Religion meets politics. Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s winding road to independence

07.10.2018 | By Adam Szczupak

Will Constantinople recognise the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow? If so, when? What measures will Patriarch Cyril undertake in response? What will be the position of the future united Ukrainian Orthodox Church? These seem to be the most important questions of the last few months. To understand this conflict, however, one should not focus exclusively on politics, the topic that is inevitably brought to the forefront of the discussion. The independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate will be a step forward for Ukraine to free itself from the Russian sphere of political and cultural influence. The whole issue, therefore, should not be viewed solely through the lens of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia which started in 2014, since it also has historical, canonical and theological dimensions to it.

The historical roots of the dispute

Both Ukrainian and Russian orthodox denominations consider themselves to be the legitimate heirs of the legacy of the Orthodox Church of former Ruthenia and Saint Vladimir the Great, who was baptised in 988 in the Byzantine denomination. At the same time the first Metropolitan of Kiev, Theophylact the Greek, took his office. This event marked the beginning of the days of glory of Ruthenian Church, which to this day is symbolised by the existence of Saint Sophie Cathedral in Kiev. However, when Kiev slid into decline because of Tatar incursions in the 13th century, the Kiev Church also lost its significance.

Moscow metropolis, in turn, was born in the 14th century. In 1448, the Metropolitan of Moscow acquired independence from Constantinople and the judiciary power over all Rus lands, while in 1589, he was crowned with the title of Patriarch. It is worth to remember, however, that only in 1685 that the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev was given this same title. Furthermore, the title was given by the Patriarch of Moscow himself, thereby highlighting Moscow’s superiority. A year later, Constantinople formally recognised this dependency, and therefore Kiev lost the rank of the most important Rus diocese to Moscow, resulting in a process beginning to equate Rus lands with Russia explicitly. The Russian Orthodox Church became one of the fundamental tools of Russification –and later Sovietisation – of Ukrainian lands, playing the auxiliary role to tsarist and Soviet authorities.

The idea to establish the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that would be independent of Russia was born during the First World War. Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, created shortly after the war, was at first recognised by Moscow, but its activity did not last long inside the country, as it remained popular only along the Ukrainian diaspora. The idea of an independent Ukrainian Church was brought back to life in the final years of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) had been reactivated. This date marked the beginning of the split within the Ukrainian orthodox denomination.

Russian Church felt it had to react. Therefore, in 1990, it granted a broad autonomy to its branches in the Ukrainian territory by substituting the Exarchate of Ukraine with the newly-established Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). That, however, did not stop many parishes from conversion to the UAOC or to the re-born Greek Catholic Church, the trend especially visible in the western parts of the country. In 1991, after Ukraine declared independence, bishops of the UOC MP wanted the autocephaly for their Church, but their demands met with strong objections from Moscow. The split was further exacerbated when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC KP) was established in 1992. Being independent from Moscow, both UOC KP and UAOC initiated efforts to regulate their canonical status, but to no avail. Throughout the years, the UOC MP was recognised by the orthodox canonical Churches as the only legally operating Church in Ukraine. Clerics and believers of the UAOC and the UOC KP were, in turn, dubbed schismatics and “Old Believers”.

The Patriarch of Constantinople agrees

The issue of Ukrainian autocephaly – although present in the public debate for a long time – accelerated in the current year.

In April, bishops of the UOC KP with their patriarch Filaret, bishops of the UAOC and 10 clerics of the UOC MP called on Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to issue a tomos of autonomy of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament endorsed these efforts.

On October 11, 2018, the Council of the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised two previously non-canonical Ukrainian churches as operating legally and free from the threat of excommunication. Moreover, it was underscored that from the legal point of view, the act of 1686 which subordinated the Church in Kiev to Moscow, was invalid. In response, the Council of Russian Orthodox Church stated that it was forced to break off ties and the Eucharistic connectedness with Constantinople since it infringed upon its canonical territory.

Moscow warned to pursue the path of a breakup between the largest and the oldest Orthodox Churches. This tough position is not surprising given what is at stake for Russian clerics. With the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church completed, the Metropolitan of Moscow will de facto lose the title of the patriarch of the “whole Russia” – a title used by his predecessors throughout the ages. But it is not this honorary title that matters most. It is a material base and the real religious authority over millions of people that is at stake, but most importantly, it is mostly about political influence.

Orthodox institutions in Ukraine are still, in large part, the tools of Moscow and are used to uphold “ruskiy mir” and to exercise Russian political, cultural and linguistic influences.

With the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalating in 2014, the pro-Russian stance of some of the clerics of the UOC MP, some of whom openly endorsed separatist fighters in Donbas, became intolerable for many in Ukraine. The UOC MP was even dubbed “the hostile Church”, and the subordination of Ukrainian Orthodox Churches to Moscow became a target for critics. Most visibly, this transpired in the numerous cases of conversion of whole parishes from the jurisdiction of the UOC MP to that of the UOC KP.

Reconciliation in Kiev and Mosciska

In the statement released on October 11, 2018, Constantinople Patriarchate clearly stated the date of issuing the tomos of autonomy of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This will happen only when Ukrainian Orthodox Churches unite. It is well-known that the process of unification will be initiated by the joint council of the previously divided Churches. It is supposed to be held in November of 2018 in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. Who will be invited? Who will be selected to the top post of the new Church? What will the process of unification look like at the local level? What will happen to those communities that refuse to join the new, united Church? Many questions need to be answered.

Fears concerning the rapid unification of Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and their autocephaly may further arise, given that even close relations between the UAOC and the UOC KP have not been sufficient to overcome their differences. Talks between the two sides, undertaken in recent years, bore no fruit.

As a consequence, many large Ukrainian cities host the headquarters of bishops of all three Orthodox Churches, but the problem of divisions is not limited to the big centres. Take, for example, Mosciska near the border with Poland. Those who travelled to Lviv via Mosciska must have seen numerous domes and towers standing in this small town, far exceeding the number expected in a town with a population barely exceeding nine thousand. This is because it is home to the sanctuaries of the UAOC, UOC KP and also UOC MP. This religious spectrum is completed by 4 orthodox churches, 3 Roman Catholic churches and prayer houses of minor denominations.

In 2011, Mosciska became the arena of a dispute between the UOC KP and UOAC communities over property rights to one of the sanctuaries. Suffice to say that there occurred an effort – staved off by the police – to take over the church. Also, three years ago in Hodynie, a small village nearby Mosciska, there was a dispute over the jurisdiction rights to a local Orthodox parish. The feud between clerics and adherents of both the Kiev Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church was so passionate that religious services had to be protected by the police. And although material, not political or theological issues were at the roots of the conflict, they showed how deeply can even the tiniest Ukrainian local communities be divided over religious matters. Will the great idea of unification of Ukrainian Orthodox Churches overcome these divisions and heal the old wounds? Time will tell.

Moscow will not let it go

Full-scale independence from Moscow will be a huge step forward for the orthodox denominations in Ukraine, as it will contribute to the building of a modern Ukrainian state and national consciousness, not to mention the boost for Kiev in the international arena.

This fact has been well recognised by Ukrainian politicians (mainly by Petro Poroshenko), who made autocephaly one of the crucial points of his presidential campaign for the next year’s elections. On the other hand, Ukrainian authorities have to closely monitor and, if needed, nip in the bud any potential conflict that may arise within local communities on religious grounds. It will be essential to contain any Russian provocations, as media narratives about destroying “Holy Orthodox Church” by Ukrainian “fascists”, “Old Believers” as well as peppered with churches burnt to the ground or taken over, would surely resonate in Russia. And what can be the result of the demands of Russian society to defend “the oppressed brothers”? We already know the answer.

Judging by previous actions of the Patriarch Cyril, Moscow will not let Ukraine go. It will strive to retain some influence over subordinate institutions, and relations with Constantinople (already not amicable), it may be assumed, will not be a top priority for Russian clerics. One need only think of Moscow’s boycott of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church chaired by Bartholomew the First on the island of Crete in 2016.

According to some estimates, over half of the pastoral facilities of the united Orthodox Church in Ukraine may be put under the jurisdiction of the UOC MP. Assuming that from over 11 thousand parishes, which are currently subordinate to Moscow, four to five thousand will remain under its jurisdiction, it will still constitute a significant force, which – if skilfully used – may well contribute to the destabilisation of Ukrainian politics and society. And that is probably the aim of the decision-makers in Moscow, who are even willing to risk breaking off the ties with the “mother of all churches” in Constantinople. For them, Dnieper has always belonged to the Russian motherland, and its turn to Bosporus cannot be tolerated.

Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.