Ukraine’s tangled political history with Russia has its counterpart in the religious landscape, with Ukraine’s majority Orthodox Christian population split between an independent-minded group based in Kiev and one loyal to its patriarch in Moscow.
But while there have been calls for religious nationalism in Russia and Ukraine, religious loyalty does not reflect political loyalty amid Ukraine’s struggle for survival.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion of Ukraine in part by defending the Moscow-oriented Orthodox Church, the leaders of both Ukrainian Orthodox factions are vocal in their denunciation of the Russian invasion, as is the sizeable minority Ukrainian Catholic.
“With prayer on our lips, with love for God, for Ukraine, for our neighbors, we fight against evil – and we will see victory,” pledged Metropolitan Epifany, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. based in Kyiv.
“Forget mutual quarrels and misunderstandings and…unite for love of God and our homeland,” said Metropolitan Onufry, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which reports to the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow but enjoys wide autonomy .
Even this seemingly united front is complicated. A day after posting Onufry’s message on Thursday, his church’s website began publishing reports claiming its churches and residents were under attack, blaming an attack by rival church officials.
The division between Ukrainian Orthodox bodies has reverberated around the world in recent years as Orthodox churches have struggled over how and whether to take sides. Some American Orthodox hope they can put such conflicts aside and unite in an attempt to end the war, while fearing that the war will exacerbate the split.
WHAT IS THE RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE OF UKRAINE?
Surveys estimate that a large majority of Ukraine’s population is Orthodox, with a significant minority of Ukrainian Catholics who worship with a Byzantine liturgy similar to that of the Orthodox but are loyal to the pope. The population includes smaller percentages of Protestants, Jews and Muslims.
Ukraine and Russia are divided by a common history, both religious and political.
They trace their ancestry to the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, whose 10th-century Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) rejected paganism, was baptized in Crimea, and adopted Orthodoxy as its official religion.
In 2014, Putin cited this story to justify his takeover of Crimea, land he called “sacred” for Russia.
While Putin claims Russia is Rus’ true heir, Ukrainians claim their modern state has a distinct pedigree and that Moscow only became a power centuries later.
This tension persists in Orthodox relations.
Orthodox churches have always been organized along national lines, with the patriarchs having autonomy over their territories while being bound by a common faith. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is considered first among equals but, unlike a Catholic pope, does not have universal jurisdiction.
WHO GOVERNS THE ORTHODOX CHURCHES IN UKRAINE TODAY?
It depends on how to interpret the events of over 300 years ago.
With the rise of Russia and the weakening of the Church of Constantinople under Ottoman rule, the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1686 delegated to the Patriarch of Moscow the power to ordain the Metropolitan (Supreme Bishop) of Kyiv.
The Russian Orthodox Church says it was a permanent transfer. The Ecumenical Patriarch says it was temporary.
Over the past century, independent-minded Ukrainian Orthodox have formed separate churches that lacked formal recognition until 2019, when the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as independent of the Patriarch of Moscow – which fiercely protested against this decision as illegitimate.
The situation in Ukraine was murkier on the ground.
Many monasteries and parishes remain under the Patriarch of Moscow, though exact statistics are hard to come by, said John Burgess, author of “Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia.” At the village level, many people may not even be aware of their parish’s alignment, Burgess said.
DOES THIS SCHISM REFLECT THE POLITICAL DIVIDE BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES?
Yes, even if it’s complicated.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made a direct connection: “The independence of our church is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian policies,” he said in 2018.
But current President Vladimir Zelinskyy, who is Jewish, has not placed the same emphasis on religious nationalism. On Saturday, he said he spoke to both Orthodox leaders as well as key Catholic, Muslim and Jewish representatives. “All leaders are praying for the souls of defenders who gave their lives for Ukraine and for our unity and victory. And that is very important,” he said.
Putin tried to capitalize on the issue.
In his February 21 speech seeking to justify the impending invasion of Ukraine with a distorted historical narrativePutin claimed without evidence that Kiev was preparing for the “destruction” of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
But the reaction of Metropolitan Onufry, who compared the war to the “sin of Cain,” the biblical figure who murdered his brother, indicates that even the Moscow-oriented church has a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity.
In comparison, the Moscow Patriarch Cyril called for peace but did not blame the invasion.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate has long enjoyed broad autonomy. Moreover, it is increasingly Ukrainian in character.
“Apart from church affiliation…you have a lot of new clergy who grew up in independent Ukraine,” said Alexei Krindatch, national coordinator of the US Census of Orthodox Christian Churches. “Their political preferences do not necessarily correlate with the formal jurisdictions of their parishes,” said Krindatch, who grew up in the former Soviet Union.
WHAT PLACE FOR CATHOLICS?
Ukrainian Catholics are based mainly in western Ukraine.
They emerged in 1596 when some Orthodox Ukrainians, then under the rule of the Catholic-dominated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, submitted to the authority of the Pope under an agreement that allowed them to retain distinctive practices such as their Byzantine liturgy and married priests.
Orthodox leaders have long denounced these agreements as Catholic and foreign encroachment on their flock.
Ukrainian Catholics have a particularly strong history of resisting persecution under czars and communists.
“Every time Russia takes control of Ukraine, (the) Ukrainian Catholic Church is destroyed,” said Mariana Karapinka, communications officer for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.
Ukrainian Catholics were severely suppressed by the Soviets, and several leaders were martyred. Many Ukrainian Catholics continued to worship underground, and the church has rebounded strongly since the end of communism.
With that kind of history, Ukrainian Catholics may have good reason to resist another Moscow takeover. But they are not alone, Karapinka said. “Ukrainian Catholics were not the only group persecuted by the Soviets,” she said. “So many groups have reason to resist.”
Recent popes have tried to unfreeze relations with the Russian Orthodox Church while defending the rights of Ukrainians and other Eastern Rite Catholics.
But after the Russian invasion, Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy on Friday to “personally express his concern over the war,” the Vatican said, in an extraordinary papal gesture. which has no recent precedent.
HOW DID THE ORTHODOX SCHISM SPELL BEYOND UKRAINE?
The Russian Orthodox Church decided to “sever Eucharistic communion” with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2018 as he tried to recognize an independent church in Ukraine. This means that members of the affiliated churches in Moscow and Constantinople cannot take communion in each other’s churches.
Disputes extended to Eastern Orthodox churches in Africa, where the Russian Orthodox recognized a separate set of churches after the African patriarch recognized the independence of the Ukrainian church.
But many other churches have sought to avoid the fray. In the United States, with multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, most groups still cooperate and worship with each other.
The war may provide a point of unity between American churches but can still test relations, said the Most Reverend Alexander Rentel, chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots but is now independent of Moscow.
“This split that has taken place in World Orthodoxy has been a difficult event for the Orthodox Church to deal with,” he said. “Now it will only become more difficult because of this war.”
Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv and Luis Andres Henao in Princeton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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