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Where next for Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church?

Patriarch Filaret, leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (Getty)

Ukrainian bishops have been asking for independence since the 1990s. Now they are on the brink of it ­– and the Orthodox world is shaking

Urgent restoration work is under way at St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. With its stunning 11th-century frescoes and mosaics, it is here that the emissaries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are expected to officially promulgate the tomos – a decree by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, that will grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The cathedral (which was turned into a museum during communism) is then expected to revert to its normal use, becoming the spiritual centre of the newly independent national church of Ukraine.

This will become one of the defining moments in the country’s struggle for a new national identity after Russia annexed the Crimea and launched what is now called a “hybrid invasion” of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

This historical chapter started in 1688. It was then that the See of Constantinople – which was founded in the 4th century and is considered to be first among equals in the Orthodox world – granted the patriarchs of Moscow the right to appoint bishops in what is now Ukraine. That era is coming to an end.

The decision has already shaken the Orthodox world in an unprecedented way. It is not often that a new national church appears on the global map. And when it claims jurisdiction over a country of 40 million people engaged in a life-or-death struggle with one of the world’s nuclear superpowers, the event acquires an additional – and not entirely welcome – political significance.

In October, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul – commonly referred to as the Constantinople Patriarchate, or Fener (by the name of the city district where the patriarchate is located) – approved Ukrainian autocephaly. It claimed that back in the 17th century the right to consecrate bishops was only delegated but not transferred forever to Moscow. This is a contentious claim that the Russian Orthodox Church and its patriarch Kirill vehemently deny.

Constantinople also established full communion with Filaret, the head of the self-proclaimed Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and his bishops and clerics. The reason for lifting the excommunication was the need to recognise as legal all the consecrations of bishops and priests, performed by Filaret over the past 20-plus years.

A former metropolitan of the Soviet-era Russian Orthodox Church and a candidate in the 1990 election of its patriarch, Filaret (whose secular name is Mykhailo Denysenko) broke with Moscow in the early 1990s to create the Kiev Patriarchate. Until the decision by Patriarch Bartholomew, the Kiev Patriarchate was not recognised by any of the world’s 15 autocephalous Orthodox churches.

Over the years, Filaret increased his following and became a fixture in the Ukrainian social and political life. His hallmarks are staunch Ukrainian nationalism and robust (to put it mildly) anti-Russian rhetoric.

The Kiev Patriarchate earned admiration of the people when in early 2014 its priests and monks opened their churches and monasteries as sanctuaries for protesters who fought – and won – against the corrupt pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych.

Now Filaret has a fair shot at becoming the first head of the independent national church in his homeland. He has the full support of Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, who personally lobbied the Ecumenical Patriarchate to grant his country autocephaly. For Poroshenko, who faces re-election in 2019, this is one of the numerous ways of burnishing his patriotic credentials amid the ongoing war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and palpable dissatisfaction with his economic policies and management style.

The Russian Church, which until now claimed with some justification to be the largest Orthodox Church in the world, is predictably furious at the decision by Constantinople. Up to this point, it has remained numerically the dominant church in Ukraine – and the only one officially recognised by sister churches. Its influence is especially strong in the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern and central regions of the country. In the wake of Patriarch Bartholomew’s Ukrainian autocephaly announcement, the Russians broke off all relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Patriarch Kirill has forbidden his clerics to concelebrate with those of Constantinople.

The current, semi-official Moscow line is that Patriarch Bartholomew has broken every imaginable canonical rule in a naked power grab that aims at making the Fener a kind of “Orthodox Vatican”. Moscow also argues that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is already independent. Though its Patriarch sits in Moscow, it is able to select its own bishops.

Vladimir Legoyda, the official spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Catholic Herald: “We call on the other sister churches to comment on this state of affairs, get together in any format and discuss this difficult situation which, in our view, touches the whole Orthodox world.”

He insisted that for Moscow it is not a matter of prestige or power politics: “Those who suffer are ordinary believers, especially those who remain in schism with the canonical structures [ie Filaret’s flock], as well as those who stayed with the only legal church in Ukraine. They find themselves under increasing political pressure from the Ukrainian authorities. For them, witness time is coming.”

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Sergei Chapnin is the former editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s official journal but is now one of its leading critics. He thinks the Russian Church has no one to blame for what happened but itself.

“The autocephaly is not exactly a new subject,” he told me. “Ukrainian bishops first petitioned Moscow to grant them it in November 1991, a few weeks before the USSR was officially dissolved.”

But, he said, the Russian Orthodox hierarchs preferred to ignore this and pretend that Ukrainian believers and clerics do not want independence. “And now the war speeded up the process. If it wasn’t for the conflict, the autocephaly question may have been put off for another 10 or 20 years. But it still would have eventually resurfaced.”

In Chapnin’s view, what happened is “a huge blow to the self-respect of the Russian Church. Having ‘lost’ Ukraine, it will cease being ‘the church of the empire’, the quality that made it so attractive and important to the Kremlin.”

This is borne out by what I heard when I recently travelled to Ukraine. Many people there (including President Poroshenko, who still officially belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church) are incensed by the Moscow hierarchy faithfully repeating the Kremlin’s lies about “the tragic internecine conflict”, or even “civil strife”, in Ukraine. It is abundantly clear to them that what has been happening since 2014 is a poorly camouflaged Russian invasion. Patriarch Kirill’s frequent pronouncements that Russians and Ukrainians are “one and the same people” did not help Moscow. Neither did the Moscow Patriarchate’s attempt to insert references to the allegedly internal nature of the conflict in Ukraine into the joint statement by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill after their historic meeting in Havana in 2016.

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The Vatican is watching the Ukrainian autocephaly story unfold from the sidelines with a certain alarm. “Officially we cannot comment on what goes on,” one Vatican insider told me. “But in fact we are worried. Passions run very high and this is dangerous.”

Sources in Rome told me that the Vatican’s concern is twofold. One is for the Catholic community in Ukraine. “Although Greek Catholics are very patriotic and in the majority in western Ukraine, Catholics as such are still a minority in the country,” one official said to me. “If the new autocephalous Orthodox Church becomes a de facto state church – which at a time of war is not inconceivable – this could have negative consequences for Catholics of both Greek and Latin Rites.”

The other worry has more to do with the Russians’ behaviour. “We maintain relations with both the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which we respect as primus inter pares among the Orthodox, and with the Russian Church,” the official said. “It seems to us that the rhetoric coming out of Moscow recently was too strong and inflames passions that may turn out hard to control.”

My Rome interlocutors denied that the Vatican is more sympathetic to Moscow’s position than Constantinople’s – a claim some Vatican-watchers make. “I heard it before and it is patently untrue. It does not help at all,” an official at the Vatican Secretariat of State told me.

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What’s next for Ukrainian Orthodox believers? It may be that Constantinople’s endgame is not to grant Ukraine full autocephaly but to make the local church a semi-autonomous jurisdiction under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This gamble may pay off if there are enough believers and clerics ready to accept such a solution. For some, the slogan “anywhere but Moscow” may work. But others will not be ready to swap one suzerainty for another.

One thing is certain: Putin’s aggression and Russian Orthodox leaders’ collaboration with the Kremlin have put it in an untenable and isolated position.

“If Moscow had any answers or original solutions to the crisis it would have already deployed them,” argued Andrei Desnitsky, Russia’s leading biblical scholar and frequent commentator on Church issues. “The patriarchate is doomed to repeat its current line – but not much more.”

Moscow’s influence is destined to decline in Ukraine – even if Patriarch Bartholomew, Filaret and others commit their own mistakes further down the line.

Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for TV Dozhd, Russia’s independent television channel. He was the BBC’s Russian Service Moscow bureau editor from 2002 to 2009