Not Peace but a Sword: The New Religious War in Ukraine

The year is 2014. Violent protests have erupted across Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych’s perceived pro-Russian policies have angered a large section of the population, who have firmly come out in support of closer ties with the European Union. However, the predominantly Russian-speaking East is not that happy about the prospect of a European alliance. Unfortunately for them, Yanukovych is soon ousted from power by a violent revolution. This new development is not, however, universally acclaimed.

Shortly afterwards, armed revolutionaries seize control of the Crimean Parliament and allegedly install a pro-Russian Prime Minister, who quickly calls upon Vladimir Putin for military assistance. Cries of “Putin is my President!” are now commonly heard in the streets of Crimea. Eventually, a referendum is held and the results indicate that the people of Crimea have overwhelmingly voted for union with Russia. Crimea then becomes a part of the Russian Federation, a development condemned by the European Union, the United States and much of the rest of Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine share a long inter-woven history. Both of them look upon Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestor – the monarchy that once included much of the East Slavic and Finnic peoples of Europe, and which lasted from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. However, over time, their relationship has grown steadily worse. The events of 2014 are but a modern manifestation of a long-festering division that has only been exacerbated as the years have passed by.

Now, Ukraine is a part of Eastern Europe, a region many people consider to be the heartland of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Known for its hardline stances on many issues of faith and morals, this ancient federation of ecclesiastical communities claims a line of unbroken continuity with the Church of the Apostles. Proponents call it a relatively pure Church, undefiled by the erroneous ideologies of the modern world. Critics call it a reactionary, patriarchal organisation, which still refuses to ordain women and considers abortion to be immoral and sinful.

While the vast majority of Western European culture and society – the historic stronghold of the Roman Church – has been usurped by the forces of liberalism, secularism and the sexual revolution, the same cannot be said about Eastern Orthodoxy. This is highly ironic, given that the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, was strongly persecuted by the Soviet Union, as were as the other Slavic Orthodox Churches, such the Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian Patriarchates. However, since the fall of the USSR, the Orthodox Church has come to wield a level of influence over local politics unseen since the time of the Tsars. While the Russian Federation continues to claim non-affiliation with any religious body as such, the alliance between Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate is the de facto situation.

Religion is a very strong preserver. After all, the Roman Catholic Church – the world’s largest, most powerful and longest-running monarchy – is, in many ways, the only remaining bastion of medieval Western culture. This is easily apparent especially if you visit traditionalist monasteries which still follow the rules in all their strictness. It is, of course, true that even many Roman Catholic priests and bishops don’t practice their faith well and have become lax, but there are still many strongholds of conservatism within that Church―despite the forces of liberalism.

This is true also of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, in general, suffers much less from the plague of liberals within their hierarchy. Some observers have noted the remarkable similarity between the alliance of Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow today and the traditional diarchy of Byzantium, in which the Emperor and the Patriarch would be the most powerful political figures in the land.

So, while the Russian Federation may no longer possess the territorial jurisdiction of Kievan Rus, the Patriarchate of Moscow has a much stronger boast to that. The Russian Church claims jurisdiction not merely over Russia but also over all of Ukraine. In fact, the single largest Church in Ukraine continues to be under the jurisdiction of Moscow. It is called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is autonomous, but not autocephalous. In other words, it is mostly self-governing, but not wholly independent.

Naturally, many of the nationalists of Ukraine have despised what they see as the continued intrusion of Russian imperialist influence in their homeland. And it is precisely such sentiments as these that were responsible, in part, for the splintering of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine into two new denominations – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

In addition to this, there is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which looks like the Orthodox Church, prays like the Orthodox Church, smells like the Orthodox Church, but is – in fact – a Catholic Church in full communion with Rome.

Traditionally, the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church were considered by the rest of the Orthodox world to be nationalist fanatics and schismatics who have damaged the unity of Orthodoxy. The Metropolitan Onufriy, under the authority of the Moscow Patriarch, was considered to be the rightful primate of Ukraine.

However, quite recently, the situation has taken a sharp turn.

The Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, long considered the “first among equals” of the Orthodox Patriarchs has taken it upon himself to grant the Church of Ukraine (specifically the two splinter groups from Moscow) complete independence from Russia. While it is true that the Patriarch of Constantinople does not enjoy the same authority in Orthodoxy that the Pope does in Catholicism, he does have some prerogatives – among them is the responsibility of hearing appeals from the rest of the Orthodox world.

This has led to the Patriarchate of Moscow excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. And the vast majority of the Orthodox Churches have sided with Moscow. Bartholomew, however, has been undeterred. As a result of his efforts, the two splinter groups have now been united as the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” with the full blessing and support of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Their new leader calls himself Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko). As of now, no Orthodox Church has given recognition to this new Church apart from Constantinople itself, and it has received heated condemnation not only from Moscow but also from the Primate of Serbia.

What implications could this have for the political situation? First of all, it is almost without question that the new Orthodox Church will come to represent the face of Ukrainian nationalism against “Russian imperialism”. It is no wonder that President Poroshenko is such an avid supporter of the move. Millions of Ukrainians still consider the Patriarch of Moscow to be their spiritual leaders. This new move represents an opportunity to break that perception.

Secondly, the new Church has also received surprising support from sectors of the Roman Catholic Church. It is very ironic indeed – four centuries ago, nationalism played a very important role in rousing extreme opposition to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, members of which were looked upon as traitors who had defected to Rome. Now, it is the other way around.

Religious freedom still remains strongly restricted in many parts of Eastern Europe. Russia, for instance, has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was also a famous attempt to ban the Bhagavad Gita As It Is in 2011. In 2016, the premises of a Vedic monastery in Nizhny Novgorod were demolished by local authorities, after having been declared illegal a year back. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church is busy rebuilding Churches demolished during the time of the Soviet Union and is enjoying the presence of Putin at Church services.

What does the future hold for Russia and Ukraine? Will Russia try to resurrect its orthodox heritage, perhaps even, as some suggest, restore the monarchy? Will we see a new cold war, between Russia and the West, with Ukraine caught in the middle? What is the future for the Orthodox faithful?

That, my friends, only time will tell.

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

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