On July 27–28, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians will celebrate the 1,030th anniversary since the medieval Eastern European state of Kievan Rus was baptized by Volodymir the Great in the tenth century. Two different confessions of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—one belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate and the other to the Kyiv Patriarchate—will conduct separate rallies in downtown Kyiv this upcoming weekend (Zn.ua, June 16).
Last week, Patriarch Filaret, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), stressed that he expected his Church to finally receive autocephaly from Constantinople this year, which would make the UOC-KP fully independent from Moscow’s patronage (Lb.ua, June 21). In Eastern Orthodoxy, autocephaly indicates that the particular Church’s head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking authority. Earlier this summer, President Petro Poroshenko called on fellow Ukrainians to “pray and fight” to obtain autocephaly from Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In Poroshenko’s view, such step is a “matter of national security for Ukraine” (Glavnovosti, July 17).
If the UOC-KP is granted full autocephaly, this would significantly shrink the number of churches and parishioners in Ukraine adhering to the competing Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). Though administratively a self-governing autonomous body, the UOC-MP is nonetheless a constituent part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The Moscow Patriarchate is the largest among the other Eastern Orthodox Churches based on the number of adherents. However, the ROC maintains this numerically dominant position thanks to the fact that, presently, almost half of its parishioners live in Ukraine (Politeka.ua, May 4).
Moreover, if the Kyiv Church obtains canonical status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the ROC in Ukraine could stand to lose substantial property, which would be transferred to the newly recognized Ukrainian Church. That said, such parish transfers would not be done forcefully, since such a step would break a deal signed in 1686 that originally separated the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Constantinople and incorporated it into the Russian Patriarchate (Gordon.ua, June 16).
According to a May 2016 Razumkov Center poll, 23 percent of self-identified Ukrainian Orthodox Christians (two-thirds of the overall population) belonged to ROC-affiliated churches. Meanwhile, the estimated number of Orthodox parishioners who associate themselves with the UOC-KP was significantly higher—38 percent of those polled. The shift in believers from the Moscow to the Kyiv Church continues to grow, and it predates Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula as well as the ongoing Kremlin-backed war in Donbas. The overall proportion of Ukrainian adherents to the UOC-MP has today fallen to 15 percent, from 24 percent of the total Ukrainian population back in 2010. And between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of Ukrainian members of the UOC-KP has doubled, from 12 to 25 percent (Zn.ua, May 27, 2016). Last year, 37 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by the survey group “Rating” supported autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church, while 18 percent disagreed with such an initiative (Delo.ua, July 26, 2017).
The confrontation between the Moscow and Kyiv patriarchates has provoked tensions in some regions where communities want to belong to one or another confession. And in a number of cases, Ukrainian priests of the Moscow Patriarchate have openly supported the Russian invasion in Donbas and the Kremlin’s policies toward Ukraine, thus putting even greater pressure on Russian Orthodoxy inside Ukraine (Lb.ua, July 17).
Besides the more obvious religious implications, there would also be tangible political consequences if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church receives its independence from Moscow. First of all, autocephaly would likely be presented as a major achievement for President Poroshenko, whose popularity ratings have been declining. According to a KIIS survey conducted in March, his support was estimated at only 9.8 percent (Kiis.com.ua, March 19; Transatlanticrelations.org, April 16). Given the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for March 2019, the Poroshenko administration desperately needs a quick victory with which to unite Ukrainians around the sitting head of state. Poroshenko’s other major achievement, visa liberalization with the European Union, was signed last year. Hence, the president and his cabinet have been actively fostering the process of autocephaly for the UOC-KP and regularly raise this issue in the media and with international partners.
The Kremlin, however, is not standing aside and can be expected to do everything possible to preclude the Ecumenical Patriarch’s recognition of the UOC-KP. Russians will discredit any idea of the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly by using the millions of local parishioners who belong to the Russian Church. The leader of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill, has forcefully spoken against autocephaly, which, he warned, would generate conflict among Ukrainian Orthodox Christians (Religion.in.ua, November 21, 2016). And in late May, the Synod (Supreme Council) of the UOC-MP criticized the notion of Constantinople granting autocephaly to the Kyiv Patriarchate, calling it a “threat to the security of the state” (Lb.ua, May 25).
In the Soviet Union, where religion was largely banned, the Communist regime regularly exploited the churches still allowed to remain in order to spread disinformation and collect information on their members through loyal priests, many of whom were KGB agents. And during its invasion of Ukraine, Russia broadly exploited religious issues as a pretext for aggression: such as to protect “traditional values” against the expansion of Western liberalism, homosexuality and “non-believers” (Risu.org.ua, March 4, 2015; BBC News, December 18, 2014).
For many Russian mercenaries and local separatists who took up arms against the Ukrainian military, the conflict in the southeast has become a “holy war” against Kyiv and its “Western patrons.” Indeed, a number of pro-Russia volunteer battalions were created on a religious basis. One of them, calling itself the “Russian Orthodox Army,” was founded by Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), a retired colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Strelkov had organized the initial separatist resistance in Donbas in April 2014 (NewsBigmir, May 19, 2014).
The Kremlin can be expected to continue using the Russian Church to destabilize the situation inside of Ukraine. At the same time, tangible movement toward autocephaly of the national Orthodox Church may in itself increasingly polarize Ukrainian society, especially against the background of looming elections next year—an internal confrontation that the Kremlin would be all too happy to support and escalate. Thus, in his call to “pray and fight” for the Ukrainian Church, Poroshenko neglected to mention a key point. It will simultaneously be important for the government and society to vigilantly work to prevent the outbreak of religiously based conflict in Ukraine, which would destabilize the situation and play right into the Kremlin’s hands.