UARU
1030 Years of Christianity: Is Ukraine Ready for a United Orthodox Church?
29 July, 2018

On July 27 and 28, Kyiv celebrated 1030 years since the Christianization of Kyivan Rus. Parishioners of Ukraine’s two biggest Orthodox churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-MP) – celebrated the anniversary separately, as is now tradition, and held their marches and masses on different days.

But this year’s anniversary is special. Ukraine is awaiting the creation of a single local church, which, according to the initiators of the plan, will help to mend the divide between believers and the patriarchates.

Hromadske tried to find out what the participants of this year’s march think of the plan to unite Ukraine’s Orthodox Churches.

“The Church is unified anyway”

 On July 27 and 28, churchgoers from throughout Ukraine arrived in Kyiv. Men dressed in smart shirts and women wearing headscarves and long skirts literally flooded the city center. People gathered at Volodymyr Hill first thing in the morning, where the head of the UOC-MP Metropolitan Onufriy was supposed to hold a service. The procession then had to move from there to Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra monastery. Police oversaw the procession route, checking the bags of the participants and maintaining order.

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Some parishes arranged to attend the march as a group, others came individually. The UOC-MP say that a few people tried to prevent others from getting to the site of the celebration:

“Yes, we heard about such incidents,” Father Serhiy, a priest from the Kyiv region, told Hromadske. “The bus drivers themselves refused, or the bosses forcibly sent them to the service stations.”

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“They kept us for four hours!” one churchgoer from Zaporizhia told Hromadske. “We stopped at the riverbank, we hadn’t even gotten out of the city. They swapped the bus! They were looking for grenades. They didn’t find any. By the end, we were asking them to let us go. But then we got there ok.” 

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However, most of the people Hromadske spoke to said that they managed to get there without any problems.

Despite talk of possible provocations, there were no serious confrontations during the march. The police stated that they only detained three people, who “did not comply with the legal demands of the police.”

Medics help women affected by the severe heat. Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate attended a mass at Volodymyr Hill, before heading to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

According to the police, 25,000 people took part in the UOC-MP march. The Church itself has claimed that almost 10 times that amount were in attendance. Whatever the number is, there certainly were a lot of people. By the time the head of the procession had reached the Cabinet of Ministers and parliament buildings, there were still people descending Volodymyr Hill at the starting point. The distance between the hill and the government buildings is just over one kilometer. Conversation along the route turned to politics.  

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate during a mass at Volodymyr Hill. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“Oh, we’re going past the Cabinet of Ministers now. We’re going to see [Prime Minister Volodymyr] Groysman!” Kyiv resident Olena said, noting her dismay at not having received her pension yet. According to Olena, this is the second week that her sister, who lives in the Sumy region of Ukraine, had not received her money.

READ MORE: Is Ukrainian Religious Society Diverse or Divided?

The churchgoers Hromadske spoke to said that this march was special to them as Ukraine is now waiting for a Tomos of Autocephaly – the document that will grant Ukraine its single local church. President Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian parliament and the UOC-KP, which is not considered canonical, were the instigators of the unification process.   

Nuns on Kyiv’s European Square.Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate attended a mass at Volodymyr Hill, before heading to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Priests of the UOC-MP with banners. Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate attended a mass at Volodymyr Hill, before heading to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery. Kyiv, July 27, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

The priests that Hromadske managed to speak to during the UOC-MP march refrained from answering questions on their attitude towards autocephaly.

“I regard this in the same way as the higher ranks in the Church hierarchy and the entire Ukrainian population do,” says Father Serhiy from the Kyiv region. “You can see for yourself how many people are here. There’s your answer.”

“Whatever the supreme church authorities say, that’s the way it will be,” says Father Ivan from Volyn region when asked about his opinion on autocephaly. “If that’s what god gives us, then I will continue to serve, may that be in the single local church.”  

Among churchgoers, however, opinions on the single local church are divided.

“Is our church not now the only one?” says Valentyna from the Rivne region. “We have nothing to do with those who are going tomorrow [July 28]. It doesn’t matter to us.” 

“It’s all the same to me. Let there be a single church of some kind,” Olha from Odesa says. “These people you’re talking about [parishioners of the UOC-KP] – there are religious people among them too. Let there be a single church, that’s probably the right thing.”

“A political and geopolitical protest”

Churchgoers of the UOC-KP started to congregate near the St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral at 9 a.m. Many of them came wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and Ukrainian flags.

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate watch the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

A special mass was held at the cathedral. The procession then made its way down the side of Volodymyr Hill, across St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Unlike the UOC-MP march, the Kyiv Patriarchate procession was attended by the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his wife Maryna. This complicated things. “It’s impossible to breathe, or get past,” complained the people in the queues. “The police are doing a terrible job overall. It would be better without them!”

Thanks to the special security measures in place for the event, people also had to pass through metal detectors. There were a lot of people in military uniform at this march. They were people who have participated in the armed conflict in Ukraine’s occupied eastern territories. “I’ve come to support my church. So that everything will be ok,” says Serhiy, a soldier from the Kharkiv region. There were others, however, who openly said that, for them, the march was a way of expressing their political stance.

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate watch the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate on Sofia Square watch the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Thanks to the special security measures in place for the event, people also had to pass through metal detectors. There were a lot of people in military uniform at this march. They were people who have participated in the armed conflict in Ukraine’s occupied eastern territories. “I’ve come to support my church. So that everything will be ok,” says Serhiy, a soldier from the Kharkiv region. There were others, however, who openly said that, for them, the march was a way of expressing their political stance.

Priests of the UOC-KP during the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate on Sofia Square watch the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate on Sofia Square watch the procession to Volodymyr Hill, where a special mass was held.  Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“There are important things happening in this country right now,” says Serhiy from the Rivne region. He carries a Ukrainian flag. “These marches are already not just religious, but more political and even geopolitical. If Ukraine succeeds in breaking away from the Moscow Patriarchate and from Moscow…I generally think that, if we move further away from Moscow in all spheres of life, then we will independent.”

There is not much respect for the participants of the UOC-MP march here. Soldier Serhiy calls them separatists. Others are not as forthright in their opinions, but the tensions between believers of the two churches are apparent.

Churchgoers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate on Mykhailivska Square. The OUC-KP procession started at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral and ended at Volodymyr’s Hill, where a special mass took place. Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate near St. Michael’s Cathedral surrounded by National Guardsmen. The OUC-KP procession started at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral and ended at Volodymyr’s Hill, where a special mass took place. Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“There probably are believers among them,” says Oleh from Kherson, adding that “We are ready to accept them into our united church. And those who don’t like it can get their suitcases, go to the station and go to Russia.”

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A lot of people decided not to go to Volodymyr Hill. The hot weather in Kyiv tired a lot of people out. Moreover, a lot of people were not let in, most likely due to the presence of some of Ukraine’s top officials. People relaxed on the benches and then made their way home in the evening. Not everyone came for political reasons.

Priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate near Voodymyr Hill, where a special mass took place. Kyiv, July 28, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“When I first took part in the procession, I did not expect everything to go so well. I hope that God will help me,” says Olha from the Zhytomyr region. She has not heard anything about the single local church, but she is certain that it will not change her beliefs and faith.

/By Yuliana Skibitska and Anastasia Vlasova

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko