As Orthodox leaders meet, Ukraine-Russia conflict festers
June 16, 2016 12:13 PM
Darko Bandic/Associated Press
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, center, poses for cameras with orthodox monks in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos, Greece, last month ahead of Russia's president Putin visit.
By Olena Goncharova / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Before the bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russia erupted in early 2014, costing thousands of lives and uprooting more than a million citizens, most Ukrainians didn’t pay much attention to internal church disputes about which bishop was loyal to which patriarch.
That changed dramatically after Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his nation’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine on religious grounds, citing a disputed historical claim that the peninsula was the cradle of Russia’s millennium-old Christianity.
Since then, tensions have soared between the world’s two largest Eastern Orthodox Christian populations, with loyalties to Moscow or Kiev increasingly defined in terms of church as much as of state.
Such a dispute might seem an urgent topic to come up when Orthodox leaders from several nations began their historic 10-day “Holy and Great Council” Thursday on the Greek island of Crete. Yet not only is this dispute absent from the agenda, but leaders of the Russian and some other churches say they won’t show up after all, despite an earlier agreement to participate in what would have been the most broad-based Orthodox council in 1,200 years.
The fate of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine involves complex issues of authority and autonomy.
It has been one of the most difficult points of dispute between the patriarchs of Moscow — who has had official sovereignty over Ukraine’s churches for more than three centuries — and Constantinople. The latter is seen as sympathetic to Kiev’s claims and is esteemed as first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy. But he lacks the power of a pope to act on his own, as Orthodox traditionally is ruled by consensus of bishops, and even putting a discussion of Ukraine on the agenda would have required approval from Moscow, which already considers its authority there to be settled.
According to the Pew Research Center, Russia has 101 million Orthodox and Ukraine has 35 million.
But loyalties in Ukraine are divided.
The problem goes back to the late 17th century, when the Moscow Patriarchate began governing Orthodox Church affairs in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been the largest denomination in Ukraine and the only church recognized by the other branches of the Eastern Orthodoxy.
There are approximately 17,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine, some 40 percent of which are controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate, according to official Ukrainian data. It is governed by Russian Patriarch Kirill, who’s often seen as an ally of President Putin.
But almost 5,000 of those parishes now belong to the Kiev Patriarchate, which announced its ecclesiastical independence from Moscow in 1992 . But neither this nor a smaller denomination, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, have official recognition in the global Orthodox community.
For the Moscow Patriarchate, all the other churches are schismatic.
“Kiev Patriarchate church is not a church at all,” Vasyl Anisimov, a spokesman for Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate said in a phone interview from Kiev. “And many churches have been urging them to reunite with the canonical church [of the Moscow Patriarchate].”
Representatives of Kiev Patriarchate don’t share this sentiment.
Ukrainians deserve to have their own church that would become a “strong Constantinople ally” and help restore Orthodox unity, said Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, a spokesman for Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kiev Patriarchate.
Such claims began taking on a life-and-death significance in 2014.
That year, Mr. Putin defended the Crimean land-grab, calling the peninsula a “sacred land” for Russia. Later in 2014, Patriarch Kirill in a letter to his Constantinople counterpart called the Ukraine-Russian conflict a “religious war” and stressed that schismatics have been trying to “seize the upper hand over canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine.“
The International Partnership for Human Rights has documented examples of some Moscow Patriarchate clergy “ceremonially blessing separatist battle flags” and providing shelter and spiritual support to separatist fighters in Ukraine’s war-torn east.
As a result, at least 35 parishes have shifted from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Kiev one since then.
Mr. Anisimov said this shift resulted from “political lawlessness,” referring to the Euromaidan Revolution in late 2013. “You can’t shift from one god to another. They were forced to,” he said, adding that despite this the number of parishes loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine has increased in recent year.
But the number of faithful hasn’t.
In 2015, the London-based Foreign Policy Center found the situation between Ukraine and Russia has provided a great opportunity for expansion of Kiev Patriarchate. It gained its trust with patriotic approach and backing the Ukrainian war effort, thus claiming the mantle of a national church.
Forty-four percent of Ukrainians associated themselves with the churches of the Kiev Patriarchate in 2015, compared to 15 percent in 2010, according to the poll conducted by Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kiev think tank.
Nicholas Denysenko, an associate professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, agrees that Kiev Patriarchate is the most popular church among Ukrainians.
However, to gain authority over all parishes in Ukraine the Kiev Patriarchate would need to secure the approval of the Moscow Patriarchate, along with a second blessing from the patriarch of Constantinople.
It’s unlikely that this problem would be resolved, Mr. Denysenko explains, but the Kiev Patriarchate keeps pushing for autocephaly, or independence.
Recently, it requested the Ecumenical patriarchate to recognize its autocephaly, and offered to relinquish its patriarchal status as a compromise.
Mr. Denysenko said the Orthodox Council could “accept such a proposal,” with the understanding that many bishops, clergy, and laity in Ukraine would wish to remain under the jurisdiction of Moscow.
“Technically, the Kyiv Patriarchate is already autocephalous; they are simply not recognized. Recognition from Constantinople would be more meaningful for Kiev than approval from Moscow,” said Mr. Denysenko, who has extensively researched Orthodox liturgy and religion in Ukraine.
Days before the Council — after half-a-century-long preparations — some churches, including the Russian, Bulgarian and Antiochian in Syria, announced their plans not to participate. Some of them are not satisfied with the arrangements made.
The Moscow patriarchate has often asserted a de facto leading role in the church by having the largest Orthodox population. Moscow has often considered itself a “third Rome,” heir to Constantinople after its fall to Muslim Turks.
Archbishop Yevstratiy is certain as long as Moscow would consider itself a “majority shareholder of the Orthodoxy,” such problems would persist.
All 14 of the world’s autocephalous churches agreed on an agenda for Thursday’s council earlier this year at a meeting in Switzerland, he said.
“It’s all established,” he said. “And now it’s not about the number of the participants [that makes the council legitimate], but about the decisions that will be made.”
Experts say the current problems of disagreement within the Orthodox Church will be more evident to the general public if Moscow does not participate. (Its representatives still can show up before the end of the council on June 26).
“If Moscow refuses to participate, they run the risk of the public perceiving them as attempting to divide Orthodox loyalty from Constantinople to Moscow,” Mr. Denysenko said.
Olena Goncharova is a staff writer for the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s largest English-language newspaper, and is working this summer at the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow (email@example.com, 412-263-1590).
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.