Why religion and politics are a fickle mix in Ukraine

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Religion and politics can make for uncomfortable bedfellows. Patriarch Filaret’s ambitions for a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church were disrupted when they became enmeshed in a presidential platform.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 28, 2018.

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Patriarch Filaret has sought for decades to unite Ukraine's Orthodox believers under one church aligned with the state. But his efforts have come undone, brought down by changing political realities.

At its peak last year, Patriarch Filaret’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate had approximately a third of Ukrainian believers. And time and historical dynamics certainly appeared to be on Patriarch Filaret’s side.

But last year, then-President Petro Poroshenko sponsored the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and made the new church into a central plank of his reelection campaign. Then come the election, Ukrainian voters elected Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a TV personality who downplayed hyper-patriotism and seemed to call for social reconciliation. That appears to have put the brakes on momentum for a united Ukrainian church.

In a silver lining, it also brought a halt to the parish-by-parish battle for control that had been shaping up. Before communities were being torn in half over whether to maintain ties with the older Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church or to switch to the new church.

“When Poroshenko lost, the turmoil basically stopped,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv. “Things have quieted down for the time being.”

For nearly three decades, Mykhailo Denysenko, best known today as Patriarch Filaret, has waged a battle to unite Ukraine’s 25 million Orthodox believers under a single Ukrainian church aligned with an independent Ukraine. His primary obstacle has been the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which is home to the lion’s share of Ukraine’s divided Orthodox communion.

At its peak last year, Patriarch Filaret’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) had approximately a third of Ukrainian believers. And time and historical dynamics certainly appeared to be on Patriarch Filaret’s side to consolidate the rest.

But that all got turned on its ear last year when the struggle between the Kyiv- and Moscow-aligned patriarchates became ensnared in Ukraine’s presidential politics.

Then-President Petro Poroshenko sponsored the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), made “canonical” by a patriarchal charter issued by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The problem was that Mr. Poroshenko made his sponsorship of the new church into a central plank of his reelection campaign, which focused heavily on the patriotic themes of “Army! Language! Faith!” Patriarch Filaret now complains that he was strong-armed into folding his own hard-won parishes into the new church, accepting the title of “honorary patriarch,” and even appearing at election events to campaign for Mr. Poroshenko.

Come the election, Ukrainian voters overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Poroshenko, and elected Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaking TV personality who downplayed hyper-patriotism and seemed to call for social peace and reconciliation. That appears to have put the brakes on momentum for a united Ukrainian church.

But in a silver lining, it also brought a halt to the parish-by-parish battle for control that had been shaping up under Mr. Poroshenko. Where before communities were being torn in half over whether to maintain ties with the Moscow-affiliated church or to reorient to the Kyiv-affiliated one, the frustration of Patriarch Filaret’s vision also meant a return to a peaceful status quo.

“When Poroshenko lost, the turmoil basically stopped,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv. “There have been no parishes joining the new church since then, and things have quieted down for the time being.”

Mixing church and state

In three separate interviews with the Monitor over the past five years, Patriarch Filaret has outlined his purposes and his determination to bring the country’s divided Orthodox believers into a single church.

But today, after the charter (or tomos) from Patriarch Bartholomew, who is considered “first among equals” in the world’s 14 independent Orthodox religious communities, the patriarch is sidelined, angry, and waging a bitter legal battle to regain control of his church.

From the splendor of his Kyiv mansion, Patriarch Filaret now claims that he was deceived by Mr. Poroshenko, and by the honorary patriarch’s former deputy and new primate of the OCU, Metropolitan Epiphany. He now says that he did not understand that the tomos from Constantinople would place his independent Ukrainian church under the control of a foreign patriarch, even if he is in Constantinople rather than Moscow.

“Poroshenko interfered in church affairs. He made a deal we were ignorant of,” says Patriarch Filaret.

“Had we known that the tomos would have this character, we would never have agreed to it,” he says. “This tomos just changed one form of dependence for another. When we didn’t have the tomos, we were truly independent, even if we weren’t recognized. Now this new church headed by Epiphany may be autocephalous in the eyes of Constantinople, but all the other 13 Orthodox communities in the world still do not recognize it. ... They did not keep their word. Poroshenko and Epiphany deceived me. Before all this, the Kyiv patriarchate was united, independent, and strong. Now it is divided, and only the Moscow patriarchate is happy.”

Fred Weir
The Rev. Nikolai Danilevich, sitting in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, says that cases of “raiding” of the church’s parishes by proponents of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine have dropped to almost none since President Zelenskiy’s election.

He complains that the new status places the huge and influential Ukrainian diaspora under control of Constantinople, and limits the ability of the Ukrainian church to express its loyalty to the Ukrainian state. Patriarch Filaret says the cause of unifying Ukrainian believers has suffered a bad setback due to political meddling.

“If our Ukrainian Orthodox believers were united, it would be the second largest Orthodox community in the world, after Russia,” he says. “And Ukraine, as a state, will only be genuinely independent when it has an independent church. We will go on fighting for that.”

But religious scholars argue that church politics has always moved at a glacial pace, and that the new Ukrainian church created by the charter from Constantinople will survive and gradually grow. Once it has united most Ukrainian believers under one roof – a process that might take decades, or even centuries – it will be granted the right to have its own patriarch.

“Filaret is a great personage. Until recently, he was above criticism,” says Yevgeny Kharkovchenko, a religious scholar at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. “But from the point of view of Ukrainian experts, the tomos is a canonical document” that makes the new Ukrainian church truly autocephalous, or independent in a way that is recognized under church laws. “Whether it is under a patriarch, or a metropolitan, is just a detail.”

He says it’s impossible to know what was privately agreed between Patriarch Filaret, Metropolitan Epiphany, and Mr. Poroshenko, but that Patriarch Filaret should have known what he was doing when he took off his patriarch’s hat and accepted the title of “honorary patriarch.”

An end to the fight over parishes?

The new government under President Zelenskiy is unlikely to intervene in church affairs as its predecessor did, which will allow the process of Ukrainian believers choosing which church they want to affiliate with to proceed in a normal, peaceful manner, says Mr. Kharkovchenko.

“If you exist, go on developing by yourself without any state interference,” is Mr. Zelenskiy’s attitude, he says.

“There are now two different Orthodox communities in Ukraine, two different spheres of influence – Moscow and Constantinople – and both will carry on. Maybe Moscow will grant autocephaly to the UOC-MP, and allow it to be truly independent?” Mr. Kharkovchenko adds. “In any case, there is no longer any place between these two for Filaret.”

That appears to suit the heads of the UOC-MP, who have always denied any links with Moscow other than spiritual affiliation.

The Rev. Nikolai Danilevich, deputy head of external relations for the UOC-MP, says that cases of “raiding” of the church’s parishes by proponents of the new autocephalous church have dropped to almost none since Mr. Zelenskiy’s election. Some parishes that had switched under pressure have returned to the Moscow-affiliated church, he says.

“All this talk of autocephaly has stopped. You don’t seen anything in the media about it anymore,” Father Nikolai says. “We don’t want or need any privileges. We want the authorities to treat all churches as equally on the basis of law and order. Over the past five years we saw a lot of things that were far from that, but the atmosphere in the country has now become much better, much healthier. ...

“We wish we didn’t even have to know the name of whomever happens to be prime minister or president at any given moment, as it is in other parts of the world. But, alas, we still don’t have that luxury.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to correct a misstatement about the leadership needed for an autocephalous church.

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