By RFE RL
By Tony Wesolowsky
(RFE/RL) — Pious and patriotic. For Viktoria, going to church in the Ukrainian capital is more than just soothing for the soul.
On Sundays she can be found worshiping in Kyiv’s St. Nicholas Church at Tatarka.
The boxy, white, single-domed parish is now part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which gained autocephaly, or ecclesiastical independence, just over a year ago.
“I like it here,” Viktoria, who declined to give her last name, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “I like the priests; I like how they conduct services…. I’m Ukrainian and a patriot. I support all that is Ukraine.”
The move to establish the OCU heralded a historic break with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), ending more than three centuries of Russian spiritual and temporal control of the dominant faith in Ukraine.
It also sparked one of the biggest rifts within Christianity over the last millennium.
After Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople — the spiritual head of Orthodox Christianity’s 300 million-strong worldwide community — issued the Tomos, or decree, that granted the OCU independence from the Moscow Patriarchate on January 5, 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) responded by severing its ties with Constantinople.
Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the creation of the new church would “go down in history” as the day Ukraine “finally received [its] independence from Russia.”
Bartholomew issued the Tomos when ties between Kyiv and Moscow were already extremely strained. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and shortly thereafter began providing military, economic, and political support to separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that the new church’s main objective was to “divide the people of Russia and Ukraine, to sow national and religious divisions.”
Amid hostilities from the Kremlin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, the OCU has faced church closures in Russian-occupied Crimea and other harassment. Even closer to home, the OCU has its detractors, not least Patriarch Filaret, who headed the Kyiv Patriarchate before it was superseded by the new OCU.
Nonetheless, more than 500 parishes have switched from the UOC-MP to the OCU in the past year. The mere fact the OCU exists is reason to celebrate, argued the OCU head, 40-year-old Metropolitan Epifaniy.
“Despite the many challenges and opposition from ill-wishers, the past year witnessed the birth of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Epifaniy said on December 14, 2019, at Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral. “As such, a centuries-long struggle for autocephaly, establishing historical justice by freeing Ukraine from the unsanctioned control of the Russian Church over Ukraine, was accomplished.”
The new church was established by a synod at St. Sophia on December 15, 2018. That church council brought together senior clergy from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Those two churches would melt away to form the new OCU. Except for two renegade bishops, the UOC-MP boycotted the synod.
Less than a month later, on January 6, 2019, Bartholomew issued the Tomos, making the OCU the 15th local Orthodox Church recognized by the church’s hierarchy.
For many Ukrainians, it was a seismic, spiritual event, explained Viktor Yelenskiy, a religious-affairs expert and former Ukrainian parliamentary deputy of the Narodniy Front party. “The question of autocephaly was never a purely religious question, with politics always trumping ideology,” Yelenskiy told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in a recent interview. “Nevertheless, it is a very significant event for millions of Ukrainians, who ceased to be heretics, schismatics, and so forth, as they had been called by the Moscow Patriarchate.”
Over the past year, 520 UOC-MP churches have switched to the OCU, which now registers 7,000 parishes, 77 monasteries, and 47 dioceses, or ecclesiastical districts. In addition to Bartholomew, the OCU has been recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Alexandria.
The UOC-KP and UOAC officially ceased to exist on December 14, 2019, when their deregistration was announced by the Ukrainian Justice Ministry.
Moscow-Backed Church Still Strong?
The UOC-MP, which does not recognize the OCU as an autocephalous church, continues to function and, in fact, continues to predominate among Ukraine’s Orthodox believers, if numbers are to be believed. Not only does it have some 12,300 parishes, but many of the country’s most revered Orthodox religious sites remain under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Moreover, the UOC-MP, led by Patriarch Onufriy, is backed by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has denounced the OCU as an effort by Ukraine in collaboration with the United States to “tear apart the last connection between our people [Russians and Ukrainians],” echoing what Putin has said.
The ROC has created a special webpage, In Defense Of The Unity Of The Russian Orthodox Church, to criticize the new church and highlight Patriarch Onufriy’s efforts.
Patriarch Kirill has also severed the Russian church’s ties with Bartholomew, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which is based in Egypt. The three are the only Orthodox churches to recognize the OCU. The Serbian Orthodox Church has backed Moscow in opposing the new Ukrainian church.
Despite those efforts, the UOC-MP is losing the spiritual wars, albeit slowly, argues Anatolii Babynski, an Orthodox Church historian at the Metropolitan Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Toronto. He says the UOC-MP has between 9,000 and 10,000 parishes, not the 12,300 cited by the church itself.
“You need only 10 persons to register for a new religious organization,” Babynski tells RFE/RL. “It is also hard to grasp the actual number of individuals that switched the jurisdiction. Because in the cities and towns where there are parishes of different churches, people can easily change their church affiliation — ‘to vote by their feet.'”
Metropolitan Epifaniy has responded to the criticism from Kirill by branding the ROC as “the last advance post of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine,” and predicting the gradual loss of Russian influence as a result of Ukraine’s Orthodoxy independence.
Whither The Property?
While the number of UOC-MP parishes may be debated, its control over key Orthodox assets in Ukraine is not. The most prized position perhaps is the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a hallowed monastery where mummified monks rest in labyrinthine underground caves in the Ukrainian capital. UOC-MP clergy ominously predicted that Ukrainian ultranationalists would resort to violence to seize control of Orthodox property, especially Pechersk Lavra. Those dire warnings never came to fruition, but the issue of ownership of key Orthodox sites remains acute.
Overall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has kept a low profile on the matter, calling on representatives of both churches to engage in dialogue and saying, “faith should unite, and not divide.”
According to Babynski untying the Gordian knot that is church property will take time. “As for significant Ukrainian Orthodox monasteries, or lavras, the property belongs to the Ukrainian state because they are part of Ukraine’s national heritage. On the other hand, they are rented by the Moscow Patriarchate,” he explains, adding that much will depend on the OCU gaining wider acceptance in the Orthodox world.
The Detractor, Patriarch Filaret
Perhaps the biggest threat to the new church could come from within its own ranks. Patriarch Filaret, who was excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate after he broke his Kyiv Patriarchate away from Moscow in 1992, has been a vocal backer of an independent Ukrainian church.
However, the 90-year-old Filaret was not satisfied with his new title of “honorary patriarch” and feels he was promised the job that went to Epifaniy. He has become a vocal critic of the new church.
Many analysts see something of a generational conflict between Filaret and Epifaniy. “I’ve spoken often with the Honorary Patriarch Filaret about his views on how to achieve Orthodox unity,” religious-affairs expert Yelenskiy says. “Of course, he demonstrates traits he learned at the Moscow theological academy, traits from the church which formed him.”
“There were no doubts that bishops with Soviet educations were raised and prepared more or less the same way,” adds Sergei Chapnin, a Russian religious scholar. Filaret “was a man who was first among those openly and consistently — in fact from his youth — who agreed to cooperate with the Soviet government, with the [Soviet-era] Council for Religious Affairs and with the KGB. And such people, unfortunately, don’t change.”
Repression Of OCU In Crimea
With Russia in de facto control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, it is perhaps no surprise the OCU and its clergy have faced harassment there. In early 2014, there were 46 parishes affiliated with the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church. One year later, only eight such parishes remained.
The last major OCU congregation was evicted from its church in September by court order in the peninsula’s capital of Simferopol. The same month, the Russian Justice Ministry in Crimea for the third time since 2014 denied registration to the OCU on the peninsula. In November, a court in Crimea ordered the OCU to demolish its chapel in Yevpatoria.
In March 2019, Father Kliment, the head of the OCU in Crimea, was briefly detained by local police.
Epifaniy compared Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea to “Stalin-era” repressions. “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed,” he told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group says the OCU remains one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russian-installed leaders.
“The church — then under the Kyiv Patriarchate — has been under attack since Russia’s invasion,” Coynash explained in e-mail comments to RFE/RL. “Most faiths have been in one way or another, but the ‘Ukrainian Church’ most, i) because it reflects Ukrainian identity in occupied Crimea, and ii) because the Church came out in public condemnation of annexation.”
Hopes For New Post-Soviet Church
Despite the hardships, Chapnin says, the OCU has a unique chance to become the first Orthodox church in the former Soviet empire to truly shed its communist-era legacy. “The key question now is that there is a chance for the Orthodox Church to break with its Soviet past,” he says. “And if I have a hope regarding the future of the autocephalous church in Ukraine, then it is the hope of creating a vibrant, young, dynamic church that is not a Soviet, or a post-Soviet one.”
Back in Kyiv at the St. Nicholas Church, Tetyana, a worshipper, suggests the OCU is largely getting things right. “I feel very comfortable here,” Tetyana, who also declined to provide her surname, tells RFE/RL. “The clergy here are wonderful. As for the Moscow Patriarchate, I always felt uncomfortable there. Here, everything is in Ukrainian. I feel more comfortable with that.”
With reporting by Olha Katsan of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service
- Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.