Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
As a result of the 2014 Euromaidan events in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the beginning of armed confrontations in Eastern Ukraine, the confrontation between various Orthodox churches in Ukraine deepened. Taking the events unfolding in 2018 into account, we can assume that the struggle for the creation of an independent Ukrainian Church will become more acute, which will not only cause confrontation in the Orthodox Christian world, but will also be a prerequisite for important geopolitical changes.
From Constantinople to Moscow
Kievan Rus established Christianity as its official religion in 988. The newly created Orthodox Church, or the Kyiv Metropoly, became subject to the Constantinople Patriarchate. In 1686, the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the Kyiv Metropoly as a part of the Moscow Patriarchate, which was given autocephaly by the Constantinople Patriarchate in 1593. The confrontation in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stems from precisely this historical decision.
Three Orthodox Churches
Currently, there are three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine:
- Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Church is often referred to as Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, in order to distinguish it from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate;
- Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate;
- Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
The only difference between these Orthodox Churches is their status in the world Orthodoxy. The only canonical one among the three is considered to be the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, which is under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The first institutional division between the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine was caused by the restoration of the work of Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church back in 1990. In the same year, at the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church and in order to meet the demand on the local level, Ukrainian Exarchate received independence and a high level of autonomy in administrative affairs. Despite new status, the proponents of the creation of an independent Ukrainian Church, announced about their separation from Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the creation of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate. As a result, three Orthodox Churches have been operating in Ukraine since 1992.
“National” and “Anti-National” Churches
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate are in the category of “national” churches. These churches are considered to be the carriers of the national idea, representing a powerful spiritual force in the formation of the Ukrainian nation and fighting for the reduction of Russia’s religious and political influence in Ukraine.
Due to its subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate is considered to be “anti-national”. According to its opponents, politically the Church is anti-Ukrainian and is characterized with Ukraino-phobic sentiments. According to their assessment, the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to hinder nation and state building process in Ukraine by propagating the idea of Slavic cultural and spiritual unity.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church after Euromaidan
According to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, since 2014, after Euromaidan, the cases of discrimination directed against their church as well as attacks on the buildings owned by them, have become more widespread and systemic and not only in the nationalistic Western regions of Ukraine, but also in the central part of the country.
The struggle for the parishes has also become more acute in the past few years. After Euromaidan, some parts of clerics and parishes separated themselves from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate and joined the jurisdiction of “national” churches. According to the official data, by January 1, 2018, it was registered in Ukraine that Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate had 12,000 parishes, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate had 5,000 parishes and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church had 1,000. It should be noted, that according to the data of independent social groups, after Euromaidan the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate surpassed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate in the number of supporters and by April 2018, 43% of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were supporting Kyiv Patriarchate while 20% were supporting Moscow Patriarchate.
Apart from state support, the growth of the influence of “national” churches was also facilitated by the positions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Initial careful policy towards the Ukrainian issues changed in 2015, when the Russian Patriarch, Kiril, openly stated that Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate is no longer obligated to obey the “ungodly” government of Ukraine. In November 2016, Patriarch of Moscow, Kiril, stated that they will never agree to change the holy canonical borders of their church, as Kyiv for them is the cradle of holy Russia, as Mtskheta is for Georgians and Kosovo for Serbians.
Due to proximity with the Kremlin and its stated positions about Euromaidan, perception grew in the Ukrainian public that the Russian Orthodox Church is an instrument for Kremlin’s political struggle and serves the interests of the Russian government. 2018 could be a turning point in this regard.
Decisive Struggle for Autocephaly
On 28 July, 2018, Ukraine will celebrate 1,030 years of Kievan Rus becoming Christian. For this date, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, hopes that on the basis of the unification of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople will grant autocephaly to new, unified Ukrainian Church. It is interesting that before being elected President, Poroshenko belonged to the parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. However, after becoming President, he also became a supporter of “national” churches.
Poroshenko openly stated that in the issue of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, he counts on the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople. He offered the Patriarch of Constantinople to support the unified Ukrainian church during his visit to Istanbul on 9 April. On 17 April, Poroshenko stated that for the first time Ukraine is very close to creating its own independent church. Several days after this statement, the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration, Rostislav Pavlenko, personally delivered the request letters of the representatives of Ukraine’s national and spiritual leaders to Istanbul.
It would appear that the Patriarch of Constantinople has also changed his position towards the issue of the Ukrainian Church. If before the Patriarch of Constantinople tried not to inflame the issue, now he openly stated that he will discuss this issue with other Orthodox churches as well. In 2008, on the celebratory event of 1,020 of Kievan Rus becoming Christian, the then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko asked the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to bless the creation of an independent Ukrainian Church; however, at that time Bartholomew I neither openly rejected, nor supported the idea of separation.
Poroshenko hopes that a new, independent Ukrainian Church will be created with the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who will later be joined by other Orthodox churches as well. On the other hand, according to the statement of the Russian Church, giving autocephaly to non-canonical groups will definitely cause discord in the Orthodox Christian world.
Backstage Diplomacy to Gather Support
In deciding the fate of the Ukrainian church, the parties pay special attention to the role of the Georgian Church. This could explain the recent visits of the parties to Georgia. On 4 June, the Head of Foreign Relations Department of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev) visited Georgia, together with two accompanying persons, to discuss the issue of the Ukrainian Church. On 16 June, two Metropolitans of the World Patriarchate met with the Patriarch of Georgia to present their own positions on the issue. According to the statements of Georgian clerics, the Georgian Church has not made any decision regarding this issue as of yet.
- Since 2014, after Euromaidan, the confrontation between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate on the one hand and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church on the other became more acute. The demand for the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church strengthened not only in traditionally nationalistic Western regions of Ukraine, but in other regions of the country as well. At the expense of the reduction of the number of supporters of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, the number of supporters of the “national” churches grew significantly.
- As a result of the anti-Ukrainian positions of Russian national and clerical leaders, support for “national” churches in the population and elites of Ukraine has strengthened, while Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate is increasingly considered to be “anti-national” and “anti-state,” implementing Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine.
- According to Ukraine’s governing political elite, only through the formation of autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church can the influence of Moscow in Ukraine be reduced. According to them, the activities of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate represent hindrance for the formation of the Ukrainian state and its national identity.
- For Russia, the issue of autocephaly of the Ukrainian church is not only religious, but also political. For Moscow, Ukraine is an integral part of the “Russian world” and according to the Kremlin, without influence over Ukraine Russia cannot be a powerful state. Hence, the leading role of the Russian Church in Ukraine is part of the Kremlin’s strategy for maintaining influence on the country.
- More active role of the Constantinople Patriarchate in the discussion of the issue of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church can be an echo of a severe political confrontation between the West and Russia. It is beyond doubt that the creation of the autocephalous Ukrainian Church will weaken Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space and hinder the implementation of the Kremlin’s “Russian world” project.
- The visits by the representatives of the Russian and Constantinople Patriarchates to Georgia is a confirmation of the difference of opinions regarding the issue of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, the reasons for the visit being to inform the Georgian Patriarchate of respective positions and gain its support.