What began as the straightforward territorial claim and annexation of Crimea in 2014 has now become a protracted, multidimensional conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. While the two countries continue to exchange economic, political, and physical blows, Ukraine has moved its fight for permanent independence into the sphere of religion.
Some 190 Eastern Orthodox bishops, priests and officials of the Ukrainian Church, once subject to Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, met together in December 2018 to elect their own head and move forward in a complete divorce of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russian oversight1. The newly elected Patriarch Metropolitan Epiphanius made the separation official on January 2, 2019 when he traveled to Istanbul, the historic seat of the Orthodox faith6. There, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the foremost spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, signed a decree establishing the sovereign Ukrainian church8.
“This is the foundation of our spiritual freedom.” Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke of the split, “We have torn off the last chains that tied us to Moscow with its fantasies of Ukraine as a canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church” 9. While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko supported the decision at every turn, even going so far as to make church independence a key part of his failed political reelection platform, Russian President Vladimir Putin had strong words denouncing what he calls “profiteering, politicking, and parasiting on religious matters” 7.
At a ceremony honoring the Russian Patriarch Kirill’s ten-year enthronement just weeks after the split, Putin spoke of tolerating the change, but also offered a veiled threat: “We have respected and will respect the independence of church affairs, especially in a neighboring sovereign country. And yet we reserve the right to respond and do all we can to protect human rights, including the right to freedom of religion”7. In the months following, it has become clear that calling out the alleged religious freedom rights violations of Russian Orthodox members in Ukraine is central to Putin’s approach. Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, have accused Russian agents of paying arsonists to attack buildings belonging to the Moscow-linked Orthodox church in a bid to stoke claims of persecution4.
The Ukrainian people, however, seem to be satisfied with the change. The issue of Moscow control has been on the table for centuries, and pressure has been mounting steadily since the political crises of 2014. A national poll of Orthodox Ukrainians found that 44 percent support the new church, compared to 15 percent still identifying with its Moscow-linked rival. 38 percent preferred not to disclose their affiliation at all10. In the 7 months since separation, over 500 churches have left the Russian faith for the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, totaling almost a 5 percent loss in members for the Russian Church5.
The newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been congratulated by many governments of the world, including that of the United States, and condemned by others. An official of the Polish Catholic Church offered the following sentiment on the legitimacy and merit of this new arrangement: “The church is now fully autocephalous and canonical and it’s inevitable that recognition and acceptance will follow,” Przeciszewski says, “Though it won’t offer newness in liturgy or doctrine, its presence in society and role in Europe could bring something original and hopeful. But to achieve this, it will also have to show restraint, and remain calmly confident that time and the future are on its side” 4.
“Amid Russia Tensions, Ukraine Moves Toward Separate Church …” Accessed August 9, 2019.
1. “How Russia’s Orthodox Church Rejects Ukrainian Autocephaly.” Accessed August 9, 2019. https://voxukraine.org/en/how-russia-s-orthodox-church-rejects-ukrainian-autocephaly/.
2. “Kyiv Patriarchate Refutes Russian Fake News on Christmas …” Accessed August 9, 2019. https://www.unian.info/politics/10333863-kyiv-patriarchate-refutes-russian-fake-news-on-christmas-date-change-in-ukraine.html.
3. “New Ukraine Church Endures Inter-Orthodox Feud, but Offers Catholics Hope.” National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 2019. https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/new-ukraine-church-endures-inter-orthodox-feud-offers-catholics-hope.
4. “Over 500 Churches Leave Russian Church for New Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” The Christian Post. The Christian Post. Accessed August 10, 2019. https://www.christianpost.com/news/over-500-churches-leave-russian-church-for-new-ukrainian-orthodox-church.html.
5. Paris, Francesca. “Ukrainian Orthodox Church Officially Gains Independence From Russian Church.” NPR. NPR, January 5, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/05/682504351/ukrainian-orthodox-church-officially-gains-independence-from-russian-church.
6. “Religion.” Interfax. Accessed August 10, 2019. http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=14909.
7. “Ukraine Orthodox Church Granted Independence from Russian Church.” BBC News. BBC, January 5, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46768270.
8. “World Churches Delegation to Ukraine Says Moscow-Aligned …” Accessed August 9, 2019. https://www.ecumenicalnews.com/article/world-churches-delegation-to-ukraine-says-moscow-aligned-church-crucial-in-peace-process/28790.htm.
9. “Большинство Православных Украинцев Назвали Себя Верующими ПЦУ.” Большинство православных украинцев назвали себя верующими ПЦУ. Accessed August 10, 2019. https://risu.org.ua/ru/index/all_news/community/social_questioning/74551/.