The War and the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 30

St.Michael's Golden Dome Monastery in Kiev (Source:

On January 28, a village parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate) in Ternopil province published a letter to the Ukrainian Church’s primate, Metropolitan Onufriy. In the letter, the priests and lay activists strongly criticized recent controversial statements made by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow. The authors of the letter added that Onufriy’s inaction was adding to the split in Ukrainian Orthodoxy (, January 28).

This conflict is one example of the ambiguous situation in which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church finds itself, especially following Russia’s aggression and war against Ukraine last year. The Ukrainian Church’s affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate has caused ever more people to negatively associate the former with the Kremlin’s policy. In contrast, Patriarch Filaret, the leader of Kyiv Patriarchate Church, which is not formally recognized as a “canonical” Orthodox Church internationally, acts particularly pro-actively in support of the Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv. On February 3, Patriarch Filaret campaigned for United States security assistance for Ukraine during his visit to Washington, DC (, February 4). At the same time, Patriarch Filaret denies any accusations of him being engaged in politics, justifying his Church’s activism as supporting the Ukrainian nation (, October 22, 2014).

Yet, political considerations may explain the growing numbers of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians moving to the Kyiv Patriarchate and away from the Moscow-linked Church. According to a May 2014 opinion poll by Razumkov Center, 70 percent Ukrainians considered themselves Orthodox faithful. But among those, the share belonging to the Kyiv Patriarchate Church increased from 26 percent to 32 percent year-on-year. Whereas, the share of the Moscow Patriarchate–affiliated slightly decreased from 28 to 25 percent (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, May 15, 2014).

The complexity of the situation has since prompted 30 parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to transfer their allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarchate; although a Moscow Patriarchate representative stated the number was actually only ten. Furthermore, several clerics of churches in Rivne, western Ukraine signed a declaration calling for the creation of a single Orthodox church in the province—a move promoted by the Kyiv Patriarchate. Later, they withdrew their signatures (, January 15).

Meanwhile, Patriarch Filaret has openly declared that priests serving at Moscow Patriarchate churches are supporting the separatists and Russia in the occupied Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, while other confessions have been virtually banned from these territories (, October 12, 2014). Likewise, Filaret’s Church as well as other denominations, unlike Orthodox parishes connected with the Moscow Patriarchate, have been encountering numerous problems in Crimea since the peninsula was annexed by the Russian Federation (RISU, September 24, 2014).

A series of public remarks by Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill over the past year have been worrying for both the Ukrainian state and nation. For example, last Christmas, he predicted a split within Ukraine and even referred to the Gospel passage in Mark 3:24, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Furthermore, Kirill publicly questioned the Ukrainian government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), characterizing it as the use of force by political groups (TASS, January 7).

In line with the official Kremlin view, Patriarch Kirill considers the war in Ukraine’s east to be an internal conflict—“fratricidal and internecine.” He promotes the united people of Rus—a spiritual entity that is broader than ethnic or state concepts in Europe’s East (, June 17, 2014). In another instance, Kirill has even called eastern Ukraine the “historical Rus’s southern borders” (, August 25, 2014). These views echo Vladimir Putin’s numerous statements that the Russians and Ukrainians were a single people and that Moscow has historical claims on “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”—the territory of modern-day southeastern Ukraine) (see EDM, July 2, 2014).

Thus, consistent with the Kremlin’s narrative of the West’s geopolitical rivalry with Russia, Patriarch Kirill repeatedly blames the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church and the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate for seeking to harm “canonical Orthodoxy.” Archbishop Yevstratiy, the spokesperson of Kyiv Patriarchate, has speculated that this charge, illustratively published by Kirill in an August 14 letter, was encouraged by a hawkish faction within Patriarch Kirill’s circle. While a more moderate group surrounding Kirill presumably encouraged that the letter be deleted from the Moscow Patriarchate’s official website out of fears of the backlash such publicly voiced sentiments would inspire in Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 20, 2014).

Furthermore, Kirill seeks to underscore the Russian Orthodox Church’s role in the Soviet Great Patriotic War victory over Nazi Germany. This emphasis helps to accentuate the Russian government’s present-day interpretation of the post-Maidan Ukrainian elite as having fallen prey to fascism (, January 22).

But it is not true that the authorities of the Moscow Patriarchate–linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church have simply been unwaveringly repeating Russian dogma. On the contrary, some of the public messages from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been pro-Ukrainian. In a March 1, 2014, interview, Church spokesperson Archipriest Heorhiy Kovalenko used the term “aggression” and condemned Russia’s military intervention in Crimea (Hromadske TV via YouTube, March 1, 2014). On another occasion, Kovalenko rejected his Church’s affiliation with Moscow and called the Moscow Patriarchate “the Church of the Soviet Union” (, October 26, 2014). Father Kovalenko is no longer the Church’s spokesperson as of September 2014, but he continues to head the Educational Department.

Additionally, a high-ranking member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Metropolitan Antoniy of Boryspil and Brovary, said in a recent interview that his Church conducts religious services for the Ukrainian military and hospital patients. He also asserted that the Church supplies the Ukrainian military with life supporting and saving equipment, such as warm clothing, medicine or body armor (, January 10). However, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church prays for peace at its liturgies, but not for the Ukrainian government or military, as was a common custom before the conflict.

The controversies around the Ukrainian Orthodox Church allow competing political factions to use the opportunity to raise their own profile. Most recently, the Kyiv City Council deprived the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church of its tax-free status in the capital (Interfax-Ukraine, January 28). However, Mayor Vitaliy Klichko vetoed this decision (, January 29).

These religious issues could, at some point, present the opportunity to politically undermine Ukraine’s social cohesion. But they are even more hurtful to Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which is the second largest Orthodox Church in the world by the number of worshippers. As religious expert Olexandr Sagan notes, “Orthodox institutions in Ukraine (and worldwide) have entered into a stage of depression/stagnation, resulting in the transformation of Orthodoxy into the largest donor to other faiths, including non-Christian faiths” (RISU, January 25).