Russia – Ukraine: The battle of the Churches

Date first published: 27/09/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: civil unrest, property disputes

The Russian Orthodox Church recently announced that it will no longer cooperate and communicate with Constantinople Patriarch, Bartholomeus I. The announcement comes in light of Bartholomeus’s reported willingness to grant the Ukrainian Church autocephaly. If granted, autocephaly would make Ukrainian Church independent from Russian Orthodox Church. The move would decrease the influence of the Russian Church in Ukraine, and thus, could raise tensions between the countries. Leading Ukrainian politicians such as President Petro Poroshenko have vocally called for autocephaly. The dispute between the Churches is a continuation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where religion is highly politicised. The Russian Orthodox Church opposes Ukrainian autocephaly, claiming it would ignite violence and divide the church. Although it is unlikely that possible protests will turn violent, some tensions regarding the ownership of property of religious institutions after the autocephaly is likely.

Currently, there are two non-recognised strands of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev’s Patriarchy (UOC-KP) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). They likely will unite if autocephaly is granted. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchy (UOC-MP) would likely ignore Bartholomeus’ ruling and continue operating in Ukraine. Usually, autocephaly is granted by the Constantinople Patriarchy when a state becomes independent. For example, the Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches were granted independence by the Constantinople Patriarchy because canonically these Churches were originally under its rule. Though the Constantinople Patriarchate is seen as the first among equals and the main Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church is the most powerful, with around 150 million followers worldwide.

Ukrainian activists have long sought autocephaly but received little government support until Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. In a recent visit to Kiev’s leading monastery, Pechersk Lavra, Russian Patriarch Kirill stated that he views Kiev as “our Constantinople and our Jerusalem” and warned that he “will not let it go”.

The most contentious issue is the ownership of property of religious institutions. In Ukraine, the property belongs to the parish, monasteries, churches, and not a Patriarchy per se. If a parish decides to become a part of the new Ukrainian Patriarchy its property becomes a property of that Patriarchy. However, according to the Russian Orthodox Church’s rules, the ownership of property is centralised and belongs to the UOC-MP. If, for example, a monastery wishes to become a part of the Ukrainian Patriarchy, then it would have to relinquish all of its property to the UOC-MP. Because of the differences in property rights, there is a risk the UOC-MP will organise protests if autocephaly is granted and their property comes under the control of the Ukrainian church. Marginal nationalist groups could use this as an opportunity to incite violence.

A bishop from Russian Orthodox Church stated that bloodshed is likely if the Ukrainian church were to seize prominent Orthodox churches and monasteries like Pechersk and Pochayiv Lavra. If these churches remain under the control of the Moscow church, however, Ukrainian nationalists may protest. Tensions may be most pronounced in central Ukraine, where there is a balance between followers of Russian and Ukrainian Churches, but which has avoided the bloodshed of the four-year war in Ukraine’s east. Autocephaly could also result in the further divide between the people in the west and east of Ukraine.