How President Poroshenko Secured Church Independence for Ukraine
21 December, 2018

Receiving a Tomos of Autocephaly, or, to put it simply, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) its independence, has been one of the biggest events of the year. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been the driving force behind it. It was through his efforts that the fate of the UOC was transformed from an internal church issue into a matter of national security and a factor of the upcoming presidential elections.

READ MORE: Autocephaly and Ukraine: How a Western Ukrainian Region’s Dealing with the News

Over the course of his presidency, Poroshenko himself has transformed from an ordinary follower of the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in to a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian Church’s independence. Hromadske explains how all this came about and why it’s happened now. 

On November 3, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew hosted a banquet at his residence in Phanar, a historical district of Istanbul, Turkey. He had just signed a cooperation agreement with President Poroshenko.

The day before, Russia had imposed sanctions on the Ukrainian leadership and, as some of the guests have since recounted, the Ecumenical Patriarch was curious as to how some of them had reacted to the news.  

Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko joked that making the Kremlin’s sanction list was akin to receiving a state award, Hromadske’s interlocutor stated.

“Then we’re all the same here,” Bartholomew apparently stated. He had just severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I am also under sanctions,” he added.

At the start of 2018, this would have been impossible. But, in the fall, the President, Prosecutor General, almost half the government, as well as the CEO of Ukraine’s state gas company Naftogaz went to Istanbul once again for the Ecumenical Patriarch’s reassurances on recognizing the independent UOC.

The story of Tomos negotiations has played out like a world politics TV drama, where the protagonists are presidents, patriarchs and metropolitans. To reconstruct this saga, Hromadske has spoken to top officials who participated in the negotiations, as well as diplomats and church hierarchs. Our interlocutors are reluctant to share some of the information so we only publish what was confirmed by at least two participants of the events independently.


It all officially began on April 17, 2018, when President Poroshenko appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant a Tomos on Autocephaly for a local Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In other words, he asked that Constantinople recognize Ukraine as having its own independent Orthodox Church, like most other countries with Orthodox citizens. Ukraine has never had a church like this.

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In Ukraine, the church is separate from the state. Therefore, Petro Poroshenko should not interfere in church affairs. That being said, in 2016, Petro Poroshenko announced that the independence of the church from Moscow was a question of national security and a component of state independence. In 2018, he went even further as to say that an independent church was part of the formula for Ukraine’s “national identity.”

What’s more, Poroshenko regards the UOC-MP as an instrument of Russia in the war against Ukraine. “How can those churches, where they pray for Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who prays for the Russian army, which kills Ukrainian soldiers and the civilian population, be called Ukrainian?” Poroshenko asked at this year’s day of Protection of the Virgin Mary celebrations.

The President must have known what he was saying. He himself was a follower of the UOC-MP and has never hidden that fact.

Poroshenko became actively involved in church affairs after the Revolution of Dignity. The day after ex-president Yanukovych fled the country, Poroshenko, along with Andriy Derkach, then independent MP and member of the Inter-Council Presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, talked to the activists outside of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra who were worried about sacred objects being taken away from the church. According to Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko) from the UOC-MP, it was Poroshenko who managed to reassure them.

“While [Opposition Bloc MP who positions himself as defender of UOC-MP] Vadym Novinsky wasn’t outside of the Lavra that night,” Drabynko told Hromadske.

Most of the representatives of UOC-MP are against autocephaly today. But this wasn’t always the case. During the times of late Metropolitan Volodymyr’s leadership, UOC-MP themselves talked about becoming independent from Russia. In January 2009, their Synod even appealed to the Russian Orthodox Church with such a request but things didn’t go further. And with the arrival of the new UOC-MP head in 2014, Metropolitan Onufriy who wanted the Church to be part of Russian Orthodoxy, it was not meant to be.

According to Patriarch Bartholomew, all former Ukrainian presidents had appealed to him for church independence, apart from Viktor Yanukovych. The only one who came close was Viktor Yushchenko. Bartholomew even visited Kyiv in 2008, the first time an Ecumenical Patriarch had done so in 300 years. As Yushchenko recalled in a recent interview with Hromadske, the visit was testament to the fact that Bartholomew considered Ukraine a part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s canonical territory. Yushchenko intended to use the visit as a chance to plan Ukraine’s “road map” to Autocephaly.

READ MORE: Autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Coming Soon?

However, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II made an urgent visit to Kyiv, where he managed to get an audience with the Ecumenical Patriarch. The conclusion of this meeting was that the issue of Ukrainian Autocephaly would be put on the back burner. According to Yushchenko, Bartholomew agreed to do this in exchange for Alexy II’s support for the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Synod, something which hadn’t occurred in over 100 years, and therefore a career-defining event for Bartholomew. 

The prospect of Autocephaly at the start of 2015 seemed almost impossible. On one side, there was the Moscow Patriarch and Metropolitan Onufriy, and on the other – the Ecumencial Patriarch, who was still hoping that the Russian Church would support his plans for a Pan-Orthodox Synod and therefore didn’t want to push the “Ukrainian issue.”

Nonetheless, this is when the Ukrainian government began talks with the Ecumenical Patriarch on creating a local church and granting it its independence, as recalls Poroshenko’s advisor Rostyslav Pavlenko who served as deputy head of the Presidential Administration from 2014 to 2018.

“In December 2014, the president appointed me deputy head of the Presidential Administration, and by 2015, I was already traveling regularly to Istanbul for talks,” Pavlenko stated.

Why did Poroshenko, who, at the time, was a UOC-MP churchgoer and had never expressed support for autocephaly before, suddenly decide to follow in Yushchenko’s footsteps and once again try for Tomos? The President has never explicitly talked about this. On the topic of the church, Poroshenko repeatedly asked how one could be a parishioner of a church, whose priests refuse to bury ATO soldiers or children who were christened in another church. The media reported similar cases and cited official confirmation from several UOC-MP priests on the matter. What’s more, in February 2015, when the military operations at Debaltseve in Donbas were taking place, and Poroshenko was preparing for a new round of Normandy Format talks, which resulted in the Minsk II agreements, Metropolitan Onufriy went to Moscow for Patriarch Kirill’s six-year anniversary celebrations.

READ MORE: Moscow Patriarchate Won’t Take Part in Creation of Ukraine’s Independent Church

“Petro Poroshenko repeated multiple times to Metropolitan Onufriy: ‘Think about who you’re praying for?’” one interlocutor from the President’s inner circle stated.

Additionally, on May 8, 2015, three representatives of UOC-MP – including Onufriy – refused to stand up when Poroshenko awarded some Ukrainian soldiers and Donbas war participants with the Hero of Ukraine medals in the parliament.

While Poroshenko was going through his transformation from UOC-MP churchgoer to champion of autocephaly and the creation of the united local church, transformations were also taking place within all three of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches.

The leadership of the UOC-KP and Autocephalous Church held talks on uniting the two churches and creating a new one, which the Ecumenical Patriarch would then grant autocephaly to. In July 2015, they appealed to Bartholomew with requests for autocephaly. By September of the same year, the UOC-KP and the Autocephalous Church were already making plans for a Unification Council, however it did not materialize. Patriarch Macarius of the Autocephalous Church proposed inviting representatives of the UOC-MP to the discussions, but there was no agreement on the matter and the negotiations on unification were terminated.

Parallel to this, talks between the President’s team and the Ecumenical Patriarch continued. It was then that the Ecumenical Patriarch’s exarch Metropolitan Emmanuel of France came to Kyiv for the first time. There were signs of real progress on July 28, when the Canadian Metropolitan Yuriy (Kalishchuk) came as the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s representative to the Christianization of Kyivan-Rus anniversary celebrations. He stated that the “Constantinople Patriarchate is putting all its efforts into creating a single local church in Ukraine.” In turn, during the celebrations, Poroshenko stated for the first time that Ukraine, as an independent state, had the right to an independent, single Orthodox Church.

The president made his first serious push for autocephaly in 2016. Unexpectedly, autocephaly supporters from the UOC-MP decided to help Poroshenko in this.

On March 10, 2016, Poroshenko flew to Istanbul, where, among other things, he personally met Bartholomew for the first time. The Ukrainian officials, who went as part of the official delegation, describe the conversation between the President and the Patriarch as a “tough tete-a-tete.” At the press briefing that followed, Poroshenko only noted that he had discussed a “united local Orthodox Church, which the Ukrainian people aspire to and are waiting for,” with the Patriarch. For his part, Bartholomew said he would “pray for peace and unity in Ukraine.”

The meeting took place in the run-up to Bartholomew’s long-awaited Pan-Orthodox Synod, which was set to take place in June 2016. However, the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchs could not agree on the topics of discussion for the upcoming Synod. Moreover, after Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian soldiers on the Syrian border, relations between Turkey and Russia seriously deteriorated. At the Russian Orthodox Church’s demand, Bartholomew even agreed to move the Synod to the Greek island of Crete.

On June 16, the day before the opening of the Synod, the Ukrainian parliament officially appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch with requests for the Orthodox Church’s independence. By then, it was already confirmed that the Russian Orthodox Church would not be going to Crete. So why were Ukrainian MPs getting involved? The official reason is that, according to the rules for granting autocephaly, representatives from both the church and secular authorities have to address the Ecumenical Patriarch for it to happen.  

READ MORE: Russian Orthodox Church Cuts Ties with Constantinople: What You Need to Know

However, the most interesting thing was that the parliament’s appeal to Constantinople was presented by Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko) from the UOC-MP, the former secretary to Metropolitan Volodymyr and an autocephaly supporter. It was Drabynko who prepared the text of the appeal and persuaded his MP friends from different factions to register it in the parliament.

“I felt that this was the moment when most of the UOC-MP hierarchs were still confused and could have supported autocephaly,” Drabynko recalls.

There were no problems securing votes for the appeal in parliament. Parliament chairperson Andriy Parubiy, and the heads of the two other Orthodox churches, supported the initiative group of MPs. However, Tomos did not happen in 2016.

“I did not account for the fact that appeal happened before the start of the Synod in Crete, it should have happened after,” Metropolitan Oleksandr says.

Even though, by the end of the Synod, Bartholomew had accepted the appeal and created a commission to consider the issue, having been pushed into by the Russian Patriarch’s refusal to go to Crete, he was in no rush to pursue it.

One of the high-ranking Ukrainian officials, who also met with the Ecumenical Patriarch says that, after the meeting with Poroshenko, Bartholomew outlined three specific demands which the Ukrainian government had to meet in order to receive autocephaly: reinstate the Stauropegic monastery (basically the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s embassy, which existed before 1686) in Kyiv, get Turkish President Erdogan to reinstate the Orthodox seminary on the island of Khalki, near Istanbul and gather international support for Ukrainian autocephaly.

The one demand that Poroshenko found impossible, according to interlocutors, was dealing with Turkey and President Erdogan, who would only consider the reinstating the monastery if Greece agreed to restore the mosque in the province of Thrace. And the Greeks were unlikely to agree.

“This is not your war, but a Turkey and Greece’s war,” members of the Ukrainian delegation say, recounting Erdogan’s words.

However, he did support the idea of a independent Ukrainian church on the whole, according to Ukrainian MP and Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for the Affairs of Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzemilev.

READ MORE: Is Ukrainian Religious Society Diverse or Divided?

“During a meeting with Erdogan, I posed the question of the need to create a local church in Ukraine, to which he directly said: ‘What’s it got to do with me, a Muslim?’ I replied that it was a question of security for my country, to which he replied: ‘I understand,’” Dzemilev recalls.

There were also issues with gathering international support. The presidential campaign was underway in the US and the Obama administration were cautious in approaching the topic of the Ukrainian church.

However, in July 2017, under the new President Donald Trump, things started to change. Vice President Mike Pence appointed Sam Brownback as the new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Within six months, he flew to Kyiv for a meeting with Poroshenko, after which he stated that a local church was a big step towards freedom of the people in Ukraine.

The idea was also supported by the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Valreiy Chaliy. A week before his appointment, he also visited Kyiv to meet with Poroshenko.

But what about Turkey? Relations between Bartholomew also started to rapidly decline. The Ecumenical Patriarch was suspected of being involved in an attempted military coup in 2016, so also abandoned the idea of reinstating the seminary.

Finally, on October 11, a Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to lift the anathema against Patriarch Filaret of the UOC-KP. And, on December 15, the historic Unification Council took place in Kyiv and elected Metropolitan Epiphanius as head of the forthcoming independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. On January 6, he will travel to Istanbul where the Ecumenical Patriarch will grant the Church Tomos.


Poroshenko’s critics have stated that this was all planned to coincide with the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections. But the analysis of the negotiation process shows that this is not the case. The creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been dependent on a large number of factors coming together, which weren’t always under the president’s control. However, Hromasdske’s interlocutors who took part in the negotiation process all agree that Poroshenko accelerated the process, if nothing else out of fear that he would miss the window of opportunity, as Yushchenko had done before him.  

But Poroshenko obviously sees nothing wrong with using church rhetoric in his pre-election program. In the summer, billboards appeared in Ukrainian cities with the slogan: “Army! Language! Faith!” Some state events have even been accompanied by “national prayers,” which people from the Ukraine’s regions have been invited to, often organized by their local council. Television ads also announce that “Tomos is the eternal aspiration of the Ukrainian people.”

READ MORE: 1030 Years of Christianity: Is Ukraine Ready for a United Orthodox Church?

However, all this does not seem to have helped Poroshenko’s rating. According to sociological surveys, he is unlikely to make it to the second round.

/By Maksym Kamenev

/Translated and adapted by Sofia Fedeczko