AS THE military occupation by Russian forces in Crimea threatens
to plunge the region into war, the conflict is reflected in
differences between Churches in the country - rifts that could
reopen, as each is drawn into identifying with the rival sides.
In a joint declaration last weekend, while world leaders urged
Moscow to draw back, the Council of Churches and Religious
Organisations in Ukraine appealed for solidarity and prayers. It
vigorously rejected "Russian propaganda" that Ukraine had been
taken over by extremists. No one was being harassed "on the basis
of language, nationality or religion", the Council insisted. Any
claims to the contrary were intended to "incite hatred" and justify
The declaration was signed by the Council's 20 member bodies,
which include Christians, Jews, and Muslims. There was, however, a
notable absence - the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow
Patriarchate. As the conflict forces Christians to assert their
loyalties, it may well find itself in the most difficult
UKRAINE has long been divided between a traditionally Orthodox
east, which habitually looks towards Russia, and a largely Catholic
west, which feels closer to Western countries.
This made President Viktor Yanukovych's shock withdrawal last
November from an agreement with the European Union, the event that
sparked the crisis, a crucial development for Churches, too.
Those who talk of some stark Orthodox-Catholic divide are,
however, oversimplifying the situation. While most of Ukraine's 46
million inhabitants claim no religious affiliation, Orthodox
Christians have made up about one third of the population since
independence in 1991.
These are, however, divided between the large Church linked to
the Moscow Patriarchate, whose 12,000 parishes account for
two-thirds of Orthodox Ukrainians, and two smaller rival
denominations, mostly concentrated in the west of the country: the
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, and the
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Neither of these is
recognised by Orthodox leaders abroad.
Ukraine is also home to small Protestant Churches, including
Lutherans and Baptists, and a thriving, historically rooted Muslim
minority. Meanwhile, Greek and Roman Catholics together account for
about a tenth of the population. Of these, the more numerous Greek
Catholics, known pejoratively as "Uniates" by Orthodox leaders,
were persecuted with particular savagery after their Church was
outlawed under Soviet rule in 1946.
Athough counting barely a third of all Ukrainian citizens as
active members, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches between them
have been particularly influential, not least in shaping public
opinion and Western attitudes to the country.
Long before the latest conflict, Catholic leaders had criticised
President Yanukovych's authoritarian style, including his failure
to hand back church properties that had been seized under Soviet
rule. Visiting Brussels a year ago, they also backed closer links
to the EU, and were joined by Protestant leaders and the two
smaller Orthodox Churches.
EU ties have, however, been opposed by the Ukrainian Orthodox
Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Patriarch Kirill I
came to Kiev to give President Yanukovych a special blessing at his
inauguration in 2010.
CHURCHES have played a prominent part in recent events in
Ukraine. The Greek Catholic Church, which uses the Eastern Rite but
is loyal to Rome, was forthright in its support for the
anti-Yanukovych protests, whereas the smaller Roman Catholic Church
was more cautious, speaking out only as the president's authority
waned. The two independent Orthodox Churches also backed the
Meanwhile, despite its Russian orientation, the Ukrainian
Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate also bowed to the
inevitable, and accepted that President Yanukovych could not remain
as head of state.
When the riot police killed protesters in Independence Square in
Kiev last month, the Church's Holy Synod condemned the government's
"criminal actions". And when President Yanukovych fled, it denied
as "complete nonsense" media stories that he was hiding at Orthodox
monasteries in his native Donetsk.
"If you've any love left for us, the Ukrainians, stop calling us
fascists, Nazis and nationalists, even in private conversations -
these words kill," the Church's spokesman, Archpriest Georgy
Kovalenko, wrote on Facebook. "If we are members of the one
Orthodox Church, if you think Kiev is the mother of Russian cities,
do not inflame us - just pray for us and listen to us."
The Church's acting head, Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky, urged
President Vladimir Putin in a letter last Sunday to avoid a
"fratricidal struggle between nations", reminding him of his
professed Orthodox faith.
The Patriarchate's fabled Marian icon, "Softener of Evil
Hearts", a symbol of Russian hegemony, was paraded on Sunday in the
Crimean port of Sevastopol, accompanied by a church and government
delegation from Moscow.
THE Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, however, last
week denounced Patriarch Kirill's "cunning, deceitful words" about
church unity, noting how Russian Orthodox leaders had traditionally
been ready to use state power to impose their control.
The Acting President of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, held a
special meeting with church leaders last week, in which he thanked
their members for "being with the people in the most difficult
times" (News, 28
February). He also promised to hold regular talks with them in
As military hostilities build up, however, one outcome could be
that the patient ecumenical efforts of two decades may now unravel.
Pro-Russian Orthodox Ukrainians will be stirring up resentment if
they allow their spiritual loyalties to be turned against their own
country and its hard-pressed leaders.
Jonathan Luxmoore is a journalist who reports from Warsaw