The Eastern Orthodox Church’s history is written in the Istanbul neighborhood of Fener. That’s where the patriarch of Constantinople, who as “first among equals” serves as the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, has been convening a council since Tuesday to address the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s wish to become independent, or autocephalous. Currently, the institution is part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Threatening a split
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I has already signaled that he may grant the request, and sent two ambassadors to Kyiv at the beginning of September. If the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were to go independent, it would end 300 years of Russian dominance. Bartholomew has argued that his church did not grant authority over the Ukrainian church for good in 1686, but rather temporarily.
Authorities in Moscow have reacted to the move with a mixture of anger, resistance and exasperation. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have called it “a treacherous plan” and threatened to break from Constantinople. They even, among other things, forbade their bishops from concelebrating mass (celebrating mass together at the altar) with their Constantinople counterparts.
“Moscow is speaking the language of war,” said Andrei Kurayev, a renowned Russian Orthodox theologian and deacon.
Regina Elsner, an Orthodox Church expert at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, believes the current crisis “could lead to a split.” The reaction from Moscow shows that the Russian Orthodox Church is “completely powerless right now” on the issue of Ukraine, she said.
New church after independence
Not long ago, the situation was much different. Although there have been repeated attempts in Ukraine at autocephaly, those efforts are always rejected in Moscow. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and Ukraine’s subsequent independence, led to fragmentation within the church. Today there are three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. The largest, and until recently most influential, is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which falls under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church but nonetheless enjoys significant autonomy. The other two churches have already turned away from Russian authority, but have not been recognized by Constantinople. There are no exact figures on the number of church members in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is estimated to have more than 10,000 parishes, far more than the other two independent churches.
So why does the Ukrainian Orthodox Church now have a real shot at standing alone? Experts say there are three important factors. First, the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine has drastically altered the public perception of Russia within Ukraine: Moscow is now longer viewed as a brother nation, but rather as the aggressor. That perception is extended to the Russian Orthodox Church, which for years has enjoyed a close relationship with and endorsed the policies of the Kremlin.
“You can really say today that not one politician nor a group of believers, but rather Ukraine as a whole is asking for autocephaly,” said Kurayev.
The ongoing power struggle within the Orthodox church between Moscow and Constantinople also plays a large role. Many experts point to the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, organized by Bartholomew, which the Russian Orthodox Church did not attend. Concern over the Russian Orthodox Church’s size and influence within the Orthodox community is believed to be the reason for Moscow’s absence.
Lastly, politics has played an important role. In April, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed an appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople from his country’s two smaller, unrecognized Orthodox churches asking for recognition and independence, which was backed by the Ukrainian Parliament. Poroshenko said the move was about gaining final independence from Moscow. “This is not just about religion,” he noted, “but also about geopolitics.”
Should Constantinople grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, it would be a significant triumph for Poroshenko and his re-election hopes in March 2019.
Hope for independence
It remains unclear how and when the new orthodox church would be formed, and what kind of relationship it would have with the Russian Orthodox Church inside Ukraine. In the long term, there will likely be two parallel Orthodox churches, one under the auspices of the Moscow church and the other under Constantinople.
The Pochaiv Monastery in the west of the country still belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate
There are fears that such a scenario could lead to tension and violence. The already-independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate has announced its claim to the famous 11th century Kyiv Monastery of the Caves or the monastery in Pochayiv. Today, both are in the hands of the Russian-dominated Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate.
“It will be a huge challenge for the Ukrainian state to ensure religious freedom for everyone involved,” said the ZOiS’ Elsner.
Theologian Kurayev, too, warned of “difficult years” ahead for Ukraine.