new leader, one who is acceptable," to the faithful in both camps, he says.