Ukraine Debates Role of Moscow Patriarchate

Many experts see institution as having played an active role in the ongoing conflict.

Ukraine Debates Role of Moscow Patriarchate

Many experts see institution as having played an active role in the ongoing conflict.

Saint Volodymyr's Cathedral is one of Kyiv's major landmarks and the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriacate, which won control over the claims of the denomination linked to the Moscow Patriarchate. Many experts see the latter institution as having played an active role in the ongoing conflict.
Saint Volodymyr's Cathedral is one of Kyiv's major landmarks and the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriacate, which won control over the claims of the denomination linked to the Moscow Patriarchate. Many experts see the latter institution as having played an active role in the ongoing conflict. © Monica Ellena
Wednesday, 25 May, 2022

Accusations that the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian division have actively supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have thrown the religious stream’s future in the country into doubt.

Orthodox Christianity is by far the is the most widespread religion in Ukraine. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey in June 2021, 73 per cent of Ukrainians consider themselves Orthodox. 

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is the local branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, with a quarter of Ukrainians affiliated to this stream. In  2020, there were 12,374  UOC-MP dioceses across Ukraine.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has stressed that he considers the war to be the result of Western manipulation and that Russia and Ukraine were fraternal nations.

"I am convinced that culprits are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came out of the common Kyiv baptismal font, united by a common faith, common saints and prayers, connected by a common historical destiny,” he said on March 10, 2022. 

Many experts see the church as having actively promoted Kremlin propaganda regarding the war. Professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism Cyril Hovorun, himself an ordained Orthodox priest, said that it had served to legitimise the invasion. 

Since the start of the 2014 war, he continued, Russia had been exerting its influence through the UOC-MP, a process stepped up in early 2019 after Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed a tomos of autocephaly that granted autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox church.

Supported by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the UOC-MP, Ukrainian oligarchs had created media resources such as the Union of Orthodox Journalists and Orthodox Life to promote its narratives.

There have also been cases in which UOC-MP figures allegedly collaborated with the Russian forces in Ukraine.

On the first day of the full-scale invasion, for instance, Ukrainian priest Mikhail Pavlushenko was arrested at Hostomel airport on suspicion of being a Russian spy.

Later in the war, the Dnipropetrovsk regional prosecutor's office reported that another UOC-MP priest had been arrested for colluding with the enemy and inciting national and religious hatred.[1] 

Relations remain complex. Hovorun noted that not all churches of UOC-MP in Ukraine were under the control of the FSB, adding that its head, Metropolitan Onufriy, had himself condemned the hostilities.

Religious scholar Olexander Sagan agreed that formally the UOC-MP, as part of the Moscow Patriarchate, followed the instructions of its main governing body.      

However, the UOC-MP had consistently declared its independence, and he argued that there was no proof of any systematic cooperation with the FSB and Moscow Church.

Individual priests had contradicted Moscow’s line on the war without suffering any consequences, he continued, while others had clearly cooperated with Russian forces.

Following the tomos of autocephaly, many UOC-MP parishes left the Moscow church and joined the self-determining Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which has no connections to Russia. In December 2019, the total number of dioceses in the OCU stood at 44. Ministry of justice data shows that this count now stands at more than 800.

According to research by the Rating Group, 63 per cent of Ukrainians now support the idea of severing relations with the Russian church. 

Following the February invasion, a law was proposed in the Ukrainian parliament banning the pro-Russian church from operating in Ukraine. This would halt the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and its associated religious organisations, including the UOC-MP.

Stressing that Kyiv would not pass a law that divided Ukrainian society during wartime, parliamentary chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk postponed the initiative.

"This cannot be allowed because the Ukrainian nation must be united. We will deal with everyone after victory," he said.

On May 12, the Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also expressed concern about legislative initiatives pushing the ROC in Ukraine to sever ties with the Russian Church and unite the Ukrainian people into one local Orthodox church.

The future of the country’s various orthodox streams remain unclear.

Yuri Chornomorets, a theologian and former member of the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate, noted that communities could easily change their religious affiliation. Under Ukrainian law, this procedure is clearly regulated.

“Due to the war, some communities understand that they do not want to belong to the UOC-MP, but they have not decided yet which church to join,” he said. “After all, not everyone wants to go to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And in this case, people are confused."

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