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In struggle over Ukrainian Orthodox communion, a political hornet’s nest

Why We Wrote This

In an international conflict, one nation often will want to nullify influence another has within its borders. But what if doing so means upsetting fundamental tenets like separation of church and state?

Marko Djurica/Reuters/File
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (r.) and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople hold a liturgy in the southern Serbian city of Nis in 2013.

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Since the Soviet era, Ukraine’s Orthodox community has been essentially split in two. On one side there’s the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which though functionally independent gives its spiritual allegiance to the Patriarch of Moscow. On the other is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), a breakaway church with its own self-proclaimed patriarch but not recognized by the greater Orthodox community. Both have been jostling for the hearts and minds of believers in Ukraine for decades. But amid Kiev’s conflict with Russia, the religious turf war has become a political one as well. Backed by the Ukrainian government and Orthodox authorities abroad, the UOC-KP looks set for what would effectively be a hostile takeover of the UOC. That would mean the dissolution of the UOC, the seizure of its property by the UOC-KP, and – backed by force of law – the requirement that all Ukrainian Orthodox churches switch their allegiances to Kiev. People will have their weddings and baptisms in the same old church in the same old way. But some estimate that about one-third of UOC clergy will refuse to switch allegiances in an already troubled country, potentially leading to legal and perhaps physical conflict.

For decades, Orthodox leaders have been at odds over where the loyalties of clergy in Ukraine should lie: in Moscow, or within Ukraine’s own borders. While deeply meaningful to religious authorities, it is the sort of complicated detail that ordinarily would be of interest to few outside Orthodox circles.

But now, the long-simmering jurisdictional dispute is coming to a head – and could add a new layer to Ukraine’s internal tensions amid its ongoing geopolitical strife with Russia.

Encouraged by the government in Kiev, Orthodox leaders in Ukraine are attempting to create a national church by severing the ties of many Ukrainian Orthodox churches to their traditional spiritual headquarters in Moscow. And with the foremost patriarch of the overall Orthodox Church apparently set to throw his weight behind Kiev’s cause, a new Ukrainian patriarchate seems likely sooner rather than later.

With a new national patriarchate, however, would come a hostile takeover of the country’s traditional Orthodox body by a newer breakaway church. And while the change would have no practical impact on parishioners – weddings and baptisms would go on the same way as before – it would likely result in a political schism, as churches that once spiritually allied to Moscow were legally forced to orient toward Kiev. The Orthodox debate would be subsumed by political concerns that should not touch it, critics say.

“We have separation of church and state in Ukraine, and any attempt by the state to meddle in our affairs would be reminiscent of totalitarian days,” says Vasily Anisimov, official spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. “Why our church doesn’t please the Ukrainian authorities is a mystery to us.”

Ukrainian Orthodoxy

The Orthodox world has 14 autocephalous – functionally independent but spiritually connected – units, mostly nation-based, each with its own local head, or patriarch. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church has no pope-like figure to definitively settle issues. But the Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul, where the church was born) is considered “first among equals” and enjoys a few privileges as such.

About two-thirds of Ukraine’s 43 million people identify as Orthodox believers, although they are divided among three separate churches that do not vary in their beliefs or practices but which attract very different political passions.

The vast majority of parishes – about 7,000 out of a total 12,000 – are affiliated to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The church is legally and financially autonomous, but has no patriarch of its own. Rather, it is part of the world’s largest Orthodox congregation, the Russian one, headed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. In recent years the UOC has steadily been losing followers, but is still supported by at least 20 percent of Orthodox believers, mainly in the east and south of Ukraine.

Though it has fewer parishes, the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) is in fact a larger congregation than the UOC: about a third of Ukrainian Orthodox believers. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UOC-KP was formed under the leadership of the Soviet-era Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Kiev, Mykhailo Denysenko, who had failed in a bid to become Moscow Patriarch. He took the name Patriarch Filaret, the designated spiritual head of the new church. It is Filaret who is the primary spiritual figure behind the drive for a Ukrainian national church, which began in its modern form when Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.

There is also a Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which was formed after the Bolshevik Revolution, and has the support of about 3 percent of believers. To confuse matters further, in the west of Ukraine (which was under Polish domination for centuries) there is also the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is basically Orthodox but owes allegiance to the pope in Rome, and commands the support of just under 10 percent of Ukrainians.

‘A united, equal Ukrainian Church’

The effort to create a unified, independent Ukrainian church has intensified greatly since the Maidan Revolution four years ago, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, triggered violent geopolitical conflict between Moscow and Kiev.

Earlier this month Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople prompted what will certainly be a heavily contested process aimed at eventually granting autocephaly to Orthodox Ukrainians. He sent two leading Orthodox officials from North America, which is under Constantinople’s jurisdiction, to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and others to discuss the move. The Russian Orthodox Church, which accuses Bartholomew of having “pope-like ambitions,” heatedly disputed his right to initiate such a procedure, and dramatically broke off some contacts with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

It’s probably not as bad as it sounds, since the Kremlin has vowed to stay out of the quarrel, and there is little evidence that most Ukrainian believers care very much whether their local priest owes spiritual allegiance to a patriarch in Moscow or in Kiev. But with presidential and parliamentary elections on Ukraine’s 2019 horizon, it seems certain to be a fixture on the political agenda for some time to come.

“Ukrainian authorities regard Russia as an enemy, and the task of separating all Ukrainian churches from any ties with Moscow has become an important political goal,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “They want the Ukrainian Church to be a national one, which is loyal to the national authorities. The Russian Orthodox Church would then cease to be a trans-national one, and become just another national one itself.”

The Kiev Patriarchate, which Filaret heads, has not yet been recognized as canonical (i.e. a legal jurisdiction) within the Orthodox community. The outcome that Mr. Poroshenko and Filaret are hoping for in this situation is that the entire Ukrainian Orthodox community will be declared by Constantinople as one united and independent Orthodox jurisdiction, with Filaret as its patriarch.

Four years ago in Kiev, as the current geopolitical crisis was breaking, Filaret sat down with the Monitor to explain his goals.

“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 explained. “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.”

Church and state

Yevgen Kharkovshchenko, chair of religion studies at Kiev National University, says the drive for an autocephalous Ukrainian church is a natural front in the ongoing struggle for Ukrainian independence. “This idea has a lot of supporters in Ukraine,” he says. “An independent state on its own independent territory has to have an independent church.”

He adds that it seemed unlikely to happen until the Patriarch of Constantinople stepped in and Moscow reacted with harsh countermeasures. “Now, for the first time, I am beginning to think that Ukraine will get its autocephalous church, after a thousand years of aspiration.”

Ukraine’s individual Orthodox churches have been battlegrounds for three decades already, as the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates struggle to win the allegiance of each parish, which owns its own brick-and-mortar house of worship under Ukrainian law. But the creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian church would likely intensify that battle. And it would also likely spur President Poroshenko or the Ukrainian parliament to change the laws to make Kiev allegiance mandatory for all.

“Will politicians get involved? Of course they will,” says Mr. Kharkovshchenko.

The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, former official spokesman of the Moscow Patriarch, argues that the ambitions of Bartholomew and Filaret are driving the present situation, and that it will only create more disunity in already troubled Ukraine. He says that most clergy and believers will probably accept whatever Ukrainian authorities demand, since it won’t affect church doctrine or religious practice. But it is estimated that about one-third of UOC clergy will refuse to switch allegiances, he says.

“So, even if this comes to pass, it will only create one more church jurisdiction, and that is not a step to unity,” Father Vsevolod says. “And if there is state involvement, with legal measures or pressures by local authorities upon parishes to promote Kiev affiliation, how is that a good thing?”

It is likely to take a long time, he adds, since there will be push-back, and it doesn’t suit most players – including Bartholomew in Constantinople – to see any of this quickly settled.

Mr. Anisimov, the UOC spokesman, sounds quite defiant. He says the church is already autonomous from Russia and has no connections with the Moscow Patriarch other than spiritual ones.

“I personally think this campaign for autocephaly has a lot to do with the upcoming election campaign,” he says. “Our Ukrainian authorities don’t have much to offer the people in their material realm, so Poroshenko wants to pose as the founder of a new church. Our authorities conceive of a church as a political organization, marching shoulder to shoulder with the state. But that road leads back to totalitarianism.”

“The authorities should concentrate on their tasks, which is things like ending the war and improving peoples’ lives,” he adds. “Our mission is to save souls. We don’t interfere with the state, and they shouldn’t interfere with us.”

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