Holy disorder: Moscow’s last influence over Kyiv under threat

Russian Orthodox Church


Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians are about to be granted the right of self-governance in their internal affairs. The establishment of a new — unified — national church is currently underway in what is being interpreted among religious and political circles as a move to rid the country of the remaining vestiges of Russian influence.


– The Patriarchate of Constantinople, the first see within the Orthodox Church, has taken the first step in granting Ukrainians self-ruling status by recognising the country’s two breakaway churches, considered hostile to both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin
– Constantinople’s decision to rectify the ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine by effectively ejecting the Russian church has caused an unprecedented rift within Orthodoxy and further widened the divide between Ukrainians and Russians, with fears violence may soon break out as a result
– Beyond downgrading the status of the Russian church in Ukraine, the establishment of a united church there could strain the Kremlin’s relationship with other Orthodox-majority states


In April this year, the governing body of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Holy Synod, announced it had accepted a request from Ukraine’s religious and political authorities for its intervention in healing the schism that has divided the country’s Orthodox-majority population since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

For more than two decades, Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians had to choose between three separate churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP, the establishment church directly linked with Russia and recognised by all other Orthodox churches) and two unrecognised schismatic churches, the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the smaller Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church (AUOC).

Following the Euromaidan of 2014, the heads of the UOC-KP and the AUOC, together with Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko, renewed past appeals to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul hoping that he, as first among equals in the Orthodox world, would grant recognition to Ukraine’s breakaway churches by merging them into a new national church independent of Russia.

Constantinople’s involvement in the matter was immediately slammed by the Moscow Patriarchate, which considers the Istanbul-based church to be trespassing within the Russian church’s canonical jurisdiction. The Moscow Patriarchate has long and deep ties to Ukraine. A church decision in 1686 saw Moscow (temporarily) given ecclesiastical authority over the territory from Constantinople. Ukraine also constitutes the heartland of Kyivan Rus, the historic land in which the common ancestors of the region’s Slavic-speaking peoples were first introduced to Christianity and baptised. In the eyes of Moscow, without Ukraine, there can be no Russian Orthodox Church.


Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill on Unity Day / Orthodox
Photo: The President of Russia Press and Information Office

On October 11, the Constantinople Synod declared it was reinstating Patriarch Filaret of the UOC-KP and Metropolitan Makariy of the AUOC — both formerly clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate — to canonical status. In other words, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had resolved to recognise the heads of the two schismatic communities as legitimate hierarchs of the Church. The decision effectively reversed Moscow’s decision two decades prior, whereby the two men were defrocked as a result of their defection from the establishment church to the breakaway ones, which rejected the notion of a Russian-controlled Ukrainian church.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s response came on October 15. Its Holy Synod moved to sever all ties with Constantinople, meaning the two churches are no longer in communion with each other and their clergy prohibited from jointly celebrating the Eucharist. Moscow doubtlessly hopes the other self-governing Orthodox churches will follow suit, although at time of writing it would appear that only the Patriarchate of Serbia openly backs the Russian church. Of course, this does not suggest that Constantinople enjoys the support of the remaining eleven autocephalous, or self-ruling, churches.

It is likely that these churches, including the all-important Patriarchates of Alexandria as well as Jerusalem and the churches of Greece and Romania, will announce their official position in the coming weeks, as the final granting of autocephalous status to the Ukrainians draws near. Meanwhile, Patriarch Filaret is reportedly leading efforts to convene a unification council in Ukraine in anticipation of the patriarchal decree being issued from Istanbul, with participation open to all Ukrainian Orthodox bishops — including those of the UOC-MP — wishing to join the new national church and have a say in electing its leader.

The Poroshenko and Putin administrations have closely been following developments. Poroshenko has made obtaining recognition for an independent national church one of his top priorities, hoping the unification of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians will boost his image among voters in the lead up to the next presidential election scheduled for March 2019.

As for the Kremlin, the day after Constantinople made its decision, Vladimir Putin assembled his security council in order to discuss possible consequences for Russia. Indeed, Ukrainians achieving ecclesiastical independence from their former Soviet master will deliver a severe blow to the Russian president, who, after losing his political influence in Kyiv in 2014, will now likely see his staunch ally, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, lose his religious influence in Ukraine.


Mount Athos / Orthodox

Provided the Ukrainian bishops successfully convene the unification council and elect their new head (who could be Filaret), the patriarchal decree confirming their self-governing status will in all likelihood be issued next month. At the same time, Moscow’s move to end all association with Constantinople could soon rupture Orthodox unity by creating a new schism, but this will depend on whether the other autocephalous churches decide to side with the Russian church — the largest (and richest) in the Orthodox world — or with the Constantinople church, which enjoys a primacy of honour.

Other than the Serbian church, Moscow can probably count on the Slavic-speaking churches of Poland and Czech Lands as well as the Arabic-speaking Patriarchate of Antioch, which is based in Damascus and enjoys strong ties with the Russian church thanks to the Putin-Assad alliance. Regardless, the loss of Ukraine will undoubtedly quash Patriarch Kirill’s ambitions of making his church the centre of global Orthodoxy and put an end to President Putin’s claims of being the protector of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko has made it clear that anyone wishing to switch from the UOC-MP to the new church will have his government’s protection, though whether violence actually breaks out in Ukraine — especially if the establishment of the new church sees the UOC-MP forced to cede control of some of the country’s historic monasteries and national shrines — remains to be seen.

One last, political, element of the Ukrainian issue is the impact of the cessation of ties with the Greece-backed Constantinople church will have on the Kremlin’s already strained relations with Athens. In July, Greece expelled several Russian diplomats over claims they had been meddling in the country’s internal affairs and undermining efforts in both Athens and Skopje to advance the NATO-supported Macedonia name deal.

Greece is home to the Mount Athos peninsula, whose twenty historic monasteries (including a Russian one) are under the jurisdiction of Constantinople and considered the continuation of the Byzantine Empire. Although the Moscow Patriarchate has now banned its members from visiting Athos, Russian believers may not obey this directive. Yet, given Greek authorities did not issue the relevant visa to the metropolitan of Saint Petersburg last month, the recent rupture of ties may now mean ordinary pilgrims will have a hard time in acquiring one for themselves, should they wish to visit.

With much of the religious dispute still to play out, Orthodoxy’s quarter of a billion adherents can expect to find themselves increasingly drawn into the crossfire.


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