As Ukraine’s primary religious institution, the Church serves as an umbrella network across its national territory. Although some members do not sympathize with Russia’s policies, they do not want to leave this faith-based organisation either.
President Zelenskyy recently unveiled plans to draft legislation protecting the Church from Moscow interference and name and shame those church leaders who support foreign invaders.
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What happened with the ukrainian orthodox church?
The United Orthodox Church (UOC) has long been an uneasy marriage of factions, but with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes an intensification of tension over who controls it. This conflict between groups over whom to control the church has only increased with each passing day.
Church leaders and parishioners prior to the invasion could conduct most of their normal church duties with some restrictions; churches were sometimes raided by Ukrainian security services (SBU) looking for evidence of collusion with enemy, including photos of children’s bibles or old prayer books with references to Russia or references made about Russia in newspapers or magazines; sermons preached by bishops who may have supported Putin; etc.
These searches were often violent, with priests and other church members being assaulted or even killed during searches. Due to these violent searches, religious education programs in many schools had to be cancelled while clergy have not been able to access certain regions in Ukraine.
The Catholic church has also been forced to abandon many of its buildings, which have become warehouses, theaters, or even museums promoting antireligious propaganda. Furthermore, its cemeteries have become infested with graffiti while many parishes have closed.
Some church members are already boycotting Patriarch Kirill from public prayers as a result of his support of Russia’s invasion. Yet many others hesitate to break ties with the ROC and join with OCU due to fear that doing so would label them as schismatics by other Orthodox jurisdictions.
At such an uncertain time for the church, decisions must be made quickly in order to maintain survival. Of key importance will be whether to pursue autocephaly from other Orthodox churches so as to gain full independence; however, this process will require meeting three criteria first: formal request; consent of church from which autonomy sought and approval of majority of other Orthodox churches – this process may take some time and will need the church’s full participation for approval by majority. While work on fulfilling requirements has begun already; completion may still take some time.
The Russian invasion
Russia has for decades used its Orthodox church to promote an anti-Ukrainian version of Russia and to influence Ukrainian beliefs and practices as well as political identity and security issues. Additionally, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were given support through this means while its clergy served as an avenue for Russian views on their war efforts.
But the church’s separation from Moscow has had ripple effects far beyond Ukraine, including those living in the US where one in 200 are Orthodox. As a result of its split, all other Orthodox churches must choose sides and risk offending millions of followers of faith worldwide.
Conflict between the UOC and ROC has become a proxy fight over Ukraine’s future. While UOC is seen as more independent and less influenced by Russia, ROC appears more supportive of Vladimir Putin’s vision of an expanded Russia.
Since the Maidan Revolution in 2014, relations between UOC and Moscow-led Church have worsened rapidly. Most recently, Metropolitan Onufriy, head of UOC broke away and declared its “autocephaly”, or complete independence, angering many priests who felt forced to break with 300 year-old tradition.
On paper, this division might seem obvious; after all, Russia had supported separatists during their civil war while UOC condemned its military intervention and denied Russian claims on territorial territories. Yet things are more complex.
UOC leaders saw this decision as a way of signaling independence from Moscow and winning back support among Ukrainians – and it appears to have worked: according to a recent opinion poll, 52 per cent of Ukrainians now back the church.
But this may only be temporary: A constitutional court upheld legislation which could require the church to remove “Russian Orthodox Church” from its name if it wants Ukrainian recognition; failing this, its name could legally change to reflect this reality and effectively become part of the ROC.
The church’s response
Church leaders have denounced Russia’s invasion and declared themselves loyal to Ukraine. However, Ukrainian security agencies allege that it maintains close ties to Moscow – raiding holy sites of churches associated with these allegations and posting images showing rubles, passports and leaflets from Moscow patriarch as proof.
Not sure if these tactics will work, but the church is certainly under fire. The government has proposed legislation that would force UOC to include words such as “Russian Orthodox Church” and “Moscow Patriarchate” into its name – something it refuses to do despite having significant financial ramifications for both entities involved. As a result, property seizures may also occur as the government threatens seizing church property altogether.
This has left the church in political disarray, as its leadership failed to convey a clear message of independence from Russia to Ukrainian society and priests within the church itself. Additionally, many priests fear condemning Russian counterparts who collaborate with authorities for fear it might harm professional relationships; further increasing tensions within its ranks – with no indication as to how long its unity will endure.
This conflict has had ripple effects beyond Ukraine and affected other Orthodox communities around the world. One of the most serious cases can be seen in Latvia, where President Egils Levits proposed legislation that would grant its Orthodox church autocephaly–complete independence from its mother church–in order to break off ties with Moscow. Church insiders have expressed strong reservations against this move, saying canon law does not permit such power for the head of state. While the church has promised to fight the bill, its chances seem slim that victory can be achieved. Russian aggression has likely hastened an already impending split due to religious and political differences; though not inevitable, such division is certainly dangerous for Orthodoxy in Ukraine’s future. Image credit: Vladimir Karpatyuk from Flickr
The church’s future
The UOC is struggling to keep its followers amid Russian invasion and internal turmoil. Its relationship with Moscow has become an issue among Ukrainians; critics accuse it of supporting Vladimir Putin’s policies and downplaying Ukraine’s role in World War II, while supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Yet despite all these political troubles, this church still enjoys millions of followers; making it one of the country’s most beloved religions.
Church officials in Cyprus have made efforts to distance themselves from Moscow and become completely independent, recently receiving an autocephaly decree from Constantinople – considered one of the top Orthodox authorities – and publicly declaring their disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s position regarding Russia’s invasion.
Moscow and its supporters have taken great offense at Kyiv’s move, believing it undermines church independence while acting as an instrument of Russia’s subversive hybrid warfare strategy. Additionally, Moscow has used church involvement as a justification for military moves into Ukraine’s Donbass region since 2014.
As part of their response to this ongoing controversy, Ukrainian government authorities have tightened their grip on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). A constitutional court upheld a law which could force UOC members to remove references to Moscow or their leader from church names and buildings; UOC believes this violates their rights and has asked for international review of this case.
UOC leaders have recently come under increased scrutiny by security services who accuse some of them of working closely with Russia and have raided many offices where this church operates; UOC denies all accusations.
As the Church faces an existential crisis, its followers and western countries have rallied around. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to enact laws that safeguard its independence while making it impossible for churches linked with “centers of influence” in Russia to operate within its borders; furthermore he has encouraged naming and shaming prominent church figures who support Moscow.