This news story starts more than a thousand years ago, in AD 988, when Byzantine missionaries from Constantinople baptised the feudal pagan prince Volodymyr – Vladimir to Russians – his family and the inhabitants of Kyiv. For seven centuries, Kyiv remained the centre of their Orthodox church.
Tsar Peter the Great moved the seat of the church to Moscow in the 17th century. Until February 24th, when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the Orthodox patriarchate in Moscow was followed by millions of Orthodox Ukrainians, and commanded respect from most of the world's 15 autocephalous or independent Orthodox churches.
The Russian church comprises 100 million of the world's 260 million Orthodox Christians. It suffered a setback in January 2019, when Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople who acts as the first among equals of Orthodox patriarchates, recognised the merger of two Ukrainian churches as the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
In Moscow, Patriarch Kirill broke ties with Bartholomew and branded the Ukrainian church as heretics. Kirill supports the invasion of Ukraine and says that gay pride parades in the West are part of the reason for the war.
Approximately three-quarters of Ukraine’s 41 million population call themselves Orthodox. They belong to the rival churches, or have remained neutral.
The church, which was until now led by Moscow, calls itself the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to which its adversaries tag on the suffix: Moscow Patriarchate. For the sake of clarity, I will call them Moscow Orthodox. The other church calls itself the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which I will simplify as Kyiv Orthodox.
In a dramatic break with Moscow, Metropolitan Onufriy, the leader of the Moscow Orthodox Church in Ukraine, accused Russia of acting as Cain did when he murdered his brother Abel in the Bible.
Moscow patriarch Kirill’s letter to the World Council of Churches (WCC) on March 10th could have been written by Putin: “It is my firm belief that [the war’s] initiators are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came from one Kievan baptismal font,” he wrote. “The origins of the confrontation lie in the relationships between the West and Russia.
“By the 1990s Russia had been promised that its security and dignity would be respected. However, as time went by, the forces overtly considering Russia to be their enemy came close to its borders. . . The most terrible thing is not the weapons, but the attempt to ‘re-educate’, to mentally remake Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia.”
Constantin Sigov is a Kyiv Orthodox Christian, professor of philosophy, organiser of ecumenical conferences and publisher of theological works. Sigov reproaches Kirill for conflating temporal and spiritual power and says Kirill's letter to the WCC is tantamount to "a declaration of holy war on the West. He is a true ideologue of Putinism. . . The Kremlin is killing its mother. This is Sophocles, a Greek tragedy."
In Russia, 300 members of a group called Russian Priests for Peace signed a petition against Russia’s “murderous acts” in Ukraine. An Orthodox parish in Amsterdam this week became the first to formally sever ties with the Moscow patriarchate.
“This is a monumental move that will touch the entire planet. Orthodox churches in Ireland, the UK, US and China will do the same thing,” Sigov predicts.
Sigov says the Russian Orthodox Church prevented the independent Ukrainian church from being admitted to the WCC. “All that has changed now. The Russian church will be excluded from [WCC headquarters in] Geneva. Ties will be broken with Moscow at every level. This historic trend is irreversible. It is like the Dnieper river; it flows in only one direction.”
Patriarch Kirill’s support for the war is also likely to drive undecided Ukrainian Orthodox into the arms of the autocephalous, independent church, Sigov says.
The hypocrisy of Putin’s claim to protect Orthodox Christians in Ukraine is highlighted by the fact that Russian forces have killed Moscow Orthodox and destroyed sites that are holy to them, including the Svyatogorsk Lavra monastery, one of the three most sacred sites in Ukraine for Orthodox believers. The 16th century monastery in eastern Ukraine was bombed on March 12th, wounding refugees who sought safety there.
Russian world view
“I want us to leave the Moscow church. It is over. This is a natural response to events,” says Fr Iov Olchansky, the Moscow Orthodox priest who heads the Monastery of the Redemption in Lviv.
Fr Iov (33) is sheltering 40 refugees from eastern Ukraine. “I do not subscribe to the Russkiy Mir, the Russian world view,” he continues, showing me the Greek-style chapel he built on the grounds of the crumbling monastery. “I was educated at Mount Athos and in Rome. I have many friends among Greek Catholic priests.”
Fr Iov’s repeated references to Greek and Roman Catholics mark an aspiration to ecumenism, and a renunciation of Russian domination. He expresses himself in impeccable Ukrainian, another marker of allegiance to his beleaguered country. Asked if the war is splitting the Orthodox church, he replies, “On the contrary, it will unite the Orthodox church and Russia will be isolated.”
The Moscow Orthodox have been perceived as a Russian fifth column since the 2014-2015 Donbas war, when some of their clergy sided with Russian separatists. They were accused – with reason, according to Sigov – of refusing to bless or baptise Ukrainian soldiers loyal to Kyiv, and of storing weapons in church buildings.
Suspicion runs particularly high in western Ukraine, the birthplace of Ukrainian nationalism. Soldiers in Pochaiv, 140km from Lviv, said someone shone a laser pointer from the nearby Moscow Orthodox monastery on a landing strip, to mark it as a Russian target. A Ukrainian army chaplain said the army found stocks of food, packed for military use, and three legally registered firearms when it searched the monastery.
No more gatherings
Near Fr Iov’s monastery in Lviv, I meet a Moscow Orthodox volunteer who calls himself Aleksei, distributing hot meals from the back of a van. “People are hungry, but today we were told that this is our last food distribution, and that we can have no more gatherings. The Baptists and Catholics are still allowed to gather.”
Aleksei speaks Russian rather than Ukrainian. He shows me a photograph of a banner on his smartphone. It shows a golden onion dome, a symbol of the Orthodox church, with the words, “Russian Orthodox Church F**k Off”. The obscenity was famously used by Ukrainian soldiers defending Zmiinyi (Snake) Island in the Black Sea when Russian forces ordered them to surrender on the first day of the war.
“The territorial defence forces would not let us take the banner down for a whole day,” Aleksei continues. “They searched our food van and our basement for weapons. They did not find any.”
Aleksei admits that some Moscow Orthodox may have been disloyal to Ukraine. “You can accuse specific people, but not the whole church,” he says. “There are radical people in any church.”
When Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union, the Soviets banned the Greek Catholic church on the grounds that it had collaborated with the Nazis. The Greek Catholics grew much stronger after independence in 1991 and have maintained tense relations with the Moscow Orthodox in western Ukraine.
The number of Orthodox churches has diminished dramatically, and many believers have emigrated to Russia or the EU, Aleksei says. He claims five Moscow Orthodox priests in country parishes were forced to shut their churches and bring their families to Lviv when the war started.
“We try to keep it quiet, because we do not want to spark a religious war like in Northern Ireland,” Aleksei continues. “We are trying to calm things down and say that everything is all right. We are caught between two fires. We do not like Putin. We do not support him. But the locals don’t like us or recognise us as Ukrainians.”