Churches on guard as Ukraine seeks spiritual split from Russia
Rift emerges in Orthodox world as Kiev prepares to secure church independence
St Andrew’s church in Kiev, which was attacked with petrol bombs this month after it was given over to the use of the Constantinople Patriarchate, in recognition of its support for Ukrainian church independence from Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Resplendent in green, white and gold and perched high on a bank of the Dnieper river, St Andrew’s church in Kiev makes quite a gift.
Earlier this month, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko signed over the baroque landmark to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – “first among equals” in the Orthodox Church – after it agreed to end more than 300 years of Russian control over his nation’s spiritual affairs.
Yet not everyone welcomes the prospect of an independent Ukrainian church, which would further undermine Russian influence over its neighbour and Kremlin claims that the two countries’ people are really one nation, divided by Kiev’s wayward rulers and the meddling West.
A few days after Poroshenko granted perpetual use of St Andrew’s church to the Istanbul-based patriarchate, attackers hurled petrol bombs at its doors.
“The Molotov cocktails didn’t explode so there was no fire and no real damage,” says Oleksandr, a security guard at the church. “But we know this is an important time and that there could be provocations, so we are keeping a close eye on things around the clock. This time we were lucky.”
A church spokesman, Archbishop Yevstraty, was quick to apportion blame for the incident: “We see that Moscow’s henchmen are dropping ‘clear hints’ to try to scare representatives of Ecumenical Patriarch.”
Yevstraty belongs to the Kiev Patriarchate of the current, fractured Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which split from its Moscow Patriarchate branch after a sovereign Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Relations have grown increasingly icy since the Kremlin annexed Crimea
Like the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), the Kiev Patriarchate rejects claims to spiritual primacy from the Moscow Patriarch and its master, the Russian Orthodox Church, and relations have grown increasingly icy since the Kremlin annexed Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Last month, the Ecumenical Patriarchate revoked a 1686 decision to give Moscow authority over Ukraine’s religious affairs, prompting the Russian church to cut ties with Constantinople and reject its leadership of the Orthodox Church.
As tension soars between Ukraine and Russia after a naval skirmish near Crimea, across the Black Sea in Istanbul the Ecumenical Patriarchate intends to finalise plans for Ukrainian church independence at a synod starting on Tuesday.
It also expects to reveal the date in December when the Kiev Patriarchate, the UAOC, and willing clerics from the Moscow Patriarchate will hold a unification council in Ukraine’s capital.
The new, united Ukrainian church will then be ready to receive recognition from Constantinople and become what Poroshenko hopes will be “a key element of our statehood and independence”, delivering “a huge upsurge in the national spirit”.
As he declared earlier this year: “The army defends the Ukrainian land. The language protects the Ukrainian heart. The church protects the Ukrainian soul.”
During the Kremlin’s undeclared war in Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,300 people, the Moscow Patriarchate’s priests have reportedly blessed separatist fighters and refused to perform funerals for fallen government soldiers, and it wants to restore neighbourly relations in which Russia was always the dominant partner.
The Kiev Patriarchate, by contrast, sided with Ukraine’s pro-western revolution from the start, when St Michael’s cathedral in the capital served as a refuge and field hospital for protesters in winter 2013-14, and then as a makeshift morgue when dozens were killed by riot police who later fled en masse to Russia.
Momentum appears to be with the Kiev branch – though the Moscow Patriarchate still controls more churches in Ukraine, since the revolution scores have switched sides and joined a rival that polls suggest has the greater number of followers.
As the conflict grinds on into a fifth winter, however, Moscow warns that the church dispute will pitch it into new and dangerous territory.
Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, says “schismatics” will try to seize monasteries held by the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, and predicts that “of course, the Orthodox faithful will defend these sacred places, so we can expect bloodshed”.
A legal battle is being fought over the right of Moscow Patriarchate monks to keep using the Pochayiv Lavra
Hilarion said this weekend that Constantinople was preparing to lay claim to “monasteries, churches, various buildings – the list includes more than 20 sites”.
A legal battle is already being fought over the right of Moscow Patriarchate monks to keep using the Pochayiv Lavra, a major monastery in western Ukraine, which Kiev Patriarch Filaret says should be handed to the new unified Ukrainian church along with the 11th-century Pechersk Lavra monastery in central Kiev.
Both sides now fear attacks on churches, with pro-Moscow voices warning of raids by Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Kiev figures expecting Russia’s supporters to stage violence by “local radicals” to discredit and further divide Ukraine.
Poroshenko hopes church independence will be a major vote-winner in elections next March, and the Moscow Patriarchate and its followers accuse him of using the courts and security services to pressure its clerics into switching sides.
“The ruling regime in its pre-election agony has started attacking the canonical church,” said presidential candidate Yuriy Boyko, who favours close ties with Russia.
The Kremlin has vowed to 'defend the interests of Orthodox believers' in Ukraine
“The question today, without exaggeration, is critical: either violence against Ukrainian Orthodoxy will be stopped, or tomorrow the country could plunge into the fire of church war and hatred.”
The Kremlin has vowed to “defend the interests of Orthodox believers” in Ukraine if the dispute triggers violence, but advocates of church independence are undaunted.
The very thought of it “sends shivers” through Russia, says Filaret, the Kiev Patriarch who may lead Ukraine’s new, united church: “It means there will be no Moscow in Ukraine, no Moscow spirit.”