The war is costing Russia its influence with the Ukrainian Orthodox

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The Sunday sermon that Metropolitan Longinus, a senior bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, delivered to Moscow Patriarch Kirill in early June did not waver.

Previously, Longinus had prayed at every service for the blessing of Kirill – the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spiritual parent of his own church.

But now Longinus castigated Kirill for “people dying and bloodshed, for bombing our monasteries and churches [and] for the blessing you gave to the bloodshed” in a speech condemning the Russian cleric’s support for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“You will answer to the Lord God for every mother’s tear and freshly dug grave,” Longin said. “You have hurt the whole Ukrainian Orthodox world and made us suffer. Don’t try to justify it.

Kirill’s broadside shows the upheaval of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, one of the largest religious organizations in the country and – before the war – a Russian cultural stronghold. Today, the church’s priests and parishioners, largely Russian-speaking, reject Russia, demonstrating how a new Ukrainian identity is taking root even among people whom Moscow claims are part of a “brother nation”.

Kirill’s support for the war – he enthusiastically endorsed Putin’s campaign in a cathedral built for the Russian armed forces – cost Russia dominance over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Its 12,000 parishes represent about a third of those under the jurisdiction of the Russian mother church.

In May, the Ukrainian church led by its leader, Metropolitan Onufry, declared independence from Moscow at an extraordinary council, saying that was what parishioners were demanding.

“If Patriarch Kirill hadn’t said anything, that would be one thing. But he was saying things practically every week that were unacceptable to Ukrainian society, including the faithful,” said Metropolitan Kliment, spokesman for the church. “When people came to church and heard his name, it interfered with their prayer.”

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, left, leads the Easter service while Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, right, attend the service © Oleg Varov/Russian Orthodox Church/AP

The war forced even the biggest supporters of Russia in the church to reconsider their allegiances. Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Vadim Novinsky, who was made a deacon by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2020, has spent years calling on the country to rebuild ties with Moscow even after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

But now he condemns Russia’s “aggression” and admits that Kirill has become a liability.

“We must judge the sin, not the sinner,” Novinsky said. Nevertheless, he added, “it is very unfortunate that he did not say anything about the war and that he told it like it is. . . Everything he’s done, combined with what’s going on here, has been to our detriment.

The pro-Russian faction in the church remains strong, according to Sergei Chapnin, senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University in the United States. Several bishops have challenged the decision to sever ties with the Russian mother church. Donetsk, controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, refused to accept it. Crimean priests joined the jurisdiction of Kirill.

Yet, “there was no future under the justification of the Moscow Patriarchate. The church should have ceased to exist,” Chapnin said. “It was the only decision Onufry could have made to save the church.”

Political pressure on the church had been growing in Ukraine since 2014, when some priests appeared to tacitly endorse the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s slow war in the eastern border region of Donbass.

The Ukrainian government has called the church a national security risk and pushed for the establishment in 2018 of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine outside Moscow’s jurisdiction. This led to the biggest schism in the Orthodox faith for more than five centuries.

Onufry’s church remains the largest in the country, with about twice as many parishes as its new rival. But when the war began, Ukrainian authorities grew increasingly concerned that Russia could use the church as a vehicle for subversive influence.

Ukrainian security forces have repeatedly attacked the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a golden-domed monastery that is the holiest site of Russian Orthodoxy.

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture minister, welcomed the decision to dismiss Kirill. “People are waiting for the priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to give clearer messages about the war and who the enemy is. . . It is no longer a question of religion. It’s very political,” he said.

People rest in the crypt of a church converted into a makeshift bomb shelter in Kharkiv, Ukraine © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

But hopes of a rapprochement between Onufry’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its new rival remain dim, with many on both sides viewing the other as heretical.

More than 400 parishes have changed allegiance to the new Ukrainian church since the start of the war, with some changes being forced by angry parishioners. In Fastyv, a suburb of Kyiv, several priests led a mob that broke into the local church and assaulted the Moscow-backed abbot.

But the old church is reluctant to cede control of its holy places, as its new rival wants. Sites include Ukrainian monasteries, which house the most important sacred relics and reinforce the ancient church’s claims to be the true faith.

Novinsky said of the new rival: “Where are they going to get monks from? Greece? Everyone who wanted to pass has already done so. They have no monks or monasteries. This is a clear sign of the inferiority of this thing they call a church.

The new Ukrainian church is also pushing the government to be allowed to hold services in one of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra cathedrals. So far, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has refused to share.

“They don’t need the Lavra to pray. They need it as a trophy. . . so that they can reign over all that is dear and sacred to thousands of believers in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Kliment said.

However Tkachenko, the culture minister and member of the church established in 2018, endorsed the idea in the name of national unity.

“To continue to clash and be divided is a challenge – it’s not an option for the country,” he said. “It will probably take some effort to convince them that it’s civilized. . . but Ukrainian society has put too many expectations on the table for them not to be able to dialogue.

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