Why Ukraine’s Religious Conflict Reflects Historical Russian-Ukrainian Tensions

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J. Eugene Clay, Arizona State University

(THE CONVERSATION) As Russia amass troops on the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible invasion, tensions between the two countries are also manifesting in conflict within the Orthodox Church.

Two different Orthodox churches claim to be the only true Ukrainian Orthodox Church for the Ukrainian people. The two churches offer startlingly different visions of the relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.


Two Orthodox churches

The religious history of Russia and Ukraine has fascinated me since my first visit to Kyiv as part of an academic exchange in 1984. In my current research, I continue to explore the history of Christianity and the particular role of religion in Eurasian societies and politics.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, relations between the two countries have been particularly strained. These tensions are reflected in the two churches’ very different approaches to Russia.

The oldest and largest church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate. According to Ukrainian government statistics, this church had more than 12,000 parishes in 2018. A branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is placed under the spiritual authority of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. Both Patriarch Kirill and his predecessor, Patriarch Aleksii II, have repeatedly stressed the strong ties that unite the peoples of Ukraine and Russia.

In contrast, the second, more recent church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, celebrates its independence from Moscow. With the blessing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a solemn council met in Kiev in December 2018, established the new church and elected its head, Metropolitan Epifaniy. In January 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew officially recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as a separate, independent and equal member of the worldwide communion of Orthodox Churches.

Completely autonomous, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was the culmination of decades of effort by Ukrainian believers who wanted their own national Church, free from foreign religious authority. As an expression of Ukrainian spiritual independence, this new Autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been a challenge for Moscow. In Orthodox terminology, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine claims autocephaly.

Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a single supreme spiritual head in the pope, the worldwide Orthodox Church is divided into 14 universally recognized, independent, autocephalous or self-ruled churches. Each autocephalous church has its own leader, or kephale in Greek. Each autocephalous church has the same faith as its sister churches. Most autocephalies are national churches, such as the Russian, Romanian, and Greek Orthodox churches. Today, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church claims its place among the other autocephalous Churches.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has more than 7,000 parishes in 44 dioceses. He views Russians and Ukrainians as two different peoples, each deserving of their own separate church.

The Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine

The main issue that separates the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate is their relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate has substantial autonomy in its internal affairs. Ultimately, however, he is subordinate to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who must officially confirm his leader. The church emphasizes the unity it enjoys with Russian Orthodox believers.

In contrast, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is independent from any other religious body. For supporters of the church, this independence allows it to develop a uniquely Ukrainian expression of Christianity.

A common Orthodox Christian tradition

In Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religious tradition. According to a 2015 Pew survey, 71% of Russians and 78% of Ukrainians identified as Orthodox. Religious identity remains an important cultural factor in both countries.

Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine trace their faith to the 988 AD conversion of the Grand Prince of Kiev. Known as Vladimir by Russians and Volodymyr by Ukrainians, the great pagan prince was baptized by missionaries from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Kiev became the most important religious center for Eastern Slavs.

Destroyed in 1240 by the Mongols, Kiev fell into decline even as its northern neighbor Moscow grew increasingly powerful. By 1686, Russia had conquered eastern Ukraine and Kiev. That year, the Patriarch of Constantinople formally transferred his spiritual authority over Ukraine to the Patriarch of Moscow.

In the 20th century, a growing nationalist movement demanded Ukrainian independence for both church and state. Although Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, its only universally recognized National Orthodox Church remained subject to Moscow.

Some Ukrainian Orthodox Christians attempted to establish an autocephalous church in 1921, 1942, and 1992. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. The churches they formed were not recognized by the worldwide Orthodox community.

Ukrainian autocephaly

In April 2018, Petro Poroshenko, then President of Ukraine, again attempted to form an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

No less than three different churches claimed to be the true Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Poroshenko hoped to unite these rival bodies.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate was the largest church and enjoyed the recognition of the worldwide Orthodox community. However, he was and remains subject to the Patriarch of Moscow – an unacceptable status for many Ukrainians.

Two other Churches, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Patriarchate of Kyiv, had failed to gain recognition from other Orthodox Churches.

Support for the Ukrainian Church

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, supported Poroshenko’s project. As the principal bishop of the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire, Bartholomew enjoys first place of honor among all the heads of the Orthodox churches.

Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity has no clear method for creating a new autocephalous church, Bartholomew argued that he had the authority to grant this status. Because Ukraine originally received Christianity from the Byzantines, Constantinople was the mother church of Kiev.

In December 2018, a unification council officially dissolved the other branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine and created the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. In January 2019, Bartholomew signed a formal decree, or tomos, proclaiming the new autocephalous church.

Support and rejection

So far, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has received recognition from four other Autocephalous Orthodox Churches. The churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Greece and Cyprus each welcomed the new church.

Three other autocephalous churches explicitly rejected the new church. The Moscow Patriarchate even severed communion with Constantinople over its role in establishing the new church.

Nadieszda Kizenko, a prominent historian of Orthodoxy, said Bartholomew shattered Orthodox unity to create a church of dubious legitimacy.

In contrast, renowned theologian Cyril Hovorun hailed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a “positive demonstration of solidarity with…the Ukrainian people who suffered from Russian aggression.”

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Two visions of history

Today, the two main rival expressions of Orthodoxy in Ukraine reflect two different historical views of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

For the Patriarchate of Moscow, Russians and Ukrainians form one people. Therefore, one church should unite them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made this argument in a recent essay. He calls the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an attack on the “spiritual unity” of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has a very different view. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Metropolitan Epifaniy firmly rejected “Russian imperial traditions”. As a distinct people with a unique culture, Ukrainians need an independent church.

The future of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is unclear. It enjoys the support of several of its sister churches. At the same time, he faces fierce opposition from Moscow. For now, it remains a source of controversy between Russia and Ukraine.

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