How Does the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Differ From the Russian Orthodox Church?

Orthodox Christianity is an integral component of national identity in both Ukraine and Russia, and an influential political force; church leaders often wield great influence over public policy decisions.

Due to government policies and military conflicts becoming more restrictive on religious autonomy, some major constituents within the Russian Orthodox Church such as Ecumenical Patriarchate and Moscow Patriarchate are currently fighting for their independence.

1. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a part of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) used to be part of Russian orthodox church until after the collapse of Soviet Union; since then it has enjoyed full ecclesiastical independence. In 2019, Vartholomaios, head of all orthodox churches worldwide recognized UOC’s independence with what’s called autocephaly (Greek for “self-governance”).

This separation reflects wider political tensions between Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region and Ukraine’s resistance. Majorities of Orthodox Christians from countries like Serbia and Georgia believe Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox churches outside its borders, while few Ukrainians share these sentiments.

Many Ukrainians feel their national identity is closely connected with religion. More than half of Ukrainians consider being Orthodox Christian important in order to be truly Ukrainian.

As Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine escalated, however, many began to question if their allegiance to Moscow-affiliated churches was still appropriate. It became apparent that these organizations were being utilized by the Kremlin to advance its own narrative and sell ideas directly to people.

As part of an effort to soothe public outrage, parish priests began an aggressive movement of refusing to honour the Moscow patriarch during church services, leading to widespread defections from Moscow-affiliated churches to the newly independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

After its split in 2018, Ukrainian and international Orthodox leaders officially recognized a newly independent Orthodox church with thousands of parishes around Ukraine. Most Ukrainian churches now adhere to this new institution while some retain ties to Russia’s traditional church.

In contrast with previous decades, when Ukrainians felt their allegiance to Russia was demonstrated through their attendance at a Russian church service, this recent trend signals more and more Ukrainians are opting for alternatives which do not align with Russian interests and values.

2. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Many Orthodox Christians in Ukraine belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, one of three major Orthodox denominations found here. These three include UOC MP and UAOC.

Recently, some Ukrainian nationalists have accused the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of acting as part of Russia’s “fifth column.” As a result, Ukrainian authorities have taken an aggressive stance towards this church led from Moscow.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is an autonomous body, meaning that its administration and finances remain distinct from those of Moscow Patriarchate. This has allowed it to maintain independent finances and healthy relations with authorities throughout Ukraine.

However, it remains subject to the authority of Moscow Patriarchate. This makes the UOC vulnerable to political intervention from Russia as well as influence.

However, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church can take some steps to avert this scenario. First of all, it should refrain from copying Russia’s state-church symbiosis model; although this won’t be easy or straightforward. If the church wishes to remain independent of any outside influence – including government use as leverage against them – this step must be taken.

At the same time, it should be able to communicate and take into account the views of other Orthodox churches in order to make its policies more acceptable to other Christians while remaining more accommodating towards anyone who might disagree with its policies.

This process may take time, but is necessary in order for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to break free from subservience and flourish. While its new church won’t likely have as much independence as Moscow Patriarchate has enjoyed over time, its presence will certainly become more noticeable to world.

Epiphanius I’s elevation as Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine marks a turning point in Ukrainian Orthodoxy history and religious affairs generally. Although not an autocephalous Orthodox church had emerged before war broke out in Ukraine, its significance can not be overstated as it signals further independence from subservience to Russia.

3. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a part of the ROC

Due to various reasons – such as Ukraine’s ongoing conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not fall within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Since 2014, tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been high, as both have attempted to work out their differences and reconcile. Due to this tension between them both, multiple different churches exist in Ukraine without communicating or sharing jurisdiction with each other.

One of these churches is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate (OCU KP). Although subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), OCU KP enjoys broad autonomy with more than 12,000 parishes and over 200 monasteries under its jurisdiction.

Since the outbreak of war, this church has been in a period of transition; recently they decided to vote against remaining within the ROC, although not fully autocephaly as yet. This step represents progress toward full autocephaly.

Although many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians support secession from the ROC, others remain uncertain of this course of action. Autocephaly could serve to affirm national identity while potentially sparking radical ideas.

Also, many in the UOC still maintain connections to the ROC and are concerned that breaking away could compromise their religious liberty – this issue becomes especially salient for Orthodox Christians living in countries where parallel jurisdictions already exist such as Estonia or Moldova.

Even though the UOC has made efforts to break ties with Patriarch Kirill and his organization, it will likely remain closely affiliated. Furthermore, evidence indicates that some bishops within UOC remain pro-Moscow; thus making it more challenging for any laws against UOC clergy members or officials from being implemented by government authorities.

4. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a part of the Moscow Patriarchate

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is officially recognised in Ukraine. Its jurisdiction rests with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; therefore it does not belong to Moscow Patriarchate; although Moscow Patriarchate has granted semi-autonomy for some bishops serving in Ukraine.

As of this writing, the UOC had been part of the Russian Orthodox Church until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. But following Russia’s incursion, it broke from this umbrella institution and established its own governance structures with its own primate and bishops.

As the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalates, however, UOC is increasingly being scrutinized for its pro-Russian views and involvement in the war. Clergy members from its parishes have provided assistance to pro-Russian separatist forces operating in Donbas.

While the UOC has promised to break with Moscow, many Ukrainians remain suspicious of its links with Russia.

At first, many Ukrainians saw the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) as part of the Russian Orthodox Church and used by Moscow to spread repressive ideology and exert religious control in Ukraine. With greater independence coming their way, however, this perception has changed and UOC has come out to fight back against such notions.

In May, the UOC leadership voted to break with Moscow Patriarchate and grant its priests in Russian-occupied areas more autonomy to make decisions independently from church leadership – however critics argue this only legitimised some priests helping pro-Russian separatist forces.

Some UOC priests have also helped spread propaganda supporting Russia’s invasion force – an effective means of disorientation and demoralisation for their followers. Furthermore, other priests provided cover for Russian intelligence agents looking to undermine Ukraine’s security from within.

The Ukrainian government has been highly critical of the UOC’s response to the conflict, yet has refrained from taking further actions against it as this would violate religious liberty guaranteed under its constitution, according to Eleni Prodromou, former senior official on the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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