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Since the onset of full-scale war, the Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate has faced challenges in Ukraine. Representatives of the Moscow-backed UOC MP are being evicted from the main Orthodox shrine, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, and in Western Ukraine, churches are frequently transferred to the jurisdiction of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. In light of the invasion, Vladimir Zelensky, who was previously indifferent to church issues, recognized its value as a tool for patriotic consolidation. Meanwhile, Moscow, which had actively wielded the church as a means of political influence in Ukraine, lost control over it.

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  • History of the schism

  • War and the Orthodox world

  • Power and the church

History of the schism

The split in Ukrainian Orthodoxy began almost simultaneously with the declaration of independence. Two Ukrainian Orthodox churches - the Moscow and Kyiv patriarchates (there was also the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which arose during the Ukrainian national revolution of 1917-1920 and endured in the diaspora) – contended for the designation of the “authentic” church.

Since 1990, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) has functioned as an independent branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, possessing canonical status in world Orthodoxy and overseeing the majority of Ukrainian parishes. The UOC MP also held authority over several primary shrines in Ukraine, including the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, the Holy Dormition Pochaiv Lavra in western Ukraine, and others. Not only did the UOC MP function as a mechanism of Moscow's soft power, but it also enjoyed support from Ukrainian authorities and businesses. For an extended period, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), a skilled and moderate church leader who balanced the episcopate's radically pro-Moscow wing, served as the head of the UOC MP. After his death in 2014, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky) assumed leadership of the UOC MP and continued to navigate the delicate relationship between Kyiv and Moscow.

The UOC MP also held authority over several primary shrines in Ukraine — the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavras

The UOC KP emerged in 1992, founded by a portion of the Ukrainian clergy who aimed to gain independence from the ROC and represented the primary competitor to the Moscow branch. According to the Russian Orthodox Church and UOC MP, the Kyiv Patriarchate's adherents were “schismatics” and “self-consecrating nationalists” striving to appropriate a segment of canonical Orthodoxy. The new church's initial leader was Volodymyr (Romaniuk), a former OUN-UPA activist, religious dissident, and Soviet prisoner. However, he was promptly succeeded by Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), a Donbass native who originated from a loyal Soviet clergy and possessed a manipulative and ambitious personality, seizing the opportunity to establish a national church.

Holy Dormition Pochaiv Lavra
Holy Dormition Pochaiv Lavra

The UOC MP had been acknowledged as the “true church” by the government and its followers for a prolonged period. However, with the deteriorating relations between Ukraine and Russia, the UOC MP's “dual loyalty” status no longer satisfied both the government and society. In 2018, President Petro Poroshenko became significantly involved and made the establishment of a Ukrainian local church a part of his election campaign. This resulted in Ukrainian Orthodoxy being granted autocephaly, a diploma issued by the Patriarch of Constantinople, which transferred the Ukrainian church's jurisdiction from Moscow to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In December 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was founded in Kyiv, amalgamating UOC KP, UAOC, and certain UOC-MP parishes.

Poroshenko made the establishment of a Ukrainian local church a part of his election campaign

In a further peaceful expansion of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, it was anticipated that the remaining parts of the former Moscow church would also be integrated. Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), a young clergyman who had no ties to the ROC and had been shaped in independent Ukraine, was appointed as the leader of the newly formed church. However, the unification process was sluggish, hindered by continued disagreements among church hierarchs and the church's generally conservative nature. Nevertheless, the situation shifted dramatically following the Russian invasion of 2022.

War and the Orthodox world

Even after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbass in 2014, the UOC MP found itself in a complex situation. While it condemned the violence and called for an end to hostilities, the actions of its leadership often aligned with Moscow's interests. One example was its refusal to withdraw its diocesan centers from the annexed and uncontrolled territories of Ukraine, citing concerns for the country's territorial integrity. However, this created a situation of cooperation between the church and the Russian occupation authorities and their proxies. For instance, Metropolitan Mitrofan of Luhansk and Alchevsk regularly attended events held by the “LNR” authorities. Additionally, the former head of the Luhansk diocese of the UOC MP, Ioannikii, who is close to the former governor of the region under Yanukovich Alexander Yefremov, blessed the “inauguration” of LNR leader Igor Plotnitsky, while the priest-blogger Alexander Avdyugin from Rovenky, Luhansk Region, actively supported Russian aggression.

Blogger priest Alexander Avdyugin actively supported Russian aggression

Despite his professed neutrality, the leader of the UOC MP, Onufriy, gave contradictory assessments of the situation. In 2015, he referred to the conflict in Donbass as a “civil war,” echoing Kremlin propaganda. Additionally, the church leadership accused the new Ukrainian authorities of aiding “dissenters” from the UOC KP, and there were rumors that the Father Superior of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, Pavel, had anathematized Kyiv mayor Vitaly Klitschko.

It is important to note that in the areas controlled by Russian proxies in the Donbass region, religious diversity that existed before the war was actively suppressed. UOC KP communities were dismantled, and their cathedral in Luhansk was taken over by Don Cossacks. Members of Protestant churches were targeted and persecuted. There were reports that a Protestant pastor and his sons were executed in Slavyansk by the “Russian Orthodox Army”, a part of the “DNR militia.” A local Buddhist community in the Luhansk region was also crushed.

There were reports that a Protestant pastor and his sons were executed in Slavyansk by the “Russian Orthodox Army”

After the full-scale Russian invasion, the situation became even more pressing. The UOC made every effort to distance itself from the aggressor country. Metropolitan Onufriy condemned the actions of Russia and its army, while Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church openly expressed support for Putin's “UOC”. The UOC took an active part in assisting the AFU and refugees and contributed to the creation of humanitarian corridors in Mariupol. Finally, in May 2022, the UOC Council made the decision to achieve full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate and expressed disagreement with the position of Patriarch Kirill.

However, the UOC MP's collaborationism during the invasion outweighed its patriotic initiatives. When the invasion began, the UOC MP's leadership in Crimea and Donbass openly sided with the Russian authorities. In June 2022, the UOC MP's Crimean dioceses became directly subordinate to Patriarch Kirill. Bishop Panteleimon (Povoroznyuk) of Luhansk and Alchevsk, Father Ioann (Prokopenko), Father Superior of the Saint Sava the Sanctified Monastery in Melitopol, and Father Alexei (Fyodorov), Father Superior of the UOC MP Holy Cathedral of the Dormition in Kherson, were present at the ceremony devoted to the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions on September 30, 2022. Father Alexei was seen sitting next to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Two metropolitans of the UOC MP in the temporarily occupied territories of Sumy and Kharkiv Regions welcomed the occupiers and left with them as they retreated. Additionally, there were extremely shocking incidents, such as the case of UOC MP priest Mikhail Pavlushenko from Zhytomyr region, who was detained near Gostomel for directing Russian artillery fire.

Priest Mikhail Pavlushenko was detained for directing Russian artillery fire

Most importantly, the church's leadership's hypocrisy has been the most damaging to the church's image. While it is unfair to hold the entire church responsible for the actions of individual representatives, the leadership failed to condemn collaborating priests. In contrast, during World War II, Metropolitan Sergius, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke out against clergymen who collaborated with the Nazis. When hierarchs escaped with occupying troops, they were simply removed from the church's governing bodies with no clear explanation being provided. The same was true for Metropolitan Lazar (Shvets) of Crimea, who had cooperated with the Russian authorities since 2014. He was only removed from the UOC Synod in 2022 after openly transitioning to subordination to the ROC, and the reason given was his “inability to participate in meetings.”

The Church of St. Archangel Michael in the village of Komyshuvakha in the Zaporizhzhia region, destroyed by Russian troops on Easter eve on the night of April 16, 2023
The Church of St. Archangel Michael in the village of Komyshuvakha in the Zaporizhzhia region, destroyed by Russian troops on Easter eve on the night of April 16, 2023

The church's declarations of neutrality in wartime have not prevented a situation in which both the authorities and society have become equally intolerant of the church. This is due to the fact that the UOC's leadership, despite its proclamations, maintains dual loyalty in these conditions. Moreover, the head of external church relations, Meletiy (Egorenko), and the head of UOC affairs, Antony (Pakanich), who are both informal leaders of the pro-Moscow party, still hold important positions in the UOC's leadership. Antony is also a member of the ROC's Inter-Council Presence, and both are under sanctions imposed by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC).

Power and the church

President Vladimir Zelenski was previously indifferent to church matters and aimed to maintain an equal distance from all religious groups. However, the ongoing war has led to a change in his perspective, and he now views the church as a significant tool for patriotic unification. Viktor Yelensky, a Kyiv-based religious scholar who supports a unified local church and autocephaly, was appointed as the new head of the State Service for Ethno-confessional Affairs and Freedom of Conscience, replacing Elena Bohdan, who was believed to be a supporter of the UOC.

Vladimir Zelensky was previously indifferent to church matters

The collaborationism of church officials prompted a strong response from the authorities. On December 1, 2022, the National Security and Defense Council imposed sanctions on 10 UOC MP figures, including oligarch Vadim Novinsky, who holds the rank of deacon since 2020, and Father Superior Pavel (Lebed) of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Another seven UOC MP representatives were sanctioned on December 11, and 23 criminal cases were opened against church officials for treason and incitement of religious hatred. The UOC MP, which controls the main Orthodox shrines in Ukraine, also faced an attack on its property. The Ministry of Culture initiated the return of the complex of religious buildings of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra and the Pochaiv Lavra in the Ternopil region to the state's control.

The struggle against the pro-Moscow faction of Orthodoxy is particularly intense in Western Ukraine. This is not a recent development: the battle for churches in the western regions has been ongoing since the early 1990s, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) emerged. During times of war, excesses involving the patriotic community, which is unwilling to tolerate the presence of the Moscow Patriarchate, are inevitable. For instance, in Khmelnytskyi, a conflict arose over a church after a clash between a veteran of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and a local priest from the UOC MP. Opponents of the Moscow Patriarchate blocked the cathedral, while the local authorities (represented by the nationalist party “Freedom”) supported the public's demand to transfer the church to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). In Chernivtsi, the local bishop of the UOC MP was assaulted.

The struggle against the pro-Moscow faction of Orthodoxy is particularly intense in Western Ukraine

In a democratic and secular society, a violent resolution to the church issue is, of course, unacceptable, as is excessive government intervention in church matters. Although such actions have the support of the majority of believers in Western Ukraine, as one moves further east where the position of the UOC MP is weaker, there is a greater risk of polarization and clashes on religious grounds. However, polls show declining loyalty to the UOC MP across the country. A compromise could be reached based on the recognition by the UOC of the results of the 2018 Unification Council and the autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. If the UOC MP truly cuts ties with Moscow, the obstacle to its unification with the OCU would mainly be the ambitions of the church leadership and complexities of church law.

It is also possible that too much pressure on UOC clergy could create a martyrdom narrative around them and give rise to a religious underground that is hostile to the state and vulnerable to infiltration by hostile agents. Religious scholar Nikolai Mitrokhin describes the process as follows:

“Church life will move to remote hermitages and small temples, where the monastery brethren will gather... In such places, the level of mystical experiences could be high, including visions, dreams, and predictions that may be dismissed by liberal theology as superstitions but are welcomed by the general public.”

In a country at war, religious conflicts are perilous as they can be exploited by Russian propaganda. The Russian Duma has already adopted a resolution on “repression against the canonical Church”. While condemning the “church pogroms” in Ukraine, the Russian authorities ignore their own actions: due to the Russian invasion, 68 churches and places of worship in the UOC MP were either destroyed or severely damaged in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions alone. It is also important to note that religious dissenters in Russia, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, are subject to repression and criminalization.

The stakes are high for Putin's regime and Patriarch Kirill, who is aligned with the Kremlin. The UOC MP represents nearly a third of all parishes in the world under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Losing control over the Ukrainian church would mean Moscow's dominant position in world Orthodoxy would be compromised, and so they will do everything possible to prevent this by stoking religious tensions (such as the recent alarming news of the arson of a Greek Catholic church in Lviv). The task for Ukraine is to resist provocation and pursue the unification of the national church in a peaceful and orderly manner.

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