What Does Religious Independence Mean for Ukrainian People?
30 April, 2019

The creation of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine marked a historic moment for Ukraine. The Church had been under the guidance of Moscow Patriarchate for centuries. The split engendered “spiritual independence” according to incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.

While tensions between Russia and Ukraine are still at boiling point (with the war in eastern Ukraine still raging and due to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea five years ago), religious autonomy is critical for the cultivation of a functional free society and importantly, independence from possible malicious foreign influence.

READ MORE: Becoming Canonical: A Film About Ukraine's Long Journey to Church Independence

We sat down to talk with a leading expert in religion and politics, Shaun Casey - a published scholar and former head of the U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the US State Department - who was invited to survey the religious landscape in Ukraine. Casey describes his mission as follows:

"I was here for about a week, I met with Muslim leaders, I met with Jewish leaders and I met with Protestant leaders and my job was to report back to Washington DC the state of the religious landscape here.”

When asked about [his priorities] the separation of Ukrainian Church from Moscow Patriarchate, he adds:

“My major concern is that the Ukrainian people should be free to make the decision on their own with no external coercion from the US or your neighbor Russia. Indeed, Ukrainian people have a right to determine how they want to align their religious communities and so my mission here was to see whether Patriarch Bartholomew had the ability to decide to do or not to do whatever he wanted to do, but also to send a signal to the world that America wanted to help empower the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions without any interference from any other government.”

The significance of autocephaly is supported by many politicians and scholars alike. It serves to alleviate Russia’s long-standing influence and as the opportunity for Ukraine to establish its religious freedom. President Poroshenko recapitulates the claim: "[this] day will go down in history as a sacred day [...] the day of the final independence from Russia." The importance of this event for the Ukrainian population cannot be overstated.

Casey emphasizes that Russia’s reaction to his role - a mission of mere observation - was dubious:

“The interesting piece of this is the Putin’s Government used me like a piece of propaganda saying that I was here trying to manipulate the situation, which was utterly false. I simply came to meet with people and to talk with people. [...] We were here just as observers.”

READ MORE: Ukraine Church Officially Receives Independence

From what Casey describes as Russia’s reaction to his surveying mission, it can be said that the Russian government felt uneasy with American involvement. It consequently sought to discredit the US government and Casey. This reaction illustrates Russia's concern with its diminishing cultural influence within Ukraine.

In addition, the creation of an independent Orthodox Church will further encourage the shifting identity reflected throughout much of Ukraine: a move towards the West and a distancing from Russia.    

When asked what the Ukrainian autocephaly means for this region, for Eastern Churches and for the Russian Orthodox Churches, Casey emphasized the importance of unity within a state:

“First of all, it means there is more unity with the Orthodox Church within Ukraine itself. That was the argument I heard for why the Tomos [decision to grant autocephaly] was a good thing in the eyes of the people who supported it, instead of the confusing scenario where you have a Moscow Patriarchate, you have a Kyiv Patriarchate, then you have the autocephalous church. It’s very confusing for Ukrainians themselves. I understand the history that guides this is very complex and I'm not an expert. But I think the various Christian denominations in Ukraine, are interested in unity. This is something for the Greek Catholics, for the Roman Catholics, all the Orthodox (churches), this is an issue of central concern to them. And now the Ukrainian denominations have an opportunity to move towards unity." 

Unity is central to religious faith and structure. Furthermore, the unique characteristics of separate denominations may be of great value. Casey speaks of this challenge with regards to the future:

The challenge then going forward, is how do you build unity while maintaining the different forms of denominations in Ukraine.

The matter presents the opportunity for increased societal and religious unity, whilst maintaining the positive aspects of distinctive traditions embodied through separate denominations of the Orthodox Church.

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

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Max Rogers