Will Ukraine Get Its Own Unified Orthodox Church?
1 May, 2018

While in most European countries, the Church is a separate institution to politics and the two rarely coincide; in Ukraine, religious matters are often somewhat political too. That is because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is split into two main divisions: the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate. And, as one may guess from the titles, their political identities are quite polar.  

It is not surprising that the difference in views has become more apparent with the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. Earlier, Andriy Yurash, the Director of Religious Affairs at Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, told Hromadske that the believers of two churches can even have different “identificational priorities.”

“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,” he said.

However, the unification of the churches – the idea only supported by every fifth Ukrainian citizen – may not be as distant. At least, this is what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is hopeful about. Earlier, parliament backed Poroshenko’s initiative to address the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and request autonomy for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

If the Patriarch agrees, the so-called Ukrainian “pomisna” Orthodox Church (Ukraine’s own independent Orthodox Church) can finally be established. Last week a letter requesting the provision of Tomos of Autocephaly (a decree that gives autonomy to the church) was brought to Istanbul by the presidential administration’s deputy head Rostislav Pavlenko.

On April 23, Poroshenko even posted on Facebook that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is “beginning the necessary procedure to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church." But the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself has given no concrete answer on this matter, only emphasizing that the letter was received and the request will be considered.

Church Frontlines  

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, a political component is undeniably present. Ukrainian politicians are openly advocating for a local Orthodox Church, saying that Orthodox followers are longing for unity and emphasizing the need for Ukrainians to consolidate.

It became evident even as early as in 2004 when priests of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate were encouraging people to vote for Viktor Yanukovych, while priests of the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church, supported the Orange Revolution. Today, as Russia wages its war against Ukraine, it’s believed that the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church can weaken Russia’s influence on Ukraine.

According to the latest poll of the Razumkov Center, conducted in March 2017, more than 38% of Orthodox people in Ukraine ascribe themselves to the Kyiv Patriarchate while 17.4% to the Moscow Patriarchate. Supporters of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church made up 1.5% and more than a third (35.7%) call themselves "just Orthodox." Almost a third of Ukrainians (29.2%) believe that it is necessary to rally around the Kyiv Patriarchate. This idea is supported by 14% of Moscow Patriarchate followers.

READ MORE: Faith and War: How Conflict Changed Protestantism in Ukraine

The majority of Ukrainian politicians want to neutralize the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on Ukraine’s religious community.

Photo credit:

“In Moscow, no one denies the fact that the religious and church frontlines of this hybrid warfare are very important. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said that he would never let Ukraine go from under Moscow’s control. He said that the borders of the Russian Church are not subject to change. The church is a broadcasting channel. In some parishes, you might be able to hear even the Kremlin’s propagandist messages, or the version of them slightly adapted to our conditions by the Opposition Bloc. They used the same talking points,” said religious studies expert Volodymyr Yelenskyi.

Division Of The Church

The division of the Orthodox Church began in the late 80s to early 90s. In 1989, the Autocephalous Church was formed in 1989 and in 1992, the Kyiv (UOC KP) and Moscow Patriarchates appeared (UOC-MP). The latter calls itself the only canonical one (officially recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate) on the grounds that it is part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Photo credit: Oleksandr Chernova/HROMADSKE

In Moscow, they call the Kyiv Patriarchate schismatics, the sacraments of the church are not recognized, and Patriarch head Filaret (Denisenko) had been excommunicated at the Bishops' Council of the ROC. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been repeatedly asked to provide the UOC with an autonomous status by activists, church representatives, and the Ukrainian authorities. The last time was in 2016 and included the participation of the first and third presidents of Ukraine – Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Yushchenko – who traveled to Istanbul unofficially. Bartholomew did not satisfy their request then.

Now Poroshenko is seeking autocephaly for the church. He wants to do this by the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Ukraine-Rus, which will be celebrated in July.  

Who Opposes Autocephaly For The Church?

The Moscow Patriarchate has criticized Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament for involvement in matters concerning the church. In a statement, the Moscow Patriarchate said that in Ukraine, the church and state are separate, and therefore, officials should not be able to ask for the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Photo credit:

Furthermore, the Moscow Patriarchate emphasizes its position as the only canonical structure and says that there are simply no such things as the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Archbishop Clement (Vechera), head of Moscow Patriarchate synodal information department, believes that the request for Tomos is just a political ploy.

READ MORE: Is Ukrainian Religious Society Diverse or Divided?

"It appears that this initiative, like the previous one, is either a diversion from more serious and pressing problems that the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) has not been able to resolve to this day or part of some permanent election campaign," he told Hromadske.

Speaking about the appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that the ROC opposed the creation of the Ukrainian local church.

Photo credit:

In addition to the Moscow Patriarchate, Opposition Bloc (formerly Party of Regions) spoke against Poroshenko’s proposal. One of their main arguments echoes that of the Moscow Patriarchate: the state is interfering with the affairs of the church. The party also claims that Poroshenko’s main motivation is publicity ahead of election campaigning and that the unification of churches is unrealistic.

What Next?

Next month, the Synod – or council of a church – is expected to take place in Istanbul, where the question of granting autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may be considered. Then, according to religious scholars, the church could receive autocephaly by July.

Religious scholar Andrei Yurash, an associate professor of Ivan Franko Lviv National University, explained that if this happens the Ukrainian churches, which include representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate – as well as any willing members of the Moscow Patriarchate – and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, will then gather for the Bishops' Council, where they will determine the rules of the unified local church. An election of the head of the church will also be held. If autonomy is granted, Tomos will be handed over to the leader of the united churches.

Photo credit:

However, according to Yurash, the process of unification of churches can take several decades.

Religious professor at the H. S. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, Lyudmila Filipovich, believes the church will receive autocephaly. According to her, the Ecumenical Patriarch does not depend on Moscow's position and conducts independent policy. Furthermore, she says Russia has been too discredited in the international arena in recent years. If autocephaly is granted, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine will gain independence for the first time in the country’s 27 years of independence.

Is It Realistic?

Throughout Ukraine’s independence, no president has succeeded in consolidating Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. The reason behind it is the constant resistance on the part of the church community of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, President Poroshenko has voiced the hope that the decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church will be issued before the 1030th anniversary of Christianization of Kyivan Rus’, namely by July 28 this year. Many experts tend to think that Patriarch Bartholomew is likely to support the cause as the confidence in Poroshenko’s statements may hint on existing preliminary agreements.

Photo credit:

“If the President is making such a statement, apparently some diplomatic church talks did take place and were successful to some extent,” said Mykola Kniazhytskyi, head of the parliamentary committee on culture and spirituality. Bartholomew might have been pushed to change his mind by the actual escalation of the situation around Russia and further isolation in the world.

Church Conflicts In Post-Soviet Spaces

Conflicts between recognized and unrecognized Orthodox churches exist in other former Soviet Union countries.

The Belarusian Church of the Moscow Exarchate does not recognize the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAAC), which does not have canonical status. BACC appeared at the time of transition when supporters of autocephaly asked the UAOC (which first appeared after the February Revolution of 1917, and advocated for the separation of the Orthodox Church from the ROC) to come under its jurisdiction. In 1948, a Synod was held in Germany, where they announced the establishment of the BAAC. The church has a little more than 10 parishes in Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church In Donetsk

Then there is the Orthodox Church of Moldova, which is part of the ROC, and the Bessarabian Metropolitanate, under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Orthodox Church. They compete for new followers in Moldova. In 1992, the Orthodox Church of Moldova received the status of a self-governing body from the ROC. It was then that conflict erupted with the Metropolis of Bessarabia, which, after the Diocesan Assembly that year, announced the re-establishment of a separate Bessarabian Metropolis and the transition to the Romanian Church. In 2007, its leadership announced the creation of seven new episcopates, which since 1944 belonged to the ROC.

In connection with this, among other events, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church announced to the Romanian Orthodox Church its “resolute protest against a new invasion of its canonical limits." Now the Bessarabian Metropolis has four dioceses. The Orthodox Church of Moldova has six.

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov