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Ukraine seals rift with its neighbour

08 February 2019

Ukraine has a new Church. Tim Wyatt investigates the background


Metropolitan Epiphanius at his enthronement in St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, on Sunday

Metropolitan Epiphanius at his enthronement in St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, on Sunday

EARLY in January, at a ceremony in Istanbul, the world’s newest self-governing Orthodox Church was granted its long-awaited tomos, or decree of independence. At another ceremony in Kiev last Sunday, the newest Metropolitan was enthroned.

For the Ukrainian leaders, political and ecclesiastical, who had travelled to Constantinople to receive the tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, this is a time of celebration.

But the decision to grant Ukraine autocephaly, or independence, in its church affairs was not received with universal joy. It served instead to highlight growing fractures in the world’s second-largest Church.

PAPatriarch Kirill and President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony at the Kremlin last week, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Patriarch’s enthronement

For centuries, modern Ukraine was divided between the area that is Russia and various other Eastern European powers, before all was absorbed into the Soviet Union. When the USSR fell apart in the early 1990s, Ukraine became an independent nation. The Orthodox Church, under the jurisdiction of Moscow, became an anomaly.

Coinciding with political independence, therefore, a few leading clerics broke away from Moscow and established their own Orthodox Church, based in Kiev.

Late last year, this Kiev Patriarchate merged with a third, smaller denomination, and it is this new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (News, 21 December) that has been formally recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew as an autocephalous and legitimate branch of global Orthodoxy.

It is impossible to separate the political from the religious in this move. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, before fomenting a separatist rebellion in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine — a conflict that continues to this day, and in which an estimated 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed.

Besides underscoring Russia’s refusal to respect Ukrainian independence, the war exacerbated the anger that many Orthodox Ukrainians felt towards the clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, Marina Pesenti, explained.

Some clerics refused to offer funeral services for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the battles in the Donbass, regarding them as “fratricidal” murderers of their brother Russians rather than patriots fighting for independence, Ms Pesenti said. Other priests have echoed Russian propaganda and “militated” with their parishes against the government in Kiev.


DRIVEN by a renewed desire to free Ukraine from Russian interference once and for all, the push for ecclesiastical independence from Moscow was revitalised, particularly by the country’s new pro-European President, Petro Poroshenko.

Receiving the tomos and finally securing an internationally recognised independent Church felt like a “moment of truth” for most Ukrainians, Ms Pesenti said. “It’s emotional and national rather than purely theological. The support that the tomos enjoyed is due to the fact Ukrainians feel this is an important pillar of the Ukrainian national identity.”

While Patriarch Filaret of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) had long sought autocephaly, it was the negotiation and support of President Poroshenko that had secured the tomos. Ms Pesenti said that it was clear that at least part of the President’s motivation was to boost his prospects in the election in March. His main offer to Ukraine’s electorate was an “identity project”, built around the slogans of language, history and faith, she said.

“This day will go into history as a sacred day . . . the day of the final independence from Russia,” President Poroshenko told the crowds in Kiev at the inauguration of the new Church in December. “This is a Church without Putin . . . without a prayer for Russian power and the Russian army that kills Ukrainians.”

For President Poroshenko, it was also a “leap of faith”, Ms Pesenti said: he used to worship with the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, but then became a convert to the cause of uniting Ukraine’s independent Churches and seeking autocephaly.


ALMOST 70 per cent of Ukrainians considered themselves to be Orthodox. Until now, there have been more Moscow Patriarchate parishes — some 12,000 — than those aligned with Kiev: about 6000.

In 2010, 24 per cent of the populace reported that they belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, and 15 per cent with Kiev. Most of the rest declined to distinguish, labelling themselves simply “Orthodox”.

In 2016, however, two years after the conflict with Russia began, this had changed. Now, 25 per cent of Ukrainians declared their allegiance to Kiev, and 15 per cent to Moscow.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux, a retired priest and an expert on the Church in Eastern Europe, said that there had long been a “slow leakage” of Moscow Patriarchate parishes to join Kiev, and this would accelerate now that the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine had been recognised as canonically legitimate.

Ms Pesenti said that, already this year, about 60 parishes had switched from the Russian jurisdiction to the new Church. The Ukrainian parliament has passed new legislation making it easier for congregations to make the move without the approval of their priest.

PAPatriarch Filaret Denisenko, leader of the Ukranian Orthodox Church

It remained to be seen whether this small number presaged a larger secession to Kiev, although this was clearly the desire of many in the Ukrainian media and establishment, Ms Pesenti said.

“Inevitably, yes, there will be more defections, but how many parishes we don’t know,” Canon Bourdeaux said. “It’s going to give them a huge stimulus to know they no longer have to come under the Moscow Patriarchate. They don’t have to pray for the Patriarch of Moscow. The pressure is on to become more Ukrainian and less Russian.”

Dr Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College, London, noted in an article for the European Council on Foreign Relations that had although ten (out of 90) Moscow Patriarchate bishops signed the appeal for unity which led to the new Church, only two then attended the Kiev service which inaugurated it.

Canon Bourdeaux admitted that the successful unification and granting of autocephaly had taken him by surprise. He had assumed that it would be impossible while the contentious and confrontational Patriarch Filaret, who recently turned 90, still held office.

Patriarch Filaret has been a central figure in Ukrainian life since independence in 1992, and was one of the leading figures who split from Moscow to set up the Kiev Patriarchate shortly afterwards.

Before this, however, he was widely seen as a puppet of the Soviet regime, and once denounced Canon Bourdeaux and others who were working with the persecuted Churches behind the Iron Curtain.

Filaret appears to have been sidelined in the creation of the new independent Church. It has instead chosen a younger man, Epiphanius, as its new Metropolitan (News, 21 December 2018).

Filaret has been allowed to maintain his position as honorary or emeritus Patriarch of the now extinct Kiev Patriarchate.

Ms Pesenti said that it was widely believed in Ukraine that the Ecumenical Patriarch would not have granted the tomos had Filaret been chosen to lead the new Church. Instead, the 39-year-old Epiphanius, seen as a more moderate figure who studied in Greece, was elected as a more amenable figure to Patriarch Bartholomew, himself a Greek.

Dr Wilson described Metropolitan Epiphanius as Filaret’s “protégé”, and said that the behaviour of the pro-Filaret faction — which acted as though the new unified Church was simply an expanded version of the old Kiev Patriarchate — could be off-putting to some of those who were considering realigning.


THE fledgling Church has already caused shifts beyond own borders.

Angered by Patriarch Bartholomew’s granting of the tomos, the Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with Constantinople, and appears to wish to set up Moscow instead as the leader of Orthodoxy worldwide, pulling in limited support from other Churches, such as Serbia.

The seeds for this move were sown two years ago, when Russia boycotted a pan-Orthodox council in Crete, after failing to persuade enough of the 14 autocephalous Churches to back their calls to shift authority from Constantinople to Moscow, Canon Bourdeaux said (Comment, 17 June 2016).

Faith has also become involved in the propaganda war of President Putin’s newly assertive Russia. He has previously cited the “unity of the ‘all-Russian’ Church — joining Russians and Ukrainians — as one of his proudest achievements”, Dr Wilson said.

PAThe President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, speaks at the enthronementof Metropolitan Epiphanius, on Sunday

The Russian Orthodox Church, together with much of the Russian media, has condemned not only the creation of the “schismatic” Church in Ukraine, but also reports harassment of, and the appropriation of property from, parishes and priests remaining loyal to Moscow.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, one of Putin’s strongest defenders, has denounced the
Ukrainian move (News, 26 October). Should the bulk of Ukraine’s parishes secede to Kiev, the Russian Orthodox Church would lose about a fifth of its size.

Regardless of the ecclesiastical consequences, this complex dispute is now firmly enmeshed in a broader national, cultural, and geopolitical struggle, of which no end is in sight.

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