Fight for the Church
By Viktoria Ivanchenko
  • Viktoria Ivanchenko
    Editor-in-chief at PICREADI
  • One of the key topic in Ukrainian domestic policy in 2019 was religion and, especially, developments around the Christian Orthodox Church. In 2018 Petro Poroshenko began to actively promote the idea of the Tomos of autocephaly which, as Poroshenko claimed, had to grant independence to the Ukrainian Church from Moscow and to create the national Orthodox Church. It was a part of the pre-election campaign and an attempt to raise the price in the international arena by struggling against the "Russian aggression".
Accordingly, the topic of the Church became politicized and 'nationalized'. Other religions in Ukraine did not face such pressure and politicization as Orthodoxy have done this year. The international factor also remained important for other religions, but it more served as a constraint from playing the Muslim or Jewish card in the Ukrainian politics.
Background and the canon law

Promotion of the Tomos of autocephaly meant creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) which had to include the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Now they had to become subordinate not to Moscow, but to Constantinople. Both the Kiev Patriarchate Church and the Autocephalous Church are schismatic and other Local Orthodox Churches do not recognize them. In the end of 2018 and in the beginning of 2019 this rule was first violated by the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew by unilateral actions which ignored objections from the Russian Orthodox Church and other Local Churches.

According to the canon law, unification of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate is only possible in case of contrition of the former Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church and now 'honorable Patriarch of Kiev' Filaret and clerics of his Сhurch. It is only possible if Orthodox dissidents decide to return to the canonical Church which they belonged to before. The schism can be eliminated or canceled by contrition, but not by adapting or handing the schismatic Church over to other Local Orthodox Churches.
Photo: President.gov.ua
Unilateral removal of anathema from schismatic Patriarch of Kiev Filaret and the head of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church Macarius by Patriarch of Constantinople did not serve the purpose of solving the schism problem, but it has become a rude violation of the rules of interaction between the Orthodox Churches. The Constantinople Patriarchate violated the canonical borders of the other Church that is the Russian Orthodox Church, and the logic of canonical re-unification.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church granted the Tomos of self-government to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1990, and then gave it to the Latvian, Estonian and Moldavian Churches. The Charter of the Russian Orthodox Church underlines that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is self-governing with broad autonomy rights. The Charter also allocates the special chapter for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is really difficult to talk about full dependence on Moscow taking into account all those details.

The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan of Kiev Onuphrius were against such actions, but on 6 January 2019 Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomeus singed the Tomos of autocephaly of the newly-created Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). According to the canon law such a decree (Tomos) could only be delivered by the Russian Orthodox Church. Eventually, the Ukrainian government interpreted the Tomos as a new political victory over Russia and another step to freedom of belief.
Photo: Patriarch Bartholomeus (AP/TASS)
Motivated by nationalism

The politicized position of the Kiev Patriarchate and their support of the nationalist ideology and even war only aggravated the schism (for example, Filaret visited the United States to ask for arms and support of the US in fight against unrecognized republics of Donbass). The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate underlines their political neutrality and comes out for termination of hostilities and for conciliation of the Ukrainians. Some of the clerics expressed their private critics against Ukrainian and Russian politics, but it does not influence the structure of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church which recognizes Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus Kirill as the only canonical Patriarch. This fact was fully recognized by Patriarch Bartholomeus and the other Local Orthodox Churches for long years of interaction.

It is notable that on 14 December the newly-created Orthodox Church of Ukraine declared the full elimination of the Kiev Patriarchate and Autocephalous Church which now have to become the part of the OCU. Revision of the jurisdictional borders and the subsequent elimination of the Kiev Patriarchate caused a serious and unresolved conflict between the Patriarch of Kiev Filaret and the Metropolitan of Kiev Epiphanius who is the head of the newly-created Orthodox Church and now is subordinate to Constantinople. Before Filaret openly supported the candidacy of Epiphanius at the Unification council of the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine in 2018 and now he openly regrets his participation in this scenario.

Ongoing internal discords may become a reason for unwillingness of the Kiev Patriarchate parishioners to join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of Epiphanius. But it does not mean that Constantinople and other Greek Churches will put an end to their support of the OCU. As well the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church of the Ukraine actively supports the OCU and cherish hopes for the unity or even full unification with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
In the total about 550 religious communities moved to the OCU, including those by forcible seizures. In general the Ukrainian Orthodox Church numbered more than 12 000 parishes as for the beginning of 2019. Moreover, according to the annual report presented to the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on 6 December the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has formed about 250 parishes and admitted more than 100 people to monastic vows this year.

Violence and seizure of churches

Just after the issue of the decree to the OCU by the Phanar a new problem arose. The most critical side effect turned out to be forcible seizures of the orthodox churches by adherents of the new Church. Then the Ukrainian government insisted upon renaming the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the 'Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine'. After the victory of Zelensky the Kiev District Administrative Court suspended the renaming process.

Another important issue is the change of legislation related to juridical transitions of religious communities. On 17 January 2019 the Verhovna Rada adopted amendments according to which the state recognizes that any religious community can itself change its subordination via the amendments to the local charter of the community. The decision of the transition should be accepted by the general meeting of the religious community.

The main problem is that there is no clear understanding who belongs to a religious community. Anyone from the village or the city can say about their membership in the community as nobody can't check it and Orthodox churches usually do not have lists of permanent parishioners. Thus, the law lays the ground for raider seizures of churches.

229 deputies of the Verhovna Rada voted in support of the amendments (according to the official web-site, the number of the present deputies of the Verhovna Rada varied from 304 to 311 people at that moment). Initiators of the law were deputies from the 'People's front' and 'Self-help' parties. Members of the Opposition bloc voted against the law, although 15 party members did not vote at all or were absent. The 'Revival' party that is close to the Opposition bloc, almost fully ignored the voting.

The change of the leadership in Ukraine brought some positive transformations. Zelensky himself specificated that faith is a private matter and his position is based on the necessity of reconciliation of the Ukrainian people. On the Kievan Rus Christening Day Zelensky wrote on his Twitter: "I urge the heads of the Churches to dialogue, so that faith could unite, rather than divide Ukrainians". At the meeting with Patriarch of Constantinople in August Zelensky also noted that authorities should not interfere in ecclesiastical affairs.

Photo: Union of the Orthodox Journalists
Due to the change of the president, pressure from the authorities decreased and just after the elections Zelensky personally met with the heads of all the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine – the canonical one, the Kiev Patriarchate and the OCU. However, tension remains, the government still includes many politicians who negatively perceive the Moscow Patriarchate.

The bilingual address to Crimea and Donbass prepared by Zelensky's team (the so-called message of peace) with participation of heads of large confessions of Ukraine including Metropolitan Onuphrius, who was ignored and oppressed by previous authorities and who could now address the audience in Russian, was an obviously progressive step.

Nevertheless, the problem of local clashes and struggle for churches remains in small cities and villages, especially, in the Western and Central Ukraine, Odessa region. For example, some of evidently violent seizures happened in village Pivni of Kiev region (30 July 2019), village Riasnyky of Rivne region (23 November 2019), village Gryniava of Ivano-Frankivsk region (8 December 2019). The list is not full (see the interactive map of the seizures in Google).
Foreign factor

In autumn developments around Orthodoxy in Ukraine again reached the international level. After long-lasting negotiations between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Church of Greece Archbishop of Athens Ieronymus recognized the autocephaly of the OCU in October. This led to discords inside the Church of Greece as many bishops expressed their disagreement with the decision. Then in November Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodore entered into the Eucharistic communion with the OCU Metropolitan Epiphanius. These actions disappointed the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox world in total, taking into account the fact that Patriarch Theodore used to publicly support the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church only.

The Patriarchate of Alexandria have jurisdiction over Africa, however de facto most of the Alexandrian bishops are Greek. It is worth noting that the Church of Cyprus which is fairly dependent on the Phanar, still tries to maintain neutrality.

Besides the Greek solidarity and inclination to ethnophyletism (the phenomenon in the Church when national and political interests exceed ecclesiastical issues) another important actor is the United States. It is significant to know that most of the Constantinople parishes are situated in the United States. As well the US publicly support one side of the conflict that is the newly-created Orthodox Church of Ukraine. US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, who previously served as the Ambassador to Ukraine, publicly praised 'historic decision to recognize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine' by Archbishop Ieronymos.

Kiev-Pechersk Lavra
Any other targets?

Other major religions in Ukraine do not face such huge troubles. Politicization and interference of other states still may happen but both Poroshenko and Zelensky tried rather to enlist support of other religions' representatives than to exert pressure on them. According to the recent plans and statements, Crimean Tatars of Ukraine are going to build soon the largest mosque in Kiev through the instrumentality of Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and Turkey (in Ukraine there are about 2 million Muslims).

From time to time media report about anti-Semitic manifestations, usually in the form of vandalism to monuments. At the moment they are not widespread. However, the nationalist discourse creates the supplementary basis for threats and instability for Ukrainian Jews. The ADL Global noticed the rise of anti-Semitism in Ukraine during recent years. One way or another 46% of Ukrainians manifest anti-Semitic attitudes.

Now Orthodox Christianity faces the most critical situation among other religions in Ukraine. Internal clashes have acquired the international dimension. Lack of attention and ignorance of the problem are the real scourge for all actors both at the Ukrainian and international level. The religious conflict in Ukraine is not novel and has been persistently developing since the 90-s.

Zelensky is apparently not interested in enforcement and quick decisions to the issues of the Orthodox Church and is most likely to avoid interference in religious affairs. Otherwise, he will face the fall of approval ratings. In case of pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate relations between Ukraine and Russia will stagnate and worsen further.

Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church will stick to the solid position of unallowable recognition of the OCU in the Orthodox world and will underline the politicized substance of the OCU project. Dialogue with Epiphanius and Filaret are impossible. It is highly probable that the Local Orthodox Churches will convene the Pan-Orthodox Council on the Ukrainian issue with mandatory participation of the Russian Orthodox Church. Maybe the Russian Orthodox Church can even become the major initiator of the Council.

The first version of the article in Russian was published at the web-site of the Center for Ukrainian policy studies.