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Ukrainian crisis may split Russian Orthodox Church

Metropolitan Kirill was elected on Jan. 27, 2009 as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Moscow Patriarchate

MOSCOW (RNS) As Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border and a controversial secession vote in Crimea approaches Sunday (March 16), Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church called for prayers “that brothers of one faith and one blood never bring destruction to one another.”

Russia has prided itself on its revival of Orthodox Christianity after decades of Soviet persecution, but a war with the Ukraine could splinter the Russian Orthodox Church.

That church has its roots in Kiev, where Prince Vladimir baptized his people as Christians in 988, an event viewed as a cornerstone of Russian and Ukrainian identity. It has even deeper roots in Crimea, where, according to legend, Vladimir was himself baptized by Byzantine emissaries.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has 12,500 congregations, is the largest of three Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

But while it has some degree of autonomy, with a Synod of Bishops that elects its own members, the church’s leader, Metropolitan Onufry of Chernovtsy and Bukovina, has to be approved by Moscow.

Metropolitan Kirill was elected on Jan. 27, 2009 as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.   Photo courtesy of Moscow Patriarchate

Metropolitan Kirill was elected on Jan. 27, 2009 as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Moscow Patriarchate

In his sermon at the end of the service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on Friday (March 14), Kirill, who has been known for his support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested that Ukraine has a right to self-determination.

But he also stressed that it must not be trapped into a spiritual division from Russia.

“What we are referring to is the Russian world, the great Russian civilization that came from the Kievan baptismal font and spread across the huge expanse of Eurasia,” he said according to a transcript posted on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website.

The “Russian world,” or “Russky mir” has been an overriding theme for Kirill since he became patriarch in 2009, and it meshes with Putin’s worldview, said Antoine Arjakovsky, director of research at the College des Bernardins in Paris and founder of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Lviv.

“For them, democracy is a danger,” he said in a Skype interview. “They invented a new mythology, the new ideology of ‘Russky mir,’ of the Russian idea, which would invent a kind of new theology of politics.”

But for the churches in Ukraine, the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych also galvanized a religious awakening and may lead to a seismic shift in church-state relations. Dramatic images of clergy with crosses standing between protesters and government forces went viral as the standoff escalated in January and February.

“The majority of the Ukrainian churches followed a paradigm common to Eastern Christianity; they aligned with the state,” said the Rev. Cyril Hovorun, a former chair of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Department of External  Church Relations who has also worked at the headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate and is now studying church-state relations at Yale Divinity School.

“The churches in their majority on different levels supported the justifiable demands of the Maidan,” he said referring to the square in Kiev where the protests took place.

Greek Catholics, or Eastern Rite Catholics who are loyal to Rome, were the earliest and most active supporters of the demonstrations, he said. Many of them come from Western Ukraine, on the Polish border, where the state and communist policy of persecution of religion under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was accompanied by forced conversion from Eastern Rite Catholicism to Orthodoxy. Atheism never took hold.

Yet during the protests, all of the churches “with a different pace realigned with the new agenda,” said Hovorun, and prayer became an integral part of the protests, which also became, in effect, ecumenical meeting grounds.

“Maidan, apart from being an important civil event appeared to be an important religious event,” he said. “There were prayers said every day in the morning and at night. It was a religious phenomenon apart from being a political and social phenomenon, and it was also an ecumenical phenomenon because Maidan actually facilitated many churches, many church leaders who had never really conversed publicly with each other.”

Andrei Zubov, a historian and expert in church-state relations at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was nearly fired earlier this month for writing an editorial that compared Putin’s actions in Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss of the Sudetenland. He said that if events spill into war, a split between the Moscow and Kiev churches is inevitable.

“Putin has started an uncontrollable process,” he said in a telephone interview from London.

Calls have been growing for an independent church that would unite all of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches. (The other two are not recognized by the world’s main Orthodox churches.)

Zubov said that if relations between Russia and Ukraine continue to deteriorate, the Patriarchate of Constantinople would eventually recognize a Ukrainian Church.

“Ukraine is the second-biggest Orthodox country after Russia,” said Arjakovsky.

One thing is certain: A united Ukrainian church could redraw the map of Orthodoxy.


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Sophia Kishkovsky


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  • Excellent reporting! Thanks!

    “Andrei Zubov… was nearly fired earlier this month for writing an editorial that compared Putin’s actions in Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss of the Sudetenland.”

    The dictator Putin will use the Russian Orthodox Church as Stalin did. They have begun to go after the Gays. The Jews are next, though this time they’ll have Israel to defend them if necessary.
    Do the Gays need a country of their own to protect them, too?

    Hold on to your hats.

  • Kirill still hankers after the religious version of the USSR. It is very unusual for there to be any sermon at the Presanctified Liturgy which is a very austere service for Lent. But Kirill, the KGB man first and a bishop second, used the opportunity to preach his warped version of politicised religion. Shame on him.

  • The “Russian World” or “Russky Mir” is not a myth at all. It is rather the historically supported narrative that reveals how Great Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russyns came to be. They were a civilization and culture that was divided between the Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians, and a free Russian state in the east (aka: Muscovy). This is European History 101. Unfortunately for Ukrainian nationalists, the facts do not play into their narrative. They deconstruct their own history, and dirty the memory of their ancestors so that they can declare their region as culturally superior, and Western. If truth be told (as was hinted in the article) the driving forces behind the entire radical Ukrainian nationalism emanate from the Unia, and those Ukrainians who prefer to live in raskol (schism) and sell their souls for a mythical nation, that is fact a region. The price of their lies is blood: the blood of brethren.

  • This is wishful thinking by western propaganda. The Orthodox Churches would never recognize these Ukrainian schismatics as their own national church.

  • The “Russkiy Mir” is a Russian nationalist myth, Averky. The ethnic groups that grew out of ancient Rus’ (a network of East Slavic trading posts ruled by Viking overlords) — Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians — lived separate histories and developed distinctive cultures during 300-400 years apart from each other in different states. (The Carpatho-Rusyns were never part of ancient Rus’.) That’s historical fact. Live and let live. Russia can show its greatness by being the best it can be within its borders, instead of attacking neighbors, stealing their real estate and telling themselves “Stalin wasn’t such a bad man.” Orthodox Christianity demands repentance, treating others the same way you want to be treated and not stealing or killing. Let Russia lead by example, and then it will be applauded as Orthodox Christian.

  • The unity of the Church doesn’t depend on worldly land borders or politics. Above all, if Christians are going to speak on world political happenings, they should make certain that what they’re repeating is true, and must delve deep into subjects they deem worth commenting on. We have to also remember not to have any ties with those who do not hold to the doctrine of Christ, or even wish them God speed, or we are partakers in their evil deeds. If Russia invaded Crimea, as is so often repeated in corporate media(propaganda), then they sure were amazing in their abilities to do so without obvious evidence. The media would have no need to post pictures of military exercises in Russia and then claim they were forces invading Crimea, for example. The Church shouldn’t support the armed usurpation of power in a coup d’etat.

  • All you can do is claim “It’s a myth.” You can’t actually prove that statement, you just keep repeating it. Those who continue to divide and separate the descendents of Kievan Rus only celebrate the foreign occupation by Poland and Lithuania. You also need to study Russyn history. Ukraine (the borderland) is a region. In America, the majority of “Russian American’s” actually came from what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and the Carpathians, not Russia proper. Yet, they called themselves “Russian.” I should know, as my family came from what is now Belarus. The ethnic community they lived in was mostly composed of people from what is now Ukraine. Yet they called themselves Russian. During the 20th century there was a shift in thinking, thanks to the Bolshevik Revolution and Holodomor. People in Ukraine wanted to be freed from Communism, and found solace in a new nationalism, a new vision of statehood that would afford them this freedom. And so, Ukrainian nationalism took hold and exploded during WWII, and only grew afterwards. This nationalism has earlier roots, but it’s propagation and myths only grow with time, and with the political aspirations of Lviv.

  • any support of the politics of Putin and his government on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church will make it un-Christian and un-Orthodox, as such a support means a non-conformity with the Ten Commandments and the Essence of Christianity. By such a support, the Russian Orthodox Church becomes only a Russian Church, a non- Orthodox and a non-Christian, just a Russian reorganization of believers in tyranny, invasions, in wars that adapts the Teaching of Christ according to the needs of the Russian state. A religious political club. we pray. Arch Deacon

  • The Russian Orthodox church leader prays to the ‘orthodox god’ to protect Russian “rights”.
    The Ukrainian Orthodox church leader prays to the ‘orthodox god’ to protect Ukrainian “rights”.

    How can each be praying to the same ‘orthodox god’ and to ask this god for opposing “self-right” blessings?

    Since they are doing this,this ‘orthodox god’ can then only be the one who believes in the “rights” of each side, in the freedom of rights, in the freedom of religion….
    ….this is the only way then that each side can be praying to the same god for “their rights”.

    There is one’s religion and then there is one’s way of life.
    There is the religious word and then there is the heart of one’s way of life.

    But the Lord Jesus Christ said that we are to worship the Only Creator and His WILL Alone to serve in obedience and love…love for Only Him and love for the fellow man…and not love to serve and magnify oneself (XES).

    Soon , the Lord Jesus Christ will return to rule the earth in power as the Sovereign and Only King according to and in obedience to the Will of the One Creator and NOT according to man’s first love for his self-will, self-rights freedom.

    …and man will weep and will clench his teeth in anger when “his freedom” will be no more.

    John Stefanyszyn
    …a bondman of the One King Jesus Christ, Resurrected Son of the Only Creator

  • When God made the world as His footstool (Isaiah 66:1) His last act was to take the best surplus; steppes, mountains and rivers creating Scythia’s Ruce (Ukraine). He bent over to catalyze, the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea) with His own thumb. “Master, that is excessively sumptuous!” exclaimed Satin. “Yes;” said the Lord, “compensation for the bordering neighbors. They will steal everything”.

  • 1. Borders should not be decided by “narrow majorities”, nor should democratically elected Presidents be chased out by mobs. One wrong was in response to another. As for Kashmir, whatever my opinion may be, it is not the issue here. One thing you may keep in mind is that Kashmiris in India actually get to vote in democratic elections, whereas those in Pakistan are most of the time ruled by military dictatorships
    2. He was impeached after the mobs had driven him away and Kiev was in chaos. A chaos created by Nazi thugs. I see you entirely ignored the role of Svoboda that I mentioned in my post.
    3. The parliament voted to remove Russian. The same Parliament that you believe “legally impeached” the President. Then the Russian reaction came and the thugs realized they had over-reached and the “interim President” (a position lacking legality) vetoed the bill.

  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate had the largest increase in absolute numbers in past 15 years ( and is the largest one above all christian churches in Ukraine. If it will break up with Moscow Patriarchy religious map of Ukraine will change completely.
    Orthodox churches are allways national churches, and if one nation (russians) attacks another (ukrainians) church have to make a decision – to be with it’s nation or not.

  • Good day,

    God bless you!
    All I do is what God gave me.
    God showed me in vision what I write.
    The world is in carelessness, in particular through their daily activities. Women are concerned only with appearance and cleanliness. Technology concern you all the time and forget prayer, because it is the food of the spirit.
    Pray GOD, whenever you want per day, night, on your roads, because that’s not a waste of time, but gather your treasures in heaven, because the pay is great.
    Yes, God showed me a corner of heaven.
    Make peace and unite all religions into one ministry to God.
    There is one God.

    Those who serve God, the love of God, looking for peace and understanding way.
    Unite all the churches of the world! Be wise!
    You still have time to unite, because God is merciful, but no delay.
    Take the example of the parable of the ten virgins and be wise! Fill your lamps, as is time.
    The wise shall understand, and those who understand, those who do not understand urged to unify…

  • It’s already split! The moment the Spirit of God moved on Kiev in revival and revelation was the moment religion had to walk out the door. Ukraine has the freedom of relationship with the one true God. Not even national freedom is better than the presence of God in a people’s midst. God’s hand is on Ukraine in a powerful way. My heart is breaking with joy for them. This is better than the Orange Revolution. This is soul freedom; we as a people group need that deep freedom known to us again. We don’t need another control over us; we need our freedom and identity in Christ.