There has been a longstanding tension between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and Russia’s Russian Orthodox Church. This issue is of both national and spiritual significance to both countries.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some members of the UOC have voiced their distaste for its relationship with Moscow. In some cases, parishes have left the UOC and joined the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
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Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an integral part of Ukraine’s national identity and plays a prominent role in both political and religious affairs. It has split into two factions, one loyal to Kyiv patriarch and another more similar to Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow.
The division was precipitated in 2014 when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine. This forced people in Ukraine to publicly cut cultural ties with Russia and reinforce their sense of nationalism.
The Orthodox church split has caused political and religious frictions between Moscow and Kiev, but this does not necessarily indicate a greater loyalty to Russia. According to an NPR poll, more than half of Ukraine’s Orthodox population feels closer to independent churches rather than those aligned with Moscow.
Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church, with 150 million followers – half of all Orthodox Christians worldwide – is a powerful force in Moscow and an ally of President Putin. However, some members in New York are distressed by its support for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and took control of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been engaged in an epic struggle for independence from their mother church. This struggle has been ongoing for centuries – beginning with 18th century expulsions of Christian Ukrainians from Crimea by the Russian Empire.
After Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, Kyiv’s Patriarch Filaret requested autocephaly (formal independence from Russia) for his church but was denied. In response, he founded the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UOC-MP) and petitioned parishes to leave the Russian church.
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church is an international body of churches, each led by its own bishop. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has one head, Orthodoxy consists of multiple “autocephalous” (self-governing) congregations.
In 2018, the UOC was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, meaning it gained independence from another country’s patriarch. Traditionally, these ecumenical patriarchs have granted full autonomy to churches that meet three criteria for independence: official requests from those seeking it, consent from their parent church and unanimous approval among other Orthodox congregations.
Throughout the conflict in Ukraine, the UOC offered support to the Ukrainian army by organizing humanitarian corridors into besieged areas and providing money and food for soldiers. But since October, Ukrainian government authorities have searched UOC churches and monasteries, alleging some of its clergy of colluding with Russian occupying forces.
Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
In the Orthodox Church, schism occurs when a church refuses to follow Universal Orthodoxy or is not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. These uncanonical structures have managed to remain valid through illegality, violating Rule 5 of the Second Ecumenical Council (one bishop cannot receive another).
In early 2018, the Ukrainian government requested that the Ecumenical Patriarchate restore autocephaly for the Ukraine Orthodox Church as a means of reconciling Moscow and Kiev’s divisions. Bartholomew I granted autocephaly to this newly united Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The UOC has maintained that becoming fully autocephalous would mean the Moscow Patriarchate lost jurisdiction in Ukraine. However, their hierarchy is divided on how best to accomplish this objective and they have also resisted Russian government calls to terminate communion with ROC.