A divided faith: Ukrainian churches infiltrated by Moscow


For the faithful in Ukraine who attend Mass in one of the 12,000 parishes of the Orthodox Church under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, the sermons they hear raise questions. Why would the local priest preach “pacifist gospels at a time when the country’s defensive strategy relied on mobilizing civilians to fight?”

The message raised suspicion for some, especially as Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, took the first stance that the country is “called to stop this evil in eastern Ukraine.” ‘Ukraine. Because if we Ukrainians don’t stop this, it will spread to other territories.

Tensions between the two branches of the Orthodox Church have reached a breaking point and the lay faithful are caught in the middle of the political (and physical) battle.

An independent church

Prior to 2019, Ukraine had three separate Orthodox churches all claiming primacy: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Only the Moscow-based church was recognized as legitimate in the global Orthodox community.

Ukrainians had been advocating for autonomy for their churches since the nation gained independence in 1991. In 2018, then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko again called for church independence , saying, “I think it’s absolutely necessary. cut off all the tentacles with which the aggressor country operates inside our state body. He criticized the Russian Church for its unconditional support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

In January 2019, tensions increased when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the head of the church in Istanbul and believers around the world, issued a document that completed the process of unification between the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches and recognized their independent legitimacy. Historic action removed Ukraine from Russian jurisdiction; a power they had been under since 1686.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the run-up to the move, warned that the split could “turn into a heavy dispute, even bloodshed.”

Patriarch Cyril of Moscow

The leader of Russian Orthodoxy was born in November 1946 in an apartment in Leningrad to a family of priests and scholars. Kirill had been a KGB officer around the same time as Putin. He never apologized for his ties to the agency and remained close to the security administrations which were a product of the Soviet secret police. According to Politico, “there is the ‘open secret’ that the Kremlin operates from the church to send agents overseas.”

His finances have been purposefully opaque, although his relationship with the Kremlin has damaged his reputation in the past. A blunder with a $30,000 watch misphotographed from an image from an interview and a 2020 investigation both shed light on his financial situation.

He quickly rose through the ranks of the church during the 1970s and cultivated considerable influence through a “weekly Orthodox TV show on the main state television channel”, on which he began appearing in 1994. In January 2009, he was elected Patriarch. of Moscow and all of Russia.

While the Kremlin is likely responsible for Kirill’s wealth (his net worth is estimated in the billions), the patriarch is responsible for a “significant part of the nationalist ideology central to the Kremlin’s expansionist designs,” according to the New York Times.

Many Ukrainian churches “voted to cut the church’s ties with Moscow in response to Patriarch Cyril’s blatant support for war.” Metropolitan Epiphanius said: “He bears the responsibility as much as Putin for all the war crimes that the Russian army is committing in Ukraine”.

This month, the Ukrainian city of Lviv symbolically voted to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from its jurisdiction, and an April poll by Reuters “showed that 51% of Ukrainians polled wanted their government to ban the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian, with considerably higher support in the west of the country.

Abroad, Canada and the UK imposed sanctions on Kirill, while EU sanctions were dropped after opposition from Hungary. The United States remains undecided about the complex implications of sanctioning a religious leader.

Growing distrust of priests

Those on the ground feel the adverse effects of this tension, and it reflects the complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Priests, with churches apart, face the incoming Russian troops with very different attitudes. Some remain loyal to Moscow, despite being bombarded by the occupying forces.

“Ukrainian political and religious analysts say the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been deeply infiltrated by Moscow and is seen by many as a tool of Russian foreign policy,” according to The New York Times.

Some directly target religious buildings whose loyalty lies with kyiv. Metropolitan Epiphanius said he “found small devices (GPS) on the grounds of the cathedral and monastery to direct the artillery” three days in a row. Others, posing as priests, have infiltrated religious communities.

The sentiment is so widespread that when “an angry mob threw a Russian preacher out of his church in western Ukraine, the police did not intervene”. Activists threw green paint at a priest in a Ukrainian Orthodox church.

The act of renouncing ties with Moscow deeply affects small communities. When a village congregation presented their priest with a petition to change loyalties, Moscow church officials removed all of their belongings from the building, and the supervising priest “knelt down and cursed (their) village “. A resident said he said “he hoped not a single person (over there) was left alive”.

In Russia, priests are arrested for sermons condemning the war. As more priests are accused of acting as informants for Russian forces, more than 200 across the country are ‘under high surveillance as potential collaborators’ by Ukraine’s security services, source says from the New York Times.

Speaking on the current challenges of the churches, Metropolitan Epiphanius said, “Every day Ukrainians are gradually coming to understand which church is truly Ukrainian and which church is Russian. Unfortunately, the greater the destruction, the more understanding comes to those who believed in the ideology of a Russian people. This war strengthens the unity of the Orthodox people in Ukraine.


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