Orthodox Church of Ukraine in the context of international and regional politics

  • Вселенский Патриархат
  • 05.Фев ‘21
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Dear readers and subscribers,

Religion today is celebrating its second anniversary. In these two years we have become an international community of independent experts that monitors the situation with religion and interfaith relations in Russia and around the world. We are here to offer our consultancy services in the field of interactions between the church, the society, national and supranational powers. As a way to commemorate our anniversary, we present to you our 2nd annual analytical digest on the topic of Orthodox Church of Ukraine in the context of international and regional politics.

The decision to found the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was made at the Unification Council on December 15, 2018. From its first days, it became both a stumbling block and a furnace where a new – and, most likely, the largest schism in modern Orthodoxy was being forged. This schism is not yet finalized in any meaningful legal sense, at least at the level of laity, and yet it is very real. Moreover, as we shall show in our Chronology section, this divide is directly related to the nature of this new “church” and actions of its representatives.   

In the past few years, the OCU has undergone several stages of development: exponential growth from the end of 2018 to April 2019, which was followed by a stagnation phase, then recognition by several Local Orthodox Churches, then a schism from within that has been going here and there until now.   

The quick growth of OCU parishes at the very beginning was mostly due to staggeringly frequent illegal takeovers of churches belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). It is during this short-lived period that the majority of conflicts between OCU and UOC MP members took place. Then, in the following years, Ukrainian courts got frustrated with the sheer number of complaints UOC MP congregations filed regarding illegal church and other property takeovers committed by the OCU; the legal system got swamped by lawsuits. The overwhelm brought about a laissez-faire approach of a kind, where churches continued being misappropriated by OCU, sometimes with support from local state administration. This went on till late May 2019, when it became clear that Petro Poroshenko, then-president and a radical supporter of all things Ukrainian, was going to lose office to Volodymyr Zelensky. This more moderate candidate exercised caution in social and foreign issues. For a while, the inter-church feud in the Ukrainian society subsides, most likely due to two factors. First, the OCU, being a creation of Poroshenko’s term, had little love for and trust in Zelensky. On the other hand, no Local Church but Constantinople had taken any steps to recognize the OCU as autocephalous since January 2019.

However, on October 12, 2019 the Church of Greece officially acknowledged the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the Patriarchate of Alexandria followed suit just a month later. If it had been possible to bridge the divide and neutralize the most inflammatory speeches of the OCU and Constantinople representatives, this moment was gone. After the two Local Churches made their fateful choice, the schism grew beyond the point of crossing. Now it has become a fact of life in the Orthodox world, and it may take decades to heal this wound.   This was when even the most skeptical observes of international church life had to admit that religion is being interwoven into political processes. Turned into an agent of destruction, it is used by global agents to achieve their strategic goals in the ongoing interstate struggle. From then on, conflicts around OCU church appropriations resume, though on a smaller scale than when they first commenced after the so-called Unification Council.

This decline in takeovers can also be attributed to the fact that in 2020 the OCU itself starts to fall apart: the UOC of the Kiev Patriarchate through Filaret (Denysenko) puts into question the very fact of the OCU autocephaly and its right to exist under the guidance of Epiphanius (Dumenko).

The majority of parishes – and, what’s more important, congregation members of the UOC MP – never left their Mother Church for the OCU, despite earlier claims of OCU representatives and state-adjacent scholars of religion like Dmitro Gorevoy. They used to state that it would only take an independent (from Moscow) Ukrainian religious entity to appear for the faithful to flock under the wing of this new autocephalous church. As a result, numerous churches taken over by OCU activists remained empty, and some had to close down: there was no one to either serve or pray there. At the same time, OCU got into conflict with other denominations: its activists expanded their takeover activities to church buildings that belonged not only to the UOC MP, but also to the UOC KP, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and others.

As of now, the OCU, though recognized by some of the Local Churches, does not represent a monolithic structure; it is torn apart by political scheming and conflicts from within, and remains alien to the Ukrainian society.

In the 2nd annual report of Religion today, we attempted to present in chronological order all social confrontations, scandals, and equivocal utterances made by – or with the participation of – OCU representatives. It goes without saying that, despite our best efforts, we could not make our chronology perfectly comprehensive. A considerable number of illegal church takeovers, as well as inflammatory utterances by OCU clergy got no coverage in the media, or the coverage was so limited and the outlet so obscure that it was virtually impossible to read and analyze the materials in their full scope. We put little focus on how odd or uncommon such speeches or actions might be. In our day and time, one is hardly ever surprised by some apparent eccentricity of religious figures.  The chronological study of the OCU development shows that, once it became the central point of the all-Orthodox schism, it went on to split modern Ukraine as well. Ukrainian citizens were effectively made to choose between their national identity and their faith. By choosing the second, they at times chose persecution: their churches, where they were baptized themselves and baptized their children; the churches where their parents were brought for a funeral service, got taken away from them, and parishioners themselves were subjected to physical and psychological violence.

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