Ukrainian Orthodox break with Russia shifts tension between Kiev and Moscow to the religious sphere
While Russia closed the Sea of Azov approaches to Ukraine, at the end of 2018, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church advanced its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, cutting off an important element of Russian influence on Ukrainian society. In the "hybrid war" posed by Vladimir Putin, with its episodes of counter-offensives, religion is one more sphere of underhand pugnacity.
▲ Proclamation of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with attendance of Ukrainian President Poroshenko [Mykola Lazarenko].
article / Paula Ulibarrena
January 5, 2019 was an important day for the Orthodox Church. In historic Constantinople, today Istanbul, in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, the ecclesiastical rupture between the Kievan Rus and Moscow was verified, thus giving birth to the fifteenth autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, presided over the ceremony together with the Metropolitan of Kiev, Epiphanius, who was elected last fall by the Ukrainian bishops who wanted to split from the Moscow Patriarchate. After a solemn choral welcome for the 39-year-old Epiphanius, the church leaders placed on a table in the church the tomos (decree), a parchment written in Greek certifying the independence of the Ukrainian Church.
But the one who actually led the Ukrainian delegation was the president of that republic, Petro Poroshenko. "It is a historic event and a great day because we were able to hear a prayer in Ukrainian in St. George's Cathedral," Poroshenko wrote moments later on his account on the social network Twitter.
The event was strongly opposed by the Moscow Patriarchate, which has long been at odds with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Archbishop Ilarion, head of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, compared status to the East-West Schism of 1054 and warned that the current conflict could last "for decades and even centuries".
The great schism
This is the name given to the schism or separation of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church from the Catholic Church of Rome. The separation developed over centuries of disagreements beginning with the moment in which the emperor Theodosius the Great divided the Roman Empire into two parts between his sons, Honorius and Arcadius, upon his death (year 395). However, the actual split did not take place until 1054. The causes are ethnic subject due to differences between Latins and Easterners, political due to the support of Rome to Charlemagne and of the Eastern Church to the emperors of Constantinople but above all due to the religious differences that throughout those years were distancing both churches, both in aspects such as sanctuaries, differences of worship, and above all due to the pretension of both ecclesiastical seats to be the head of Christendom.
When Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople, it became known as New Rome. After the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Turks in 1453 Moscow used the name "Third Rome". The roots of this sentiment began to develop during the reign of the Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III, who had married Sophia Paleologa who was the niece of the last ruler of Byzantium, so that Ivan could claim to be the heir of the collapsed Byzantine Empire.
The different Orthodox churches
The Orthodox Church does not have a hierarchical unity, but is made up of 15 autocephalous churches that recognize only the power of their own hierarchical authority, but maintain doctrinal and sacramental communion among themselves. This hierarchical authority is usually equated to the geographical delimitation of political power, so that the different Orthodox churches have been structured around the states or countries that have been configured throughout history, in the area that emerged from the Eastern Roman Empire, and later occupied the Ottoman Empire.
They are the following churches: Constantinople, the Russian (which is the largest, with 140 million faithful), Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Georgian, Polish, Czech and Slovak, Albanian and American Orthodox, as well as the very prestigious but small churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch (for Syria).
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has historically depended on the Russian Orthodox Church, parallel to the country's dependence on Russia. In 1991, following the fall of communism and the disappearance of the USSR, many Ukrainian bishops self-proclaimed the Kiev Patriarchate and separated from the Russian Orthodox Church. This separation was schismatic and did not gain support from the rest of the Orthodox churches and patriarchates, and in fact meant that two Orthodox churches coexisted in Ukraine: the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Church dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate.
However this lack of initial supports changed last year. On July 2, 2018, Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, declared that there is no canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine as Moscow annexed the Ukrainian Church in 1686 in a canonically unacceptable manner. On October 11, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople decided to grant autocephaly of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and revoked the validity of the synodal letter of 1686, which granted the right to the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev. This led to the reunification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its severance of relations with the Moscow Orthodox Church.
On December 15, in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, the Extraordinary Synod of Unification of the three Ukrainian Orthodox Churches was held, with the Archbishop of Pereýaslav-Jmelnitskiy and Bila Tserkva Yepifany (Dumenko) being elected as Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine. On January 5, 2019, in the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I initialed the tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Does politics accompany division or is it the cause of it?
In Eastern Europe, the intimate relationship between religion and politics is almost a tradition, as it has been since the beginnings of the Orthodox Church. It seems evident that the political confrontation between Russia and Ukraine parallels the schism between the Orthodox Churches in Moscow and Kiev, and is even a further factor adding tension to this confrontation. In fact, the political symbolism of the Constantinople event was reinforced by the fact that it was Poroshenko, and not Epiphanius, who received the tomos from the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarch, whom he thanked for the "courage to take this historic decision". Previously, the Ukrainian president had already compared this fact with the referendum by which Ukraine became independent from the USSR in 1991 and with the "aspiration to join the European Union and NATO".
Although the separation had been years in the making, interestingly, the quest for such religious independence has intensified following Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow's support for separatist militias in eastern Ukraine.
The first result was made public on November 3, with a visit by Poroshenko to Fanar, Bartholomew's see in Istanbul, after which the patriarch underlined his support for Ukrainian ecclesiastical autonomy.
Constantinople's recognition of an autonomous Ukrainian church is also a boost for Poroshenko, who faces a tough election degree program in March. In power since 2014, Poroshenko has focused on the religious issue much of his speech. "Army, language, faith," is his main election slogan. In fact, after the split, the leader stated, "the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is born without Putin and without Kirill, but with God and with Ukraine."
Kiev claims that Moscow-backed Orthodox churches in Ukraine - some 12,000 parishes - are in reality a propaganda tool of the Kremlin, which also uses them to support pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas. The churches vehemently deny this.
On the other side, Vladimir Putin, who set himself up years ago as a defender of Russia as an Orthodox power and counts the Moscow Patriarch among his allies, fervently opposes the split and has warned that the division will produce "a great dispute, if not bloodshed."
Moreover, for the Moscow Patriarchate -which has been rivaling for years with Constantinople as the center of Orthodox power- it is a hard blow. The Russian Church has around 150 million Orthodox Christians under its authority, and with this separation it would lose a fifth of them, although it would still remain the most numerous Orthodox patriarchate.
This fact also has a political twin, as Russia has stated that it will break off relations with Constantinople. Vladimir Putin knows that he is losing one of the greatest sources of influence he has in Ukraine (and in what he calls "the Russian world"): that of the Orthodox Church. For Putin, Ukraine is at the center of the birth of the Russian people. This is one of the reasons, along with Ukraine's important geostrategic position and its territorial extension, why Moscow wants to continue to maintain spiritual sovereignty over the former Soviet republic, since politically Ukraine is moving closer to the West, both to the EU and to the United States.
Nor should we forget the symbolic burden. The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was the starting point and origin of the Russian Orthodox Church, something that President Putin himself often recalls. It was there that Prince Vladimir, a medieval Slavic figure revered by both Russia and Ukraine, converted to Christianity in 988. "If the Ukrainian Church wins its autocephaly, Russia will lose control of that part of history it claims as the origin of its own," Dr. Taras Kuzio, a professor at Kiev's Mohyla Academy, tells the BBC. "It will also lose much of the historical symbols that are part of the Russian nationalism that Putin advocates, such as the Kiev Caves monastery or St. Sophia Cathedral, which will become entirely Ukrainian. It is a blow to the nationalist emblems that Putin boasts of."
Another aspect to consider is that the Orthodox churches of other countries (Serbia, Romania, Alexandria, Jerusalem, etc.) are beginning to align themselves on one side or the other of the great rift: with Moscow or with Constantinople. It is not clear if this will remain a merely religious schism, if it occurs, or if it will also drag the political power, since it must not be forgotten, as has already been pointed out, that in that area which we call the East there have always been very strong ties between religious and political power since the great schism with Rome.
Enthronement ceremony of the erected Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [Mykola Lazarenko].
The advertisement of the split between the two churches is, for some, logical in historical terms. "After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the independent Orthodox churches were configured in the 19th century from agreement to the national borders of the countries and this is the patron saint that, with delay, Ukraine is now following", explains the theologian Aristotle Papanikolaou director of the Center of programs of study Orthodox Christians of the University of Fordham, in the United States, in the above mentioned information of the BBC.
It must be seen as Constantinople's opportunity to detract power from the Moscow Church, but above all it is the reaction of general Ukrainian sentiment to Russia's attitude. "How can Ukrainians accept as spiritual guides members of a church believed to be involved in Russian imperialist aggressions?" asks Papanikolau, acknowledging the impact that the Crimean war and its subsequent annexation may have had on the attitude of Constantinople's churchmen.
There is, therefore, a clear and parallel relationship between the deterioration of political relations between Ukraine and Russia and the separation between the Kievan Rus and the Moscow Church. Both Orthodox Churches are closely intertwined, not only in their respective societies, but also in the political spheres and these in turn use for their purposes the important ascendancy of the Churches over the inhabitants of the two countries. In final, the political tension drags or favors the ecclesiastical tension, but at the same time the aspirations of independence of the Ukrainian Church see this moment of political confrontation as the ideal moment to become independent from the Muscovite one.