March 1, 2019

The Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Future of the Eastern Orthodox Church

The Ukrainian Church may have won a battle, but not the war

With the official enthronement ceremony on 3 February 2019, Metropolitan Epiphanius became the new Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This marked the end of the process of establishing the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Anyone who has kept an eye on Ukraine will already know that, in addition to organising the country’s religious landscape, the declaration of the autocephaly of the local church serves a political purpose. This is primarily expressed in the relationship with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), but it also has a broader geopolitical impact, which involves the use of the Orthodox Church as an instrument of Russian foreign policy and the rearrangement of the global balance of power. The shift of power relations in the Orthodox Church has just begun as a result of events in Ukraine, but it has already managed to usher in a new era for the church’s 300 million or so members, which is characterised by a clearer split between the churches and non-compliance with church law. Aside from the Orthodox world, attention must be paid to possible scenarios discussed by the ROC and authorities to compensate for the loss flowing from the establishment of the Ukrainian Church. The following explores both these topics.

Timeline of the Declaration of the Ukrainian Church’s Autocephaly

Since 2016, when the Ukrainian parliament asked the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the majority of Ukrainian adherents have moved firmly towards ecclesiastical independence. In April 2018, the parliament’s proposal was repeated by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, who took it to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in Istanbul. For the members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, this was one of several attempts to secede from the ROC during the past century. This time they were finally successful.

The process of granting autocephaly in 2018 progressed gradually, according to a strict procedure. In early September, Patriarch Bartholomew despatched two exarchs to Ukraine to prepare for the separation. The break came on 11 October, when the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople confirmed that the process of granting autocephaly was moving forward and the Patriarchate decided to take further steps to this end. First, it decided to create a local ecclesiastical structure in Kyiv, which would be directly subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople, so that the head of the church would have the right to operate in Ukraine; second, it was decided to restore the rights of the heads of Ukraine’s two churches as Church officials and the communion of their church with the rest of the Orthodox world.

Previously, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which between them accounted for over half of Ukrainian adherents, had been excluded from the communion of other Orthodox churches. This meant that the rest of the Orthodox world did not acknowledge these churches or their leaders, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was subject to the Patriarchate of Moscow, was acknowledged as a church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople also decided to annul the decision of 1686 that granted the ROC the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv. The wish to nullify this centuries-old decision was touched upon by both the representatives of the Ukrainian parliament and president Petro Poroshenko when addressing the patriarch. Finally, the Patriarchate of Constantinople called on all the parties to refrain from the seizure of churches and monasteries and violence.

Even though the Synod had not yet officially established the new Ukrainian Church, it took a decisive step towards the ecclesiastical suppression of the ROC in Ukraine, which the Ukrainian president interpreted as the immediate grant of autocephaly. That same evening, Poroshenko appeared on television and described this step as a historic victory of good over evil and light over darkness, emphasising that this was important not only for religious life but also from the perspective of national security and geopolitics. On 20 September, Poroshenko had referred to it in parliament as Ukraine’s declaration of independence. Poroshenko’s statements contained a grain of truth—otherwise these would not have been followed by the ROC’s decision to break communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and launch an extensive information campaign against Ukraine. This reaction was expected, because the ROC had reacted similarly to earlier clashes.

On 3 November, president Poroshenko visited Turkey, where he and Patriarch Bartholomew signed an agreement to move peacefully towards autocephaly and avoid ecclesiastical schisms. Bartholomew said that this facilitated the issue of the official document granting autocephaly (the tomos). This decision was to reassure all parties that the matter was proceeding peacefully, but also the Russian authorities, who reacted to the actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople by saying that they were ready to protect Russian Orthodox Christians in Ukraine from possible violence and seizure of churches.

The Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople convened on 27–29 November, prior to which the Patriarchate issued a statement (on 19 November) confirming once again that the Ukrainian Church would become independent and noting that the Synod would soon announce the date for the Unification Council of the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine, to be held in December. The Synod also reviewed the draft statutes of the Church that was to be established.

In the end, the establishment of the new Church was finalised at a Unification Council on 15 December in Kyiv and the Church elected a metropolitan as its primate. The Church would not get a Patriarch as its chief shepherd at first, even though this could not be excluded in the future. The young Primate, Epiphanius (Serhii Dumenko), who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, was not known to the wider public but, as the former right-hand man to Filaret, head of the UOC-KP, he already has experience in church matters.

Upon his enthronement as the head of the Church, he confirmed that the new Ukrainian Church hoped to include all the Orthodox congregations active in Ukraine in the future. The two churches (the UOC-KP and the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church) on which the new Church was formed had hitherto been unacknowledged. Initially, the newly established Church was joined by about 100 congregations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). This number has now grown to nearly 200. However, this is still marginal when compared to the size of the UOC-MP, whose network of 12,000 congregations makes it Ukraine’s largest religious organisation. However, the number of members tells another story because, despite the large network of congregations, the UOC-MP is not the largest Orthodox church and its membership has decreased significantly following Russia’s aggression.

On 6 January 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew handed over the Church’s decree (tomos) of autocephaly to Epiphanius in Constantinople, which was followed by his enthronement as the head of the Church in early February.

Actions and Omissions of the Russian Orthodox Church

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv for the delivery of the tomos and a service on 7 January 2019. EPA/Scanpix

The Russian authorities’ reaction to developments in Ukraine was blunt. Russia’s ruling elite, including president Vladimir Putin, discussed the situation that had unfolded in 2018 at the Russian Security Council on 13 October, and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has since repeated the mantra that the United States was behind everything. Nevertheless, the Russian authorities did not go significantly beyond this in their public statements at the end of 2018. They declared quite firmly that the state had no authority to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. However, they continued to work behind the scenes. Their powerlessness and anger was also evident from the fact that, in addition to destabilising Ukraine, the aggression in the Kerch Strait was also intended to intimidate the Patriarchate of Constantinople, because nobody would declare ecclesiastical independence in a country brought to the brink of war. But autocephality was nevertheless announced.

The claim about the separation of Church and state and the authorities refraining from interfering in church matters is ironic not only in the context of Russia because of the close relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Russian authorities, but also in the context of religious freedom in Russia itself. In recent years, the Russian authorities have been persistently pushing towards restricting religious freedom. The 2017 decision to categorise Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists has received the most attention. The authorities’ actions not only been on the statutory level; they have been followed by campaigns against Jehovah’s Witnesses. For instance, in early October, five Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained and accused of organising the collection of funds, distributing literature illegal in the eyes of the law, and conducting services. The fight against Jehovah’s Witnesses was brought to a whole new level when two hand grenades and one landmine were found during a search. It appears that the authorities believe such items to be part of extremists’ standard equipment, because this makes it easier for them to convince the public of Jehovah’s Witnesses being a dangerous religious community. In the past, Jehovah’s Witnesses have filmed FSB officials ransacking their places of worship and FSB agents planting items just to “discover” them a moment later.

On 6 February 2019, the Russian judiciary reached the first milestone in the fight against Jehovah’s Witnesses when it sentenced a Danish adherent to six years in prison because he had participated in the organisation’s founding, which the court considered an extremist activity. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to Western protests by saying that the question would be considered further, but it is unlikely that this will result in the introduction of any mitigating measures.

Following the ROC’s break of communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople on 15 October, the Russian Church and authorities launched a propaganda attack against Patriarch Bartholomew. The UOC-MP declared that it did not acknowledge the decisions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and would not participate in the establishment of the new church. In many ways, the criticism of the establishment of the Ukrainian Church has been aimed at the person of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, which is understandable from the ROC’s perspective, but quite unwise in strategic terms. The influence of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Orthodox world is so unique and symbolic of the historical unity of the church that any attack against him is an attack on the integrity of the Orthodox Church itself. Consequently, the rest of the Orthodox world has not gone along with this criticism, even though complaints about the behaviour of the Patriarchate of Constantinople can be heard from the heads of several churches. It seems that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow believes that he can do nothing but try to isolate Bartholomew from other Orthodox churches, and to this end the Russian authorities have deployed their full arsenal, with false allegations about Bartholomew receiving large bribes from Ukraine receiving the most attention.

The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, and the Church of Poland—which are both independent but have traditionally been under Moscow’s influence—were quick to express their solidarity with the ROC. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which is also close to the ROC, decided at a meeting of bishops on 6–7 November that it did not intend to acknowledge the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to rehabilitate the heads of the two hitherto unacknowledged churches in Ukraine as canonical and would continue to regard their clergy and followers as schismatic and therefore not in communion with them.

On 23 November, Hilarion, the ROC’s head of External Church Relations, stated that it had become clear that the unification of the Ukrainian Church was not possible and claimed that the initiatives of the secular power could not be good for the Church. This was a standard deterrence on Russia’s part in order to derail the efforts of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians and president Poroshenko. Russia depicts the creation of the new church as a political project that has nothing to do with the actual needs of the Orthodox Church. The same rhetoric was used in the quarrel over the Estonian Orthodox Church in the 1990s.

In response to the ROC’s actions, Ukrainian clergy have drawn attention to Moscow’s long-term omissions in ensuring the resolution of the Ukrainian Church question. Moscow in turn usually blames Filaret, the stubborn head of the UOC-KP, who was in the running for the position of Patriarch of Moscow in 1990 but lost and was later expelled from the ROC. This has not put an end to the Ukrainian clergy’s anti-ROC statements.

In the last 15 years, criticism has become more pronounced and, over time, the achievement of religious unity and the wish to operate as an independent church have been supplemented with a number of other topics: the security aspect, the increasingly clear expression of Russia’s imperialist ambitions and the cultivation of the Russian World (Russki Mir). Like the Ukrainian clergy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople draws attention to the fact that the ROC has had the opportunity to resolve the generational schism between Orthodox churches for several decades, but still has not managed to do so. Instead, the ROC has tried to prevent the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church and promoted brotherhood between the two nations and operation as one Russian Orthodox Church. Ukraine is naturally important to the ROC because of its history and the desire to maintain its scope, and it has therefore not followed the scenario applied in Ukraine to the Church of Poland or the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. This, however, has created a situation in the Orthodox Church that is completely unacceptable from the point of view of church law, where nearly half of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were denied communion with the Orthodox Church for decades. Even if this seems unimportant at first because all churches are big enough to operate independently, it is still a considerable shortcoming for the Patriarchate of Constantinople given the Orthodox world order, which has prompted it to resolve this question.

Russia managed to keep the conflict over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church frozen for a long time, and what we have witnessed in the past few years is a first and unexpected response from the ROC and Russian authorities on how the conflict is to be thawed out and the consequences of this. This naturally makes one wonder: if such a scenario can be applied in the case of a frozen conflict, why not use it to resolve other disputes? However, this is a dangerous idea for Russia, because both the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have a long list of such conflicts. At the same time, the ROC’s behaviour over decades vividly illustrates that it sees the question of the Ukrainian Church as a political issue; otherwise, it would have immediately tried to solve it somehow according to Orthodox canon. Ecclesiastical unity, which is always stressed in the statements of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is an underlying standard for the Orthodox order. The Ukrainian Church was also created with the aim to unite different groups. This naturally involves a fair amount of politics, and president Poroshenko does not deny it being one of the greatest or even the greatest achievement of his tenure; but for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the politically favourable situation only matters to the extent that it helps to end the uncanonical situation that has long troubled the Orthodox Church.

The inability of the ROC to solve the inter-church conflict is made more noteworthy by the fact that the topics concerning the Orthodox Church have long been a question of Ukrainians’ religious identity, self-worth and history, but it only became a security issue for the Ukrainian authorities after Russia’s aggression and the annexation of Crimea. Since the ROC became one of the symbols of Russian aggression in the context of this dispute, it was only natural that the Ukrainian authorities began to take steps to declare the Church’s independence. This has also certainly increased the Orthodox community of the Patriarchate of Kyiv, while having the opposite effect on the membership of the UOC-MP.

For decades, there have also been voices in the UOC-MP demanding the declaration of autocephaly. The reason given for this was that the independent Orthodox Church, which acknowledges a shared history with Russia, is friendly towards the ROC and smooth cooperation between the two churches is possible. The moment for this has, of course, now passed.

Despite this, in November 2018 president Poroshenko also tried to meet representatives of the UOC-MP. Poroshenko was himself a member of this church, whereas Simeon, the Metropolitan of Vinnitsa and Bar and the spiritual father of the president and the prime minister, was the only one of the 83 bishops who refused to sign up to the UOC-MP’s decision to condemn Constantinople’s actions. He has now joined the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but he is currently arguing in court over his right to remain the ruling bishop in his eparchy. The president’s proposed meeting with representatives of the UOC-MP was cancelled for a rather unusual reason: the Church representatives asked that the meeting be held on the territory of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, which belongs to the Church. Poroshenko, however, invited them to Ukrainian House, the International Convention Centre in Kyiv, designed for large gatherings. Even though no official meeting took place in the end, fewer than ten representatives of the clergy met Poroshenko at Ukrainian House.

This incident would have been brushed off as a one-off amusing miscommunication if such childish games were not part of the ROC’s modus operandi. There have been cases of ROC clergymen refusing to go to a meeting and looking for any trifling excuse to present to the other party as a compelling reason for not meeting sincerely and conveniently. This time the issue was apparent confusion over the meeting venue while the actual reason lay in the calls by bishops supporting the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church. Most clergymen of the UOC-MP did not subscribe to such positions, but the bishops’ readiness to join the autocephalous church had increased and even the slightest peep would have given any observer the chance to say that the UOC-MP was not really unified. The situation around defectors is to remain anxious and sensitive for a while, because the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church is expected to grow at the expense of the UOC-MP.

The ROC’s pattern of behaviour is also aptly characterised by the Church’s withdrawal from participation in the Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016. This meeting had been in the works for some 50 years and was historic solely for the fact that there had not been a meeting of all Orthodox churches on such a scale for more than a thousand years. Since then, the number of churches had multiplied and the world had changed dramatically. The council convened in Istanbul, and responsibility for it lay with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the unifier of the churches. Even though this special right had been a thorn in Moscow’s side, the ROC had been given permission to participate in the synod as a result of consultations lasting for years. To this end, Constantinople made a fair number of concessions, including a last-minute change of location of the synod from Istanbul to Crete, because relations between Turkey and Russia were at a low point at the time. In the end, the ROC did not participate in the meeting, claiming that the council did not have the authority to speak for the Orthodox Church due to the absence of three churches. However, ten churches took part. While two churches did not take part for doctrinal reasons and one more due to a quarrel between themselves, the ROC did not participate because of its wish to endanger the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the unifier of churches.

The Ukraine Conflict and the Future of the Orthodox Church

Prior to the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in late November 2018, Hilarion (the ROC’s head of external church relations) began a tour of other Orthodox churches in order to seek support for the Russian Church’s position to prevent the Ukrainian Church from gaining autocephaly. Besides threats directed at Ukraine and Constantinople, Moscow used softer methods to create a united front against the Ecumenical Patriarchate. After the first steps taken by Bartholomew in the spring of 2018, it appeared that some churches were trying to align themselves with Moscow but, by the end of the year, these positions were replaced by calls for an internal dialogue. The Patriarchate of Constantinople ignored Moscow’s behaviour and continued with its steps, which culminated in the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. However, Patriarch Bartholomew has not remained completely silent about Moscow’s steps, and the Church of Constantinople has reminded Russia that it was the one to break communion between Constantinople and Moscow, not the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The latter has not gone along with the schism and the Orthodox world is therefore currently confused about who is in communion with whom.

The ROC’s actions are reminiscent of the attempt following World War II to take charge of the Orthodox world in order to make Moscow the “Vatican” of the Orthodox Church. To this end, Patriarch Alexy of Moscow went on a journey authorised by Stalin to the three old patriarchates—Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem—in order to convince them to move the centre of the Orthodox Church from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul to Moscow. His argument was power: the ROC could restore the Orthodox Church, which had weakened in the Middle East and Turkey, to its former glory. Naturally, this was also intended to serve the Soviet Union’s foreign-policy ambitions. The plan ultimately fell through, but the understanding that the strength and power arising from the size of the Church could serve as an instrument for striving for a more important position in the Orthodox Church has remained inherent to the ROC.

This is also the reason that the Patriarchate of Constantinople—which does not usually comment on the political aspects of the matter and talks about the ecclesiastical rights of the Orthodox Church—spoke out at the end of the year and accused the ROC of politicising the question and pursuing imperialist ambitions. The Ecumenical Patriarchate itself emphasises that it is apolitical, because it has not had to follow any heads of state like the ROC has done and continues to do. Constantinople also reminds Russia that the latter was granted autocephaly from Constantinople just like all the other churches. By questioning the grant of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, it actually also questions its own independence, because it gained this from the same place as the Ukrainian Church. The ROC has, in turn, claimed that the schism with which it is threatening the entire Orthodox Church will reduce the Church by half and thus weaken it. This also constitutes Moscow’s greatest failure, given that the power and size of the Orthodox Church allow it to discard or change historical and current power relationships. This does not, however, mean that the ROC is not trying hard to do this.

The behaviour of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in dealing with the frozen conflict over Ukraine begins a new chapter in resolving the general mess in the whole of the Orthodox Church: the question of what is the Orthodox Church order, i.e. what authority does the Patriarchate of Constantinople have to lead the Church globally. Are all 14 independent Orthodox churches ready to acknowledge the Patriarchate of Constantinople as the leading Church in the Orthodox world to resolve their quarrels and stabilise the Orthodox Church order? Since the 19th century, when the number of autocephalous churches doubled, the Orthodox Church has become increasingly isolated.

National borders usually overlap with church boundaries and this has had a considerable effect on the integrity of the Orthodox Church: all the churches operate independently. Due to the problem over borders, political changes have also affected the stability of Orthodox churches and their boundaries. Consequently, there are many border disputes between independent churches. The Patriarchate of Constantinople has had a long and dignified history of mediating and resolving these disputes throughout the history of the Orthodox Church, but the fragmentation into separate islands in the great sea of the Orthodox faith has led to a situation in which the Patriarchate of Constantinople performed its historical obligation only a few times in the course of the 20th century. Most of the time, the centuries-long church order has simply been ignored. Admittedly, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has not always looked favourably upon new church structures, and quite a few Orthodox communities have already been disappointed in the behaviour of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The so-called Orthodox diaspora causes problems, too. Since the one global Orthodox Church consists of regional churches, the diaspora—ecclesiastic structures outside the Church’s territory—actually have no place in it. Ideally, one region should have only one church. The reality, however, is quite different: outside their territory, different churches (for instance in the US and Asia) have, in the course of the 20th century, become rivals. In this situation it is crucial to have someone to resolve such questions in order to ensure the integrity of the Church.

The 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council was called for this exact purpose, but several of the most debated questions, such as the granting of autocephaly, were left out at the final stages of preparations, because the churches could not agree. However, the representatives of several churches have now said that the question of Ukraine should be discussed again at the Council. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, however, has begun to secure the ecclesiastical authority with renewed boldness and said that the right time for discussion was two years ago. Now it is time to act and this can only be done by relying on centuries-old practice, according to which the autocephaly of churches is granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The Church Council has not granted autocephaly to any church—this has always been done by the Church of Constantinople. The ROC has also granted autocephaly to several churches, but these have either been nullified by the Patriarch of Constantinople or replaced by their own declaration of autocephaly (the churches of Poland and of the Czech Lands and Slovakia) or failed to be universally acknowledged by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the rest of the Orthodox world (e.g. the Orthodox Church in America).

A Bipolar Orthodox World

As far as the Ukraine conflict and the unity of the Orthodox Church are concerned, the ROC has expressed readiness to act independently if necessary. The activities of the Orthodox Church are already affecting relationships with other Christian churches with whom the ROC is trying to maintain direct contact. Following the break of communion with Constantinople, Metropolitan Hilarion rushed to a meeting of Catholic bishops, where the good relations between the ROC and the Roman Catholic Church were confirmed. In November, this was followed by the ROC’s decision to suspend its participation in the Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches led by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. On 28 November, Patriarch Bartholomew met the delegation led by Roman Catholic Cardinal Kurt Koch in Istanbul, where they confirmed the continuation of their cooperation.

Thus, on the one hand, the question of the Ukrainian Church had generated new hope that the Patriarchate of Constantinople would be able to ensure the unity of the Church in favourable political conditions and achieve results. But on the other hand, this is cemented in the long-established bipolar Orthodox world with Moscow’s friends (the churches of Serbia, Antioch, Poland and the Czech Lands and Slovakia) on one side and the rest of the Orthodox world on the other. In addition to the usual spheres of influence with the so-called Greek Orthodox community on one side and the Orthodox community of the Slavic tradition on the other, the Orthodox world features a number of churches with their own interests that established their position on the question of Ukraine in this light. For instance, the Georgian Church has been slow to acknowledge the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, even though Ukraine expected Georgia to give it the first vote of support, because the two countries have both stood up to Russian aggression for years. The reason for the Georgian Church’s timidity, however, lies in the regions that have fallen under Russian influence, which have since remained under the Georgian Church and which that Church is afraid of losing if it declares support for Ukraine. At the same time, in early February, 30 Georgian theologians declared that they welcomed the birth of the Ukrainian Church and hoped that the churches of Georgia and Ukraine would soon be in communion with each other. The Romanian Church has stood behind Constantinople, like the Bulgarian Church, which has been dominated by supporters of the new Ukrainian Church after an earlier schism. Even though both churches have had close ties with the ROC, they also have a bone to pick with Moscow and this has pushed them into supporting the Ukrainian Church.

Moscow’s rhetoric has mainly touched upon two topics. The first is that it talks about the persecution of adherents to the Russian Church in Ukraine, severely criticises the new Ukrainian Church, and condemns every bishop and cleric who joins the Ukrainian Church. Special effort is devoted to attacking the new Bishop, Epiphanius, by spreading rumours about him being the son or grandson of Filaret, the former head of the UOC-KP, and having illegitimate children of his own. This is Russia’s attempt to reaffirm that the Church’s power will in fact remain in the hands of the 90-year-old Filaret and that behind the new name lies the old UOC-KP, which has not been acknowledged as a church by the Orthodox world. It is true that, despite the title of national hero being given to him by president Poroshenko—which gave reason to suspect that Filaret would quietly be sent away—he has not gone anywhere and still shapes Ukrainian religious life.

In a recent interview, Epiphanius stressed that it was understandable that some congregations remained under the influence and structure of Moscow but could not operate as churches. However, in December Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution according to which Moscow’s church structure must clearly specify its subordinate relationship in the title of the organisation. This means that there can only be one church in Ukraine. Moscow’s presence naturally gives it the opportunity to continue using the Orthodox faith to unite the “Russian World” and thus nothing has yet been decided on Ukraine’s religious landscape. Even though the ROC and Russian authorities lost a battle, they have not yet lost the war. This means that the process of building the independent Ukrainian Church entails all kinds of difficulties caused by Russia’s continuous counteractions.

Russia’s second objective is to strengthen the relationship with its friends, as is customary on the political level, in order to use them to influence the rest of the Orthodox world. The ROC’s enemies in the Orthodox world tend to be friends of Moscow’s friends. Vladimir Putin’s recent [17 January] visit to Serbia and his transformation into bricklayer at the church erected in honour of Saint Sava is the latest vivid example of this pattern of behaviour. On the occasion of his 10th year in office, Patriarch Kirill met the head of the Serbian Church in Moscow, where the latter thanked the Russian Church for supporting the Serbian Church’s fight for the lands of Kosovo and stated that the Ukraine situation needed to be resolved by the Church Council. The head of the Church of Antioch expressed the same opinion.

Similarly, the ROC’s rhetoric has come to include frequent talk of filling the world with Moscow’s congregations due to the behaviour of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. There was recently talk of a Russian Orthodox mission to Thailand. This was explained by the need to create a parallel structure to the Church of Constantinople, because the two churches are not in communion. This is worth taking seriously, but one must not forget that the ROC has actually operated on this principle since the 19th century, establishing congregations and ecclesiastical structures all over the world. Now it is simply being made public that it intends to ignore the Orthodox Church order. The ROC says it has branched out in 10 countries over the past decade.

The crusades and church-related demonstrations and disputes in Ukraine are likely to continue in the near future and things may become particularly acute when property questions are brought into play. The Russian media are already preparing to add fuel to this topic. Just as in the case of the Estonian Orthodox dispute in the 1990s, the question of the Ukrainian Church is likely to end up on the agendas of meetings at international organisations, in which Moscow will try to show that members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine are being attacked. The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church is therefore likely to remain in the public eye for quite some time.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

Filed under: CommentaryTagged with: ,