Is Ukrainian Religious Society Diverse or Divided?
8 February, 2018

In many largely Christian countries, the majority of the population adheres to one sect — perhaps Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or even Protestantism. One the surface, Ukrainian appears to be the same way. The vast majority of Ukrainians are at least nominally Orthodox.

But Ukraine’s history has complicated Orthodoxy significantly. The country’s Orthodox believers are split between two churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate.

By and large, those two churches coexist peacefully. However, in recent years, the divide has grown more politicized. That’s because the two churches have “very different political views,” says Andriy Yurash, the Director of Religious Affairs at Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture.

“Sometimes they even have different identificational priorities,” Yurash explains. “The first one — closely related to Moscow — has an obvious pro-Russian and Russian identity. [Whereas] Orthodoxy...under the jurisdiction of Kyiv Patriarchate now has a more pro-European view.”

That divide emerged as early as the late 1990s. “But the political situation of the last several years, especially the Ukrainian-Russian war on the eastern borders of the country, has exaggerated this process.”

Hromadske spoke with Andriy Yurash to learn more about religion in Ukraine and to find out whether the country is divided along religious lines or comfortably pluralistic.

So Andriy, we watched the report. What does it signify, what should our foreign audience understand from what’s going on?

This fact that you described that happened in Zaporizhzhya is just one sign of the very high temperature inside the religious environment of the country. And the process of changing the jurisdiction and moving from one patriarchate to another is a very big and broad process that’s [been] taking place very actively for the last several years. For at least three or four years we accounted — almost in different form and on different stages — 200 cases related to this process. In other cases, this process is on the stage of very active discussions, sometimes on very conflictory level. And any state cannot officially be silent in this situation. That’s why we are trying to prepare some suggestions of how the authorities can solve these problems. And that’s why inside the expert council, affiliated with our department of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, we prepared the draft of a special law, which is trying...

What would you suggest? If to be very brief.

If briefly, we suggest that the members of this community [come] together, discuss the situation and according to the decision of the majority, the community and the whole property that belongs to the community will go to one or another jurisdiction.

You can see what percentage of Ukrainians belong to Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and Kyiv Patriarchate. As everywhere, from West to the East, North and South. Predominantly there are more believers of the Kyiv Patriarchate.

At the same time, we can count that according to the number of existing and acting institutions, organizations, communities that are registered according to the Ukrainian legislation, Moscow Patriarchate can create majority. Now we have around 12,000 communities in the country that belong to the Moscow Patriarchate — Ukrainian Orthodox Church with subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate. And in total around 6,000 parishes of religious organizations belong to Kyiv Patriarchate. So, excuse me, but it is very important for my mind that the number of parishes affiliated at the Moscow Patriarchate is much higher, but, at the same time, the number of believers in the Kyiv Patriarchate is two times greater. And that’s why people are trying to change the affiliation of their institution for the Moscow Patriarchate parishes towards the Kyiv one.

So actually because of that, I would like to ask… [they look at a graph] You see the Kyiv Patriarchate, Moscow Patriarchate, then the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This is 7%. As well the Roman Catholic church is around 1% of Ukrainian believers. And others, what I understand, include Muslims, Jews and various sects, and Buddhist and all the New Age faiths. Andriy, my question is: of course, for a lot of people, especially what we’ve seen in the report, the Moscow Patriarchate really has the connection to Russia, to Kremlin. Because really there is — and it’s not a secret — that there is a strong political influence of the Kremlin on the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, we know that there are some believers who would be considered by someone, even the Ukrainian nationalists, who just believe in genuinity of that particular Church but may still stay with Moscow Patriarchate. But with the war, how political is that? And how does politics play in today’s religion? Is it really a divide or what word would you use?

That picture what we’re discussing right now has been stated first time I remember even at the end of 1999. So it’s nothing that’s absolutely new. But the political situation of the last several years, especially the Ukrainian-Russian war in the eastern borders of the country, has exaggerated this process.

But can we speak of a religious divide? As a political instrument, as a political reality?

Unfortunately, these two directions of Orthodoxy — I mean, a subordinate towards Moscow and towards Kyiv Patriarchate — have very different political views. Sometimes they even have different identificational priorities. The first one — closely related to Moscow — has an obvious pro-Russian and Russian identity. In Orthodoxy, which is under the jurisdiction of Kyiv Patriarchate, now has a more pro-European view…

So in order to explain how it plays to the whole society we also prepared, using the sources, which are quoted on our webpage how religious is the general population. So what we see is half of Ukrainians are moderately religious. You know, 28% are unsure but are likely believers. 5% unsure, likely not believers. And 7% are deeply religious people. Some of them, a small percentage didn’t answer and 9% are atheists. So in the way, would you really say, according to what we know, is Ukrainian society a religious society? To what extent generally having all the amount of religions plays to the everyday life of Ukrainians?

Everything is very relative. If we compare the situation in the Ukrainian society to like 20-25-30 years ago, Ukrainian society is becoming more and more religious. But if we compare the situation with other countries...

Can we compare with some European [countries] and maybe Russia?

For example, Poland, Italy — Ukraine is much less, almost twice less religious.

Compared to Russia?

Much more religious. But if we take the most unreligious societies like Czechia, Estonia, other Baltic states…. The level of religiousness in [Ukraine] is in two, even in three times higher than in those countries.

Which country can Ukraine be compared to and how does this, let’s say, diversity — or somebody would use the word “divide” — signify how Ukraine can be explained through that level?

Diversity in religious area, as in other areas, is a part of our heritage and, I think, is very important. Religious diversity in the country influences other areas, for example, the political area. Very hard to compare with other countries in Europe because the situation in Ukraine is very unique for the Eastern Europe, very different from Western Europe and, according to the principle of organization of relations between the state and the religious organization, we can be compared with the American system. Because Ukraine provides real religious freedom and supports diversity in any form. In comparison to Russia, for example, where the main Orthodox Church always supports this unique and totalitarian view on other religions. The system of differences among religion in Ukraine is the reason why we have this unique perception and understanding of others, as our neighbors: as my neighbors, as your neighbors.

Smaller and important Christian faith in Ukraine is Protestantism.

Donbas is the region where the protestant communities were in majority, according to the number of institutions registered by the state. That was the region where 6 to 8% of the population were members of this community compared to 3% in the scale of the whole country. So, Ukraine — contemporary, modern, independent Ukraine — created the circumstances for protestant communities to develop their identities. That’s why they define Ukraine as their real motherland, that’s why the protestants in the region became the most active part in that part of population that opposed to the Russian aggression. That’s why they were staying for Ukraine as a country, as a circumstance for their development for the future, as the state that offered to them absolute possibilities for development and the process of evangelization that is the most important one for any protestant.