Can Ukraine’s divided church help heal the divided country


In hardship, people turn to religion for help. Ukraine today is no exception. But is it the answer to the country’s problems?


Iannis Carras
15 January 2015

Ukraine is a predominantly Christian country, the vast majority of practising Christians being Eastern Rite. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate [hereafter MP]) has the most parishes and, in many parts of the country, the largest congregations. It is autonomous but not autocephalous, that is to say, the ultimate head of the Church is the Patriarch of Moscow, who is also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Patriarchate of Kyiv [hereafter KP]), which was founded in 1992 and is unrecognised by the other Orthodox Churches, had, up until now, been a smaller organisation.The Eastern Rite Greek Catholics or Uniates (Patriarch of Rome, ie the Pope) constitute less than 10% of the church-going population. They are concentrated in the west of the country.

All these figures should be viewed cautiously, however. In the majority of cases, allegiance to a particular church is weak: ‘I believe in God,’ a woman cheerfully told me outside a basilica under construction – with lots of marble – on the fringes of Chernihiv, ‘does it matter whether I go to a Moscow or a Kyiv church?’

Despite this, everyone I spoke to told me that religious attendance is increasing throughout the country. ‘We’ve seen it again and again in history’ argues Mykola Mikhailutsa, professor of Ukrainian history at the University of Odessa, ‘in hardship, people turn to religion for help. Ukraine today is no exception’. But the flow of parishioners and even parishes is away from the Moscow Patriarchate and towards Kyiv.

‘In hardship, people turn to religion for help. Ukraine today is no exception’

Church politics

On 1 March 2014 Onufrii, the Metropolitan of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna (at the time the provisional Metropolitan of Kyiv) addressed a public missive to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow: ‘I appeal to you, Your Holiness, asking you to do everything possible to prevent bloodshed in the territory of Ukraine. I ask you to raise your voice to preserve the integrity of the territory of the Ukrainian state.’ Following Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea, Onufrii’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) has not accepted that the Eparchies [an eparchy being a diocese of the Eastern Church] of the Crimea and areas of Eastern and Southern Ukraine are not part of its jurisdiction, despite his Church’s nominal subordination to Moscow.


President Putin is close to the Russian Orthodox Church. Image via premier.gov.ru (c)

For his part, Patriarch Kirill was notably absent from the political grandstanding that characterised the Russian annexation of Crimea. But he did not publicly oppose Russian policies, and has played a prominent role in propagating the ideology of a brotherhood of east Slavic peoples or the ‘Russian world’, binding Ukraine and Belarus to the Russian Federation. His immediate response to Onufrii’s request ended with the admonition: ‘the brotherhood of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples is a reality […]. It must determine our future, and it should not be sacrificed to short-term interests.’

Patriarch Kirill’s longstanding open support for Russian president Vladimir Putin provides the political setting for his belief in the brotherhood of the east Slavic peoples. Perhaps in compensation for the loss of his Patriarchate’s influence in Kyiv, Vladimir Putin himself has conjured up a ‘civilisational and sacred meaning’ for Crimea, comparing its importance for Orthodox Russia to that of Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims. The war in Ukraine is thus being portrayed as a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Orthodoxy and the West, ignoring the obvious fact that in Ukraine itself, opponents of Russian state policies are also Eastern Rite, mostly Orthodox, and often enough (as is the case of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko) parishioners of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The war in Ukraine is thus being portrayed as a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Orthodoxy and the West.

Though there is a strong pro-Russian faction in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP), a strong pro-Ukrainian faction is also evident. Like the current Metropolitan of Simferopol and Crimea, most hierarchs of the church come from western Ukraine. In addition to Metropolitan Onufrii, many of these have vigorously protested Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and also Russian support for separatists in the east. I spoke to two laymen – members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) – during the course of a recent conference in Chernigov (‘Rus and Mount Athos’) and they confirmed that their parishes had been providing goods and money for the Ukrainian national army. ‘We pray for all sides,’ one told me ‘but we are for a united Ukraine.’

These divisions mean that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) has not sided with any one party. At the same time, short of its call to prayer and repentance, these divisions have prevented the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) from playing a more active role or standing up for a just resolution to the conflict. In combination with Patriarch Kirill’s support for the policies of Vladimir Putin, this passivity plays into the hands of those Ukrainians who view the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) as a fifth column. Talk of an ‘Orthodox Army’ fighting with the separatists in eastern Ukraine, has rendered the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP)’s position almost untenable.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP)

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) faces different dilemmas. This is a national Ukrainian church with a national Patriarch at its head, and as such is well positioned to contribute to the ongoing project of Ukrainian state building. Congregations regularly collect alms for Ukrainian military and paramilitary groups at the front. And services are held in modern Ukrainian, not the Old Church Slavonic preferred by parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, and rather like a number of Orthodox churches in the Balkans, the United States and elsewhere, the canonical status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) has not been determined.

The status of Patriarch Philaret is particularly problematic. Kyiv was not a patriarchal seat in the past. As with Greece, Cyprus, and Albania, there is no reason why a new Patriarch should necessarily lead autocephalous churches. Philaret’s current title is therefore self-assumed, and his position viewed by many (not just in Russian Orthodox circles) as constituting a break in the Apostolic succession.

This undetermined status constitutes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP)’s primary weakness. In the context of pressure from the Ukrainian authorities, negotiations are taking place between the various churches of Ukraine to form a 'United Local Church'.

These negotiations are not new. As Taras Borozhenets, a prominent writer on religious affairs from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP), put it: ‘All Ukraine’s Presidents, even Viktor Yanukovych, have pressed for a United Orthodox church’. Negotiations have so far led to a statement of intent, or ‘Memorandum of single and unified Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church’ signed in November 2014 by a number of bishops of all the church denominations. Almost immediately, however, Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) and Greek Catholic bishops withdrew their signatures.

A ‘United Local Church’

The obstacles to a ‘United Local Church’ are considerable

The obstacles to a ‘United Local Church’ are considerable. As Yury Chоrnomorets, a theologian from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP), explains: ‘the negotiations are currently blocked for two reasons. First Metropolitan Onufrii does not want the negotiations to take place as though there were two equal parties, calling instead for repentance from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP).’ And he adds: ‘For his part, Philaret wants to remain as head, and is in effect calling on members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) to split from the Russian Orthodox Church and join up with him. Not much can happen as long as Philaret doesn’t change his position.’

Philaret himself has, however, talked of stepping aside in order to reach a compromise, and, also, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) re-joining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP), rather than the other way round. Such statements suggest that secret negotiations may currently be taking place.

Nevertheless, as Taras Borozhenets emphasised, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) could easily split between pro-government and pro-Moscow elements at the prospect of union. And Orthodox churches would not agree to enter communion with the Greek Catholics prior to a resolution of theological differences, differences that have at times served as a cover for mutual dislikes based on various forms of nationalism.

-служба Української Православної Церкви 3_0.jpg

Churches in Ukraine find it difficult to stand together. Image via Ukraine Orthdox Chruch press office. (c)

It was precisely to challenge the consequences of the growth of such nationalistic tendencies in the Balkans that a pan-Orthodox Synod of 1872 decreed ‘ethnophiletism’, the principle of division according to nationality in the ecclesiastical domain, a heresy. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) has at times been viewed as fitting into this 19th century Balkan paradigm, a paradigm that superseded older traditions of a pan-Orthodox Ecumenism.


The situation in Ukraine is playing out against the background of two events of considerable importance for the church. The first is an ongoing process of reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Pope and the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople issued a joint statement on the crisis in Ukraine: ‘we call upon all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law in order to bring an end to the conflict and allow all Ukrainians to live in harmony.’ The call for adherence to ‘international law’ is as clear a rebuff of Russia’s intervention as is conceivable from the (primus inter pares) senior hierarch of the Orthodox Church, and has led to accusations (mentioned by one of those I interviewed, who preferred to remain anonymous on this point) that the Ecumenical Patriarch is pursuing an agenda set in Washington.

Even more significantly, the first Pan-Orthodox Council in 1200 years is to be held in Istanbul in 2016. All canonically recognised Orthodox churches plan to attend, and ecclesiology (the nature, constitution, and function of the church) will be a primary focus. So too, in one way or another, will Ukraine.

The first Pan-Orthodox Council in 1200 years is to be held in Istanbul in 2016

Historical precedent suggests the Ecumenical Patriarch has a role to play mediating the conflict in Ukraine. Kyiv remained subservient to the mother church of Constantinople until 1686 (long after 1589 when Moscow became a Patriarchal seat). The exact terms of the transfer of Kyiv from Constantinople to Moscow, in particular, which Patriarch was supposed to be commemorated in services (in all likelihood the Ecumenical Patriarch), are still a matter of historical dispute. The area of the former Crimean Khanate (including much of southern Ukraine) remained under Constantinople’s jurisdiction even longer, being incorporated into the ‘Greek-Russian Church’ (this being Catherine II’s preferred term) only following on from her annexation of the peninsula in 1783. The terms of this transfer have not been adequately examined.

Viktor Bed, an Archimandrite and Rector of the Ukrainian Theological Academy of the Carpathian University of Uzhgorod, who has clashed with Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) circles, is adamant on this point: ‘the mother Church […] of the Orthodox of Ukraine is the Constantinopolitan Orthodox Church.’ The Ecumenical Patriarch has on occasion referred to Constantinople as the mother church to Ukraine.

The mother church

Inevitably, Moscow vigorously disputes such views. It does have legitimate arguments in its claim to be the mother church to what has been up until now been Ukraine’s larger Orthodox denomination, largely based on the terms of the transfer of 1686.

Two other precedents for mediation by the Ecumenical Patriarch are perhaps even more interesting: the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox church in Poland (formerly a province of the Russian Empire) by Constantinople in 1924, and the recognition of a minority autocephalous Orthodox Apostolic Church of Estonia in 1993.

The Ecumenical Patriarch has, however, been very cautious with regards to Ukraine, helping where it can, employing a large number of Ukrainian priests within its own jurisdictions, but also repeatedly calling for unity according to the Church canons. For if Ukraine has, over the centuries, served as a bridge between Constantinople and Moscow, it is also beyond doubt that up until the middle of the 18th century (if not later) the influence of Ukrainian Church circles on the Russian Church remained paramount. Indeed, one cannot make sense of religious developments within Russia without giving pride of place to Ukraine.

One cannot make sense of religious developments within Russia without giving pride of place to Ukraine.

As Nadezhda Belyakova, a Russian social scientist focusing on religious developments in Ukraine, points out, the dispute over whether Moscow or Constantinople is the mother church to Ukraine feeds into a broader disagreement over the rights and obligations of Constantinople/mother churches more generally. The Ecumenical Patriarchate emphasises the historical fact that autocephaly has always been granted by Constantinople itself, often after a considerable struggle. In the case of Bulgaria, for example, a process that began in 1872 culminated only in 1945. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, maintains that only the mother church, Moscow, can grant autocephaly to Ukraine.

What is clear is that the Russian Orthodox Church has the capacity to prevent compromise on any issue at the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council, and is likely to do so in order to maintain the status quo in Ukraine. As Sergei Shumilo, Director of the Institute of the Athonite Legacy in Ukraine, put it: ‘decisions at the Council have to be unanimous and that means the Russian Church can veto everything.’

The Trinity and politics

The ongoing and vigorous debate about the relationship between the Orthodox Church and power sheds light on the different positions Moscow and Constantinople have taken to the crisis in Ukraine. This debate is partly historical (were the East Roman Empire and Russian Empire caesaropapist, that is, subjecting church to state?), partly about the involvement of the church in contemporary politics, but primarily it is forward-looking (what is the role of the Church at the end of time? And to what extent should the Holy Trinity serve as the model for the relationship between persons in a situation of political conflict?). Theological arguments for a view of God that posits the Holy Trinity as a communion of three free persons, has implications for political action in the world because, on this reading, the persons of the Trinity should constitute a model for the organisation of the church, as also for political action that prioritises the 'supreme value of the human person'.

‘Ukraine has its own traditions of Orthodoxy, more evangelical and ecumenical, more open and tolerant than the Russian Orthodox Church,’ emphasises Yury Chernomorets of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP). ‘It is concerned with achieving a symphony with civil society, not with the state.’ Whether this is an accurate reflection of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine or not, the claim that the Orthodox Church as a whole has fallen short of a vision of politics giving precedence to the supreme value of the human person is something of an understatement.

For Ukraine, however, such a theology would imply that the primary responsibility of laity and clerics of all the denominations should be to build bridges, to reach out in an effort to understand and eventually enter into communion with those of different political persuasions and ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

The primary responsibility of laity and clerics of all the denominations should be to build bridges

A way forward

The role of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) in building bridges is, however, particularly important in this regard: now that they have the upper hand, the onus is on them to prove that theirs is not a nationalist formation and that they do (as they claim) welcome laity and clergy who worship in other languages (Old Church Slavonic, Russian), and whose political views are not necessarily in line with the government in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) must also live up to its statements that it is not out to poach parishes or monasteries from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP).

All church leaders should cease using language that disparages political opponents, especially the terms ‘fascist’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘bandit.’ And all denominations can draw on the traditions of Christian social thought to challenge the imbalances in wealth and power, in other words the oligarchy that characterises Ukraine today.

Though there is no sound theological reason for not recognising the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (KP) as part of the Orthodox communion, this theology of power means that the Ecumenical Patriarch is unlikely to act unilaterally. At its best the Сhurch should offer discourses of community and social justice that are not based on negating the other, not based in other words on the divisiveness inherent to empire, race, nation, and even religion. As senior hierarch to the Orthodox communion the Ecumenical Patriarch’s primary concern must therefore be to build such a communion, the relevant communion called for in this case being that between the churches within Ukraine itself. But building such communion is above all a responsibility of the laity of the Ukrainian churches themselves, facilitated by the clergy and hierarchs whose calling it is to serve their respective flocks.

Despite the Russian Orthodox Church’s financial and political power, it is impossible to overlook the direction of change. As the political scientist and leading expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, Irina Papkova, puts it: ‘The logic of events is leading to autocephaly, and perhaps eventually to some kind of a union between Ukrainian churches.’ It is not so much the Estonian, Polish and Balkan precedents that need to be emphasised, however, but the actions of the Patriarch Kirill himself. Metropolitan Onufrii’s appeal provided Kirill with an ideal opportunity to stand up for the spiritual and cultural brotherhood of east Slavic peoples he holds so dear. A principled and public stance against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, against independence in the east, and in support of the constitutional and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state by Kirill, (who remains, after all, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church), would have rendered the Church an institution that bridged the divide between the majority of Ukrainians and Russia.

Yet, the obvious affinities between the peoples of Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, means that this severance will necessarily cut across their respective identities as a wound. In the end, the centrality of power politics depicted here can only be read as a betrayal of the central story of Christianity, the story of Christ dying on the cross to redeem the world. In Russia and across much of the Orthodox world there is much projection of religious power; and too little redemption.

Standfirst image: Russian Orthodox church overlooking a forest. Via Ukraine Orthdox Church Press Office (c)

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