Representatives of the Christian Orthodox hierarchies of Kyiv, Moscow and Constantinople (Istanbul) are expected to meet in Switzerland in late August to discuss the possible unification of Orthodox churches in Ukraine. This issue will also be examined by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is scheduled for August 18-20 in Moscow. After independence, believers of the Orthodox church–a religion dominant in Ukraine–have been torn among three rival factions: the Autocephalous Church, which returned from exile in the United States; the Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, headed by Patriarch Filaret, who broke with the patriarch in Moscow in 1992; and the Ukrainian Church of Moscow Patriarchate, subordinated to Moscow Patriarch Aleksy II. Neither of the three object to re-unification. But the goal looks as distant now as it was in 1993, when a union between the Autocephalous Church and Kyiv Patriarchate collapsed, or in 1997, when Aleksy II excommunicated Filaret.
Each of the three churches wants a re-unification on its own terms. Filaret, whose church has been backed by the government, wants a re-unification synod of the three churches to elect him a single patriarch. The smallest of the three, the Autocephalous Church, is not against such a synod, but is wary of Filaret’s ambitions. The largest of the three, the Ukrainian Church of Moscow Patriarchate, headed by Metropolitan Volodymyr, is the most reluctant to re-unify.
At its bishop synod on July 28, this church ruled out any negotiations on re-unification if Filaret takes part. It also spoke against autocephaly (independence of a united Ukrainian church from Moscow), and turned to Aleksy II to grant it autonomous status. This would only mean preservation of the status quo, as Volodymyr already enjoys autonomy de facto. At the same time, a formal autonomy would preclude the Ukrainian church from getting independent status, at least in the near future. At a news conference on July 31, Volodymyr’s archbishops explained that they are not against re-unification, but that this process should be slow and cautious, so as not to embarrass believers. At the same time, they made it clear that independent status of a unified church, at which both Kyiv Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church are aiming, is out of the question for them. The archbishops argued that many of parishes in the Russian-dominated South and East of Ukraine would break with Volodymyr and join directly the church of Aleksy II, should Ukrainian Church of Moscow Patriarchate strive for independence. Filaret is apparently aware of this danger, but argues that most parishes across Ukraine would eventually support re-unification. Volodymyr’s flat refusal to negotiate with Filaret precludes the churches from re-unifying.
Re-unification is unrealistic not only due to the personal ambitions of the metropolitans and patriarchs involved. Language is also at issue, as services in the parishes under Metropolitan Volodymyr are held in Russian, while two other churches use the state language, Ukrainian. Unification of the Ukrainian Orthodox church would also be a serious defeat for Russian Orthodox church, which will be edged out of Ukraine if it loses the Ukrainian church of Moscow Patriarchate. Russia is wary of losing the cultural and political influence it currently has over a large part of Orthodox believers in Ukraine. One foreign party does reportedly back Filaret’s unification plan: ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Constantinople. He, long envious of the Moscow Patriarchy’s clout, would have no objection to the Ukrainian Orthodoxy’s final separation from Moscow. On July 28, the Ukrainian church of Moscow Patriarchate explicitly warned Bartholomew from interfering into the Ukrainian affairs.
As for political Kyiv, former President Leonid Kravchuk openly favored Filaret, believing that an independent church would make Ukraine’s state sovereignty all the more distinct. His successor, Leonid Kuchma, has spoken for unification on several occasions, but has steered clear of the dispute. At the same time, Mykola Zhulynsky–the nationalist deputy premier for humanitarian issues–supports re-unification and wants it achieved as quickly as possible. Zhulynsky has been Filaret’s ally ever since his tenure as deputy premier under President Kravchuk in early 1990s. Zhulynsky turned directly to Bartholomew for assistance in unification of the church, provoking the anger of Metropolitan Volodymyr (STB TV, July 25; UNIAN, July 31, August 3; Ukrainska pravda web edition, July 31; Segodnya, August 1; Den, August 2).
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