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Conflict between Russia and Ukraine extends to the spiritual realm

The creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a result of differences that have been simmering since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and took on new urgency when war broke out between Ukraine and Russia. 

Metropolitan Epifaniy
Metropolitan Epifaniy, newly elected head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, conducting a liturgy at the St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Sometimes church politics is the continuation of war by other means.

In one way, the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow, formalized by a church council in Kiev on Saturday, is an ecclesiastical affair that can pull you back hundreds of years into arcane church history. In another way, it’s simply about power; another front in the modern-day dispute between Russia and Ukraine. The conflict has bumped along since 2014, but tensions have increased markedly in recent weeks.

What happened this weekend is a result of differences that have been simmering since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and took on new urgency when war broke out. Many Ukrainian officials believe that Russia has used the church to destabilize their country – something Russia denies. For its part, Russia says the move for an independent church is about politics and self-interest. It accuses Ukraine of persecuting Russian Orthodox believers, and says it will stand by them.

It’s striking that formation of the church was announced publicly by Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, who pushed for creation of the church and declared Saturday the day of “final independence from Russia.”

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He declared the new church to be one “without Putin,” adding: “This is a church without prayers for the Russian authorities and Russian troops, because they kill Ukrainians.”

According to an estimate this fall by the BBC, churches loyal to Moscow made up about two-thirds of congregations (although one recent survey indicates that the larger of the breakaway churches claims far more members). Clergy loyal to Moscow largely stayed away from Saturday’s gathering.

There is little doubt that the Russian church is closely allied with President Vladimir Putin. It was close to the Romanov dynasty, too. After years of surviving – and often being corrupted by – Soviet communism, the church has experienced something of a rebirth. Now it is tied to Putin’s nationalist and socially conservative agenda.

The Russian church had been recognized as the spiritual authority in Ukraine since the late 1600s. But in October, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, located in Istanbul and considered first among equals in the Orthodox world, accepted the Ukrainians’ case for an independent church.

Both parties reacted strongly to that decision. Poroshenko was quoted as calling it a “great victory for the devout Ukrainian nation over the Moscow demons, a victory of good over evil, light over darkness.” The Russian Church, which counts at least half of all the world’s roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, cut ties with the church leadership in Istanbul. Some commentators say this split is so serious it could compare to the one between the Eastern and Western churches a thousand years ago, or the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

Time will tell. For now, there are some immediate, practical concerns.

The conflict between the two neighbors has largely been frozen recently, with Russia still in control of Crimea and separatists still holding a section of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials now are reporting a Russian military buildup on the border, and Poroshenko has declared martial law in eastern regions of the country after Russia seized Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea.

Gaining an independent church has been a major focus for Poroshenko, who faces a tough campaign for reelection in March. A poll last month found that nearly half of those questioned said they wouldn’t vote for him in any circumstances. So both sides are deeply invested in this – it’s not only about religion; it’s about political survival, national identity and influence with millions of people in Ukraine.

One big question is how much the church dispute adds to the overall tension between the two sides. Does this quickly become a fight over church buildings and other property? If so, will Putin come to the aid of his allies in the church? And if so, how? Putin has a tendency to move when his popularity has taken a hit, as it has recently, or when everyone else is looking the other way. Ukraine’s supporters in the West are paying attention, but they also are preoccupied with their own big problems.

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Experts say they wouldn’t be surprised to see some Russian Orthodox congregations joining the new church because they see little real difference. But Russian fears spiked after Ukrainian police in recent weeks searched the residence of a church official, three churches and the homes of priests – all loyal to Moscow. The head of Russia’s church charged in a letter to world leaders last week that Ukrainian authorities were engaged in religious persecution, and appealed for their backing.

Putin has said he will protect Russian Orthodox believers in Ukraine, and the recent naval dispute suggests Russia is interested in stirring the pot now. The Kremlin has insisted any action it takes will be limited to politics and diplomacy. In Kiev, they say they heard that one before – back in 2014.