Tangle of church and state roils Ukraine’s Orthodox parishes

Why We Wrote This

In the West, religious institutions and governments tend not to be closely aligned. But for Ukraine’s Orthodox churches, the relationship is far blurrier. And that is causing heated debates within the country’s parishes.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Metropolitan Epiphanius, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, attend a signing ceremony marking the church's independence in Istanbul on January 5.

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The idea of an independent Ukrainian church has long been a dream of Ukrainian nationalists, and it was realized just a few months ago, with the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in Kiev.

But the arrival of the new state-backed church has brought upheaval to Ukraine’s many Orthodox parishes, which now face a difficult, politically charged decision. They can either remain part of the traditional church, which owes spiritual allegiance to the patriarch in Moscow, or they can shift their affiliation to the OCU and break with centuries of history. The debate is forcing Ukrainians to decide which is more important: religious freedom or national identity.

“I am supposed to represent the state here, but I have no idea what to do,” says Olena Korotka, the elected head of the town council of Pylypovychi, a village divided over the fate of its church. “I don’t think this problem can solve itself. There are so many aggressive-minded people getting involved. It even causes families to quarrel. ... When people start fighting like this, nothing good comes of it.”

Boris Kovalchuk arrived in this small agricultural village, about 30 miles from Kiev, straight out of the Kiev Spiritual Academy 19 years ago. Since then, he has ministered to the needs of local Orthodox believers as the local priest, maintaining a spiritual tradition that has held sway on this land for centuries.

But that tradition was thrown into disarray just a few months ago, with the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in Kiev.

The new church, created on the basis of a charter granted by the patriarch in Constantinople and heavily backed by President Petro Poroshenko, is meant to reduce the influence of the traditional Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which owes spiritual allegiance to the patriarch in Moscow (UOC-MP). It’s an issue that is often discussed in the language of geopolitics and national aspirations, exacerbated over the past five years by Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.

But there are no Russians here in Pylypovychi, just a Ukrainian community of around 1,500 people that’s become emotionally divided over a question few here had ever thought about before, but has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Should the village’s little onion-domed church – its first since the Bolsheviks destroyed the previous one in 1932 – retain its traditional spiritual affiliation, or should it shift to the newly created one?

Fred Weir
Boris Kovalchek poses at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, where he goes to obtain legal assistance in his struggle.

The debate, which is now coming to a head in communities across Ukraine, is forcing Ukrainians to decide which is more important: religious tradition and freedom, or national identity.

For Father Boris, faith wins out. “We are all citizens of the same country, Ukraine,” he says. “We want to see our country prosperous, democratic, and successful. But Christian believers do not see living in this land as their final purpose. It’s just a step on our journey to God. The present message of the Ukrainian state is that we must sacrifice God to the interests of the state.”

‘Without an independent church, the state can’t survive’

This conflict has been brewing for centuries. The idea of an autocephalous, or independent, Ukrainian church has long been a dream of Ukrainian nationalists. After Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, the local archbishop of Kiev, Metropolitan Filaret, declared an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church with a Kiev patriarch – himself – and began to gather parishes into it, mainly in the more nationalistic west of the country.

The struggle became more intense following the Maidan Revolution, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and the Russian-backed separatist war in Ukraine’s east. Patriarch Filaret accused the UOC-MP of being a Russian fifth column and declared that his church was the only truly Ukrainian one.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Moscow’s support for east Ukrainian rebels, passions have surged, with Patriarch Filaret and others arguing that it is absolutely unacceptable for any Ukrainians to belong to a church whose center is located in the “aggressor state.”

Patriarch Filaret says he now feels vindicated. His church, long unrecognized in the Orthodox world, has been made canonical, meaning legal, by the charter issued late last year by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is considered “first among equals” in the global Orthodox community. Last December, Patriarch Filaret agreed to fold his Ukrainian Orthodox Church [Kiev Patriarchate], which had about 5,000 parishes, into the new entity, along with another much smaller independent Orthodox Church.

Fred Weir
Honorary Patriarch Filaret speaks at his mansion in Kiev, Ukraine. The patriarch led a Ukrainian breakaway from the Russian Orthodox Church after the Soviet collapse in the early 90's. Though his new church, named the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, was unrecognized by the Orthodox world, it gained quite a few members, especially in western Ukraine.

The personal cost for Patriarch Filaret has been high, since the edict from Constantinople does not allow for the new Ukrainian church to have its own patriarch. He has basically stepped aside, and the new church is headed by a young associate, Metropolitan Epiphanius. But the elder leader, now styled Honorary Patriarch Filaret by members of the new church, still holds court in his lavish Kiev mansion and remains active and very combative.

“We have entered a new period, where the task is to unite all the Ukrainian Orthodox faithful into one church,” he says. “But the process is painful. There is big resistance from Moscow. But if God blessed Ukraine to become an independent state, we are sure he also gave his blessing to an independent church. Without an independent church, the state can’t survive.”

Unlike many church people on both sides of the conflict, Patriarch Filaret doesn’t mince words when it comes to the geopolitical implications of his struggle.

“Ukraine needs to remain separate from Russia,” he says. “Russia is the aggressor country. Without Ukraine, Russia will never be a strong state. Europe understands that, so does the U.S. We don’t want to return to union with Russia. We have chosen the path joining Europe, the EU, and NATO.”

The handmaiden of the state

There are 14 separate Orthodox communities in the world, in countries like Greece, Georgia, Bulgaria, even Poland, most of which have their own spiritual head, or patriarch. Patriarch Filaret says that when all Ukrainian believers are united in one church, Ukraine will be able to be completely independent under its own spiritual leader too.

But there are no doctrinal or theological differences between Ukraine’s various Orthodox churches. And the UOC-MP insists it is completely autonomous, having no financial or organizational links with the Russian Orthodox Church other than the spiritual recognition of the Moscow patriarch.

John Sydor, spokesperson for the new OCU – which is headquartered in Kiev’s beautiful St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery – says there are three key differences between it and the UOC-MP. First, it will have its administrative center in Kiev, not Moscow. Second, the language of church services will be Ukrainian – although, he admits, temporary exceptions might have to be made in a country where almost half the population uses Russian as its first language. Third, he says, it will have a pro-Ukrainian ideology.

“An independent state should have an independent church,” says Father John. “The other church sees itself as part of the Russian World. Priests of the other church often say we are all brothers, one united people, we just believe in different states. ... As there cannot be two different states on the territory of Ukraine, there cannot be two Orthodox churches.”

This discussion may sound odd to members of other religions, who usually don’t connect their faith directly with any particular government. But the Russian Orthodox Church, historically, has been the handmaiden of the state, and Ukrainian nationalists seem to be taking a mirror-image attitude.

“In the Orthodox world, there is no pope. There is no united Orthodox center, as there is in Catholicism,” says Yevgeny Kharkovchenko, a professor of religious studies at Kiev’s Taras Shevchenko University. “In the Orthodox world, church leaders are under the leaders of the state. ... In Ukraine, the religion issue is increasingly being seen as a factor of national security. For a long time now this Moscow Patriarchate church has been discussed by patriotic intelligentsia as a kind of fifth column. It brings the idea of the Russian World into the heart of Ukrainian communities.”

Asked about that, Olena Korotka, the elected head of Pylypovychi’s town council, looks shocked. “There are no enemies in this village, and we are not going to go looking for any,” she said. “We have no questions about our priest.”

Congregation vs. community

That may not be true of everyone in the village, based on what Father Boris says.

“People are accusing us of buying bullets for separatists, taking orders from Moscow, and other absurd things,” he says. He stubbornly rejects calls to join the OCU, saying that outside political activists are trying to interfere in religious affairs. “We have nothing to do with Moscow, and we don’t go in for politics. We have always tried to be a unifying influence in this community.”

Father Boris is almost unanimously backed by the group of 27 registered parishioners, the most regular and devout church-goers, and he believes Ukrainian law supports this position. “We belong to the recognized church, the church we have always been part of. These schismatics are demanding that we pass into a new church, one that is not recognized. I see none of God’s energy in this endeavor.”

On the other side are many local people who believe that since Ukraine has now been granted the right to have its own independent church, free from the Moscow Patriarchate, their local church ought to affiliate with it. They held a meeting last month, attended by around 200 people, that voted to do just that. They also took up a petition that garnered about 250 signatures.

Father Boris’s parishioners launched a rival petition that got 210 signatures. Father Boris claims outside political forces are artificially dividing the community, and that many local people who hardly ever go to church are trying to determine spiritual life for those who have made the church the center of their lives.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The chief organizer of the public meeting that voted to transfer to the new church declined to talk to the Monitor, saying he has not had good experiences with journalists. But Ms. Korotka, the town council head, says she is completely baffled by the struggle that has erupted in her formerly quiet and peaceful community.

“I am supposed to represent the state here, but I have no idea what to do,” she says. “I don’t think this problem can solve itself. There are so many aggressive-minded people getting involved. It even causes families to quarrel. We like our priest. He’s invested so much here, and we don’t want him to leave. Maybe if some people want a new church, they should go and build one? There should be peace. When people start fighting like this, nothing good comes of it.”

‘There are no Russians here’

The administrative center of the UOC-MP is in Kiev, not Moscow. It occupies the magnificent, thousand-year-old Kiev Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, one of the most sacred sites in Orthodoxy. Unlike local parish churches, the Lavra and other major religious sites are state property. There have already been rumblings in Ukraine’s parliament about evicting the church from this prestigious perch.

The position of the UOC-MP would appear to be commanding. It administers about 13,000 parishes across Ukraine, mainly in the center and east of the country, which is about twice as many as the OCU can lay claim to. It is headed by Metropolitan Onufriy, a Ukrainian, and insists that it is completely independent and self-governing in all but spiritual matters, where it defers to the patriarch in Moscow.

But the mood at the Lavra is beleaguered. For one thing, a law recently passed will force it to change its name to something like the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, thus yielding the coveted name of “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” to the new entity.

Another worry is that Ukrainian legislators may soon clear up the ambiguity in Ukrainian law over whether the affiliation of a local church is to be decided by its core parishioners or the entire population of a community, whether they are regular church-goers or not. That holds dire implications for Father Boris in Pylypovychi, who has vowed to leave rather than switch his allegiance.

Fred Weir
The iconostasis of Pylypovychi's little Church of the Sacred Martyr Dmitry is seen. Father Boris has overseen construction of the still unfinished church.

“We are looking at a situation where the 70% of people who don’t go to church will be deciding for those who do where they should go to pray,” says Alexander Bakhov, head of the UOC-MP’s legal department.

“This situation has arisen because the head of state, President Poroshenko, turned to the patriarch in Constantinople to give autocephaly to the schismatics. It’s problematic, because it is not clear that the Constantinople patriarch has the power to do this. It would be one thing if there was just one Orthodox church in the country, and they turned to Constantinople to make it canonical [legal]. But in this case, two groups of schismatics, supported by the head of state, made these moves,” Father Alexander says.

“We are the largest church in the country, yet the state initiated this issue, and is interfering in our affairs. For example, our priests are barred from ministering to soldiers in the Army. Our believers are everywhere, why are they denied their rights? The purpose here is to pin the image of an enemy upon us in order to destroy us. But this is strictly an issue between Ukrainian believers. There are no Russians here.”

Everyone agrees that the coming parish-by-parish battles for control should remain peaceful. But Patriarch Filaret says he is in no doubt about the final outcome.

“Of course we know that not all are ready to join our church. But conflicts in villages, even when they happen, are an exception. They should not happen,” he says. “People have to choose for themselves. Which church do they want to belong to? The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine? If they want to belong to a Russian church, they have the right. But if Ukrainians want to belong to a Ukrainian church, they need to leave that Russian one. We believe the majority of Ukrainians will make the right choice.”

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