Ukraine's Political Divisions Play out among Its Orthodox Congregations

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Ukraine's Political Divisions Play out among Its Orthodox Congregations


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


As Ukraine's political divisions play out on the geopolitical stage, the country also faces an unsettling schism among its main churchgoers. And, as with national politics, a tug-of-war between pro- and anti-Moscow factions may be fueling the centrifugal forces that threaten to unravel Ukraine.

Nearly half of Ukraine's population belong to the Orthodox church. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, a group of clergy broke away from the Moscow-run church, which continues to assert its primacy over Ukrainian's faithful. The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church claims to have 15 million believers, concentrated mainly in the west and center of Ukraine. The Moscow- aligned church has at least 10 million adherents, mainly in the east and central regions.

Given this geographical split, it's perhaps no surprise that the two churches took different sides when Kiev erupted earlier this year, forcing out Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Filaret, supported the uprising; his counterpart called for peace and dialog.

Now Filaret says that Ukraine's growing political crisis is a signal from above that it's time to unite all of the Orthodox faithful into a single church. The objective is to gain worldwide recognition for the Kiev church - and not his Moscow-run rival - as the sole representative of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, under his leadership. "This task of unifying has become urgent, particularly now that there is tension between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia committed aggression by annexing Crimea," he says. "We want a united, equal Ukrainian Church, which is independent of the Moscow Patriarchy. It will happen [amid these political events] because God creates such conditions that, even if [Moscow] doesn't want it, they will come to it."

Filaret, who wore simple crimson robes and a large medallion, spoke to The Christian Science Monitor in his palatial pre- revolutionary residence in downtown Kiev. The octogenarian, Ukrainian-born churchman spent most of his career in the Soviet-era Orthodox Church, before the break in 1990.

Now he sees no path back to Moscow's primacy. "We suggest uniting the two Ukrainian churches and separating from Moscow altogether. They [Moscow] propose that we unite and subordinate the whole church to the Moscow patriarchate. Hence, the Ukrainian church of the Moscow patriarchate is standing in the way of unity of the whole Ukrainian church," he says. "The Ukrainian state will continue, and this state will have only one Orthodox Church."

Another patriarchTo add to the confusion, Ukraine has a third Orthodox church, known as the autocephalous church, created in exile by Ukrainians who fled to the West after the Russian Revolution. After Ukraine became independent in 1991, it failed to reconcile with either major Orthodox group.

In Ukraine's west, which was for centuries under Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule, an eastern-rite Catholic church remains popular. Since independence from the Soviet Union, other faiths have taken root in Ukraine; the country's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is a Baptist minister. …

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