Kyiv Quells Russian Orthodox Church’s Influence Within Ukraine (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 15

Metropolitan Hilarion (Shukalo) (Source: Catholic News Agency)

While some analysis has covered Ukrainian church life, a Western layman might think that religious persecutions are actively taking place in Ukraine. Moreover, such rhetoric can be heard from Western sources and other media with anti-Ukrainian undertones (YouTube, December 22, 2022). In retrospect, the current actions of the Ukrainian authorities, in which people who were simultaneously in the occupied territories and had influence in both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and their local parishes have been deprived of citizenship, are belated. These measures are merely an element of solving the problem of Russian agents (Nv.ua, January 7).

The Donetsk and Mariupol dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and the worldview of their ministers provide answers to the question of where the “Russian Spring” came from in the minds of the “defenders of Donbas.” And religious mythology is an integral part of the propaganda regarding “the unconquered land of mighty miners whom no one put on their knees.”

Until the full-scale war, the Donetsk diocese had, within the territory controlled by Ukraine, included: Volnovakha, Mariupol, Vuhledar, Manhush, Svyatogorsk, Mariinka and Avdeevka. And within the territory occupied by the so-called Donetsk “people’s republic” (“DPR”), the diocese encompassed Donetsk, Makiivka, Yasinovataya, Amvrosiivka, Starobesheve, Snezhnoye and Khartsyzk. The head of the Donetsk diocese is Metropolitan Hilarion (Shukalo). Conflicting rumors abound about the true nature of his participation in the Donetsk separatism. Some militants complained (Vgorode.ua, September 30, 2014) that the metropolitan had in fact denied them food and does not allow his priests in the occupied territories to support the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) (Novorossia.org, September 2, 2014)

Even so, in practice, almost the entire clergy of the diocese supports the “DPR” in its “fight against Ukrainian fascism.” This could reveal that, canonically, the priests of the diocese are no longer strictly subordinate to their ruling bishop and are, instead, following the orders of the Moscow church’s leadership. Yet, neither Metropolitan Hilarion of Donetsk nor Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv will be able to justify themselves in the future due to the seemingly tacit re-subordination of their clergy to the ROC, as they themselves insisted that the statute of the ROC include the phrase “the leading center of the UOC[-MP] is located in Kyiv” (Kyiv Post, December 12).

On July 5, 2014, Donetsk fell under the de facto control of the “DPR” after the entry of Igor Girkin’s militants into the city, who had just retreated from Slavyansk. From that moment on, the clergy of the Donetsk diocese were more than happy to serve the separatists.

On July 19, 2014, in the Donetsk Church of the Holy Great Martyr Barbara, banners were sanctified “with the image of the Savior Not Made by Hands for the army of New Russia” (Religion.in.ua, July 23, 2014). Furthermore, few in the Donetsk diocese shunned humanitarian aid from Russia. Bishop Varsonofy of Novoazovsk, rector of the Church of St. Agapit of Pechersk in Donetsk, who led such efforts, did not hide his support for the separatists (Oleg-tsarev.livejournal.com, September 29, 2014). At one time, Girkin himself, as a leader of the “Novorossiya project,” applauded Varsonofy directly as the contact for collecting humanitarian aid from Russian extremist organizations (Od.novorossia.livejournal.com, February 25, 2015). In Amvrosiivka, the armed forces of the “DPR,” together with the “Not a Step Back” aid fund and the Yaroslavl Association of the Heroes of Russia, as part of the humanitarian program, brought bells to the local church of St. Ambrose of Milan (led by Yevgeny Podgorny).

A few years ago, in the UOC-MP, Cossack paramilitary units were hastily created in every diocese and in almost every church (see EDM, April 16, 2020). Allegedly, these units are created on a centralized basis from the Kyiv Metropolis, the legal leading center of the UOC-MP. And the alleged official goal of these forces is to protect the temples of the canonical church from seizure by the unbridled “right-wingers” and schismatics.

In the Zaporizhzhia diocese of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Luka (Kovalenko) has been primarily responsible for this issue since March 2013. On April 28, 2021, on the Telegram channel of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and in kindling the fighting in Donbas, called Catholicism a religion of hatred and bloodshed (Religionpravda.com.ua, April 28, 2021). And on March 15, 2022, he declared on his Telegram channel that Ukrainians deserved the Russian bombings because they tolerate gay parades in Kyiv, and therefore, Ukrainians are against God (T.me/Lekarzp, March 15, 2022).

Earlier, in 2017, Metropolitan Luka had visited Serbia with a group of pilgrims. According to an investigation conducted by Radio Svoboda, “the embassy village Svetosavskaya (Novi Sad)” was organized in Serbia in 2011 “by order of the ataman of the military Cossack society ‘Central Cossack Host,’ Valery Nalimov” (Svoboda, October 4, 2016). Indeed, representatives from the Central Cossack Host had visited Donbas in 2016, most likely to join the fighting there (Stopterror.in.ua, December 12, 2016). In this region, plenty of Cossack organizations were already members of the union “Cossacks of Zaporizhzhia.”

Furthermore, the Novoross.info website was quite complimentary regarding the appointment of Metropolitan Luka to the post of chairman of the Synodal Department for the Guardianship of the Cossacks, also mentioning the cooperation of the hierarch with the Union of Cossacks of Ukraine’s “Zaporizhzhia Host” (Novoross.info, March 15, 2013). This organization is strongly pro-Russian and is almost fully integrated into the overall structure of the Russian Cossacks(Novoross.info, January 27, 2013). The former chieftain of this organization, Alexander Panchenko, in 2009, together with Metropolitan Luka’s predecessor, as part of a Ukrainian delegation, attended the elections of the Patriarch of Moscow in Russia (Obozrevatel, January 19, 2009). And in January 2014, Panchenko led the breakup of the local Euromaidan protests in Zaporizhzhia, for which he was later planted in a trash can by pro-Ukrainian activists (Fakty.ua,September 29, 2014).

Thus, due to these convoluted ties, the authorities in Kyiv have continued to take seemingly discriminatory measures against the ROC. However, ultimately, these actions are necessary to quell the ROC’s hold on parts of Ukraine.