Game of Patriarchates: Can religion bring peace to Ukraine

Donara Barojan

Religion during Euromaidan, Jim Forest via Flickr

On April 15th, 2014, the acting president Olexander Turchynov announced the beginning of an “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine. A year has gone by and the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to rage on, displacing thousands from their homes and bringing devastation to Ukraine’s industrial sites and urban centers. It is safe to say that a military solution to the crisis has failed and pro-Russian separatists are not going anywhere, at least not any time soon.

In the meantime, Ukrainians must start searching for a common ground on which a peaceful resolution and national reconciliation could be constructed. National reconciliation is needed to make sure the conflict in eastern part of the country does not become one of the frozen conflicts of the region and to prevent the separatists’ westward expansion to Mariupol and other strongholds in Ukraine. The common ground should be the lowest common denominator in divided societies of Ukraine’s eastern regions. At the moment, there is only one – religion.

Religion has always been an inseparable part of Ukrainian identity and history. The relationship between religion and nationalism in Ukraine resembles that of peanut butter and jam in a sandwich – you cannot have one without the other. Ukrainians trace their national identity back to the Kievan Rus of the 9th century. Kievan Rus was a cluster of Slavic tribes until Vladimir the Great forged their unity through baptism and the introduction of Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century. The baptism of Kievan Rus gave birth to the Orthodox spirit of Slavic nations. Ukraine today is one of the most religious countries in Europe. According to a recent poll in 2014, 32% of Ukraine’s population identify themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate (up from 26% in 2013), 25% of Ukrainians align themselves with Moscow Patriarchate (down from 28% in 2013), 15% are Greek Catholics and 3% belong to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.

The split of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy occurred during the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet occupation, Stalin and his predecessors used the Russian Orthodox Church to “Rusify” Ukrainians, while de-legitimizing the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church. After the Union’s collapse and re-birth of Ukraine’s national identity, Orthodoxy in Ukraine split into three different patriarchates. Ukrainian Orthodox Church established itself as a separate entity to counter the Moscow Patriarchate, so did the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church aligned with Moscow patriarchate and became a self-governing entity, however, it is still linked to the Russian Orthodox Church and relies on it for legitimacy, as Moscow Patriarchate is the only patriarchate in Ukraine that has canonical status.

Religion is an important part of Ukrainian identity, Saint-Petersburg orthodox theological academy via Flickr

There have been numerous attempts to unify the three Orthodox churches, but thus far they have all been unsuccessful. There is a general lack of agreement over which name the new Church would assume and who would lead it. Furthermore, the separation of Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow’s patriarchate would deprive the patriarchate from half of its parishes and followers. Despite the disagreements, there has been a growing public support for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church free from Russian influence.

The opportunity for this rapprochement is presented by the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council 2016, which will be held in Istanbul, under the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. Experts agree that the unification of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine will happen only if there is significant third party influence and civil society support. It is highly likely that the two pre-requisites will coincide in 2016 when leaders of Ukrainian orthodox churches meet in Istanbul. The public support for Orthodox unification has been growing during the past two years and will likely continue to grow through to 2016. The Ecumenical Patriarch has been actively involved in discussions over the unification of Ukrainian orthodox churches and it is highly likely that he will push the leaders of Ukraine’s patriarchates to unify at the historical Pan-Orthodox council next year.

Currently, both patriarchates are actively involved in the current crisis in Eastern Ukraine. The Kyiv patriarchate has consistently taken a pro-Ukrainian position and advocated for national unity and territorial integrity. In the meantime, Moscow patriarchate, is growing increasingly divided with some clergy members expressing support for the Ukrainian government, while others continue aligning themselves with Russia’s interests and the idea of “Russian world”. The Kyiv patriarchate should exploit the internal divisions within the Moscow patriarchate and lead the unification of the three Orthodox patriarchates under the flag of Ukrainian Orthodox Church and patronage of the government. Below are three key steps to achieve that.

  • The Kyiv patriarchate needs to start holding bi-lingual services in eastern Ukraine

At the moment, Kyiv patriarchate has more followers, but fewer churches in Ukraine. The numbers are important here, because they will determine the terms of eventual unification of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine. In order to attract more followers, the Kyiv patriarchate needs to hold bi-lingual services in Eastern Ukraine to cater for both Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Bi-lingual services could attract followers, who currently practice in Moscow Patriarchate’s churches and help Kyiv Patriarchate promote the values of inclusivity and national unity through religious practices.

  • Kyiv patriarchate needs to engage Moscow patriarchate in a dialogue based on rhetoric of peace and similarity of religious practices leading up to the meeting of Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016

Internal divisions among the clergy over, which side to support in the crisis in the east, are weakening the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. As a result, there is a growing rift between the Patriarchate’s clergy in Moscow and patriarchs in Ukraine. The internal disagreements have prevented the Patriarchate from taking a definitive stance in the crisis and alienated both, pro-Ukrainian and more importantly pro-Russian hardliners among their followers. Since the election of a moderate patriarch Onufriy, the Mosocw Patriarchate began engaging in several acts of subtle subordination against its mother Church in Moscow.

This weakness is creating an opportunity for Orthodox rapprochement, which analysts agree might happen at the Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016. In preparation to the council, the Kyiv patriarchate should start engaging its Russian counterpart, starting with their lowest common denominator – wish for peace and similarity of religious practices. It will strengthen the pro-Ukrainian position within the Moscow Patriarchate’s clergy and create a foundation for eventual unification.

  • Kyiv patriarchate needs to forge a transnational patriarchate with other non-aligned orthodox churches in all post-Soviet countries

Currently, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) claims unilateral jurisdiction over all orthodox Christians who reside in former USSR republics. Although such claims are contested by orthodox clergy in Moldova, Estonia and other countries, no actions have been taken to forge an alternative patriarchate that would unite orthodox churches outside of ROC’s control. The Kyiv patriarchate has a unique opportunity to fill this power vacuum and create a transnational safeguard against the proliferation of ROC’s influence in other post-Soviet countries. Leading this transnational patriarchate could give Kyiv more legitimacy and a stronger negotiating stance in the eventual unification of Orthodox churches in Ukraine and bring it closer to receiving a canonical status.

Saint-Petersburg orthodox theological academy via Flickr

Having a single patriarchate that unifies more than 70% of country’s population could be a major step towards national reconciliation. With the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council set to take place in Istanbul in 2016, there is now more hope than ever that a process of Orthodox unification is possible. The Kyiv Patriarchate needs to take urgent actions now to ensure that when the unification talks begin, it has the legitimacy and credibility to lead them and unify country’s Orthodox Christians under its reign.

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