Ukraine has two major rival Orthodox churches that largely reflect the nation’s internal divide – affecting culture and language – between the more European west and the highly Russian east.
The numbers are debatable, but the World Christian Encyclopedia places the Orthodox Church historically under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, which predominates in the eastern regions, at 13.5 million members. It figures that a new independent Orthodox denomination based in Kyiv has 16 million members. This second rival church was born when Ukraine declared its national independence in 1991. It grew alongside the nationalism sparked by Russian incursions from 2014.
A defining moment occurred in Istanbul in 2019 when the 81-year-old Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew officially bestowed a “tomos” recognizing the “autocephaly” (fully independent and self-governing status) of the new Kyiv-based church on the basis of orthodoxy. “one country, one church” principle.
This has caused a serious worldwide split in Orthodoxy between those churches who accept Bartholomew’s claim to have universal authority to decide this issue against those who support the Conciliar Orthodox traditions backed by youhe powerful Russian church, which has temporarily severed its already tenuous ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This complex feud, complete with accusations of major bribes by US President Donald Trump’s State Department to outsmart Russia, is given a reasonably impartial treatment here.
The Kyiv-based church was reconfigured at a 2018 unity council in Ukraine that elected a new young leader to succeed the problematic founder and incorporated a small circle of clerics who left the Moscow-linked church and members of a third Orthodox denomination that broke with Moscow in 1918 after the Communists seized power. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the 2018 actions “a final achievement of independence from Russia”, adding that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow’s poison” .
Significantly, the ongoing parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine – considered a “fifth column” by ardent nationalists – retain the traditional Old Slavonic liturgy while the Church of Kyiv uses the Ukrainian language in worship . This difference suggests the cultural dynamics that would emerge during a possible civil war.