Theodoros Benakis

Ukraine’s Orthodox Church a necessary step for independence

Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
Patriarch Bartholomew signing the 'tomos', with Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kiev (white klobuk) pictured behind him.

The pious ceremony that was held in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas last week was of both religious and political importance. In fact, the new head of the Ukrainian Orthodox church Metropolitan Epiphanius travelled to Istanbul to receive the “tomos”, which according to the church’s procedures gives independence to the Ukrainian church, from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

To mark the strict and vivid interest of the State in religious affairs, a practice that characterises the Orthodox churches, Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine was present.

In terms of religion, the recognition of the Ukrainian Church marks a major split in the Slavic Orthodox world. Moscow loses control over some millions of believers in Ukraine. The Russian Patriarchate threatens Constantinople with various sanctions that are important for the believers but have little impact outside their communities.

The political significance is far more important. Russia is losing a major channel of propaganda in Ukraine since it is already marked by a movement of believers from the Russia-controlled church in Ukraine toward the new national church.

In addition, Moscow, which associates religious (orthodox) affairs with its foreign policy, had denounced the latest developments in the Ukrainian church as a heavy blow. Russia is also losing the predominant role it had among the orthodox in the Slavic world as well as the spiritual influence over hardliners of all Orthodox churches worldwide.

On the other hand, the recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also represents the completion of the independence of Ukraine. And this is because of the specific and tight relations the Orthodox Church enjoys with leaders in countries with a majority of Orthodox citizens.

Of the Orthodox Church and state in general

The major difference between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, from a secular and non-theological point of view, is the relation each one has with the nation state. The Catholic churches rely on Ecumenism, avoiding a national character to the local churches, and keeps a relation with the secular power. The Orthodox churches have a totally different approach. In fact, Orthodox churches are attached to the state where they operate, and they assume national characteristics and they are involved in national politics although not always directly.

There is a reason for this, which originated from the first years of official Christianity. It is related to the fact that the two Christian centres, Rome and Constantinople, had a different political development that affected their future status. Constantinople was under the direct control of an emerging secular power – the Byzantine Empire – while Rome was distant and under the influence of the fundamental changes that shaped the Roman Empire of the West in the first centuries of our era.

In Byzantium, the secular power (the Emperor) controlled and protected the Church which became a state-Church.

During the Ottoman Empire the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox churches in Orthodox majority territories enjoyed of a particular protection from the secular power.

It was the same during the Russian Empire during which the Orthodox Church had an instrumental role in the application of state policy. In fact, and with a few intervals, the Orthodox Patriarchate, which was created in 1589 thanks to the efforts of Tsar Ivan IV, was a powerful spiritual arm of the secular power in both internal and external policies.

The secular power considered that the control of the Orthodox Church offered a strong spiritual legitimacy to its actions.

In fact, the creation of national states in the orthodox areas marked a constant political demand of church independence, in other words for the creation of national churches.

After Greece gained its independence, the Autocephalous Church of Greece was formed in 1850 (after a painful procedure that started in 1833 and included a conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

Serbia created its own Patriarchate in 1920, Romania in 1925 and Bulgaria in 1953, the latest under the communist regime.

The national character the Orthodox churches have and their control by secular powers, associate them with Nationalist and right-wing politics very often.

The Russian interest

The Russian Patriarchate has been under the protection of the state since the beginning. What is more, Peter the Great brought under his direct control the church. He denied the church the right to elect a Patriarch and established a college under the name of Holy Synod. To address this situation, the church tried to come out during the Russian revolution. The reestablishment of the Patriarchate is dated in 1917-18. But this was a period that shook the entire Russian society. The Orthodox Church was deeply affected by this and experienced a split. The refugees created a ‘White’ Russian Orthodox Church in the West while the local structures were condemned in marasmus under constant ant-religious campaigns.

It was World War Two that gave the chance to the church to return in action and elaborate new relations with the state. In 1943 the then head of the Russian church Sergius, who on 29 July 1927, issued a Declaration professing absolute loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Soviet Union, called for the defence of the country. The Soviet leadership needed the greatest possible national unity and accepted the offer of the church. Stalin met with the leadership of the church and permitted the election of the Patriarch. Sergius I holds the office until his death on 1944.

The Russian Orthodox Church became part of the official Soviet policy under the Patriarch Alexius I who was elected with Stalin’s approval on February 1945. As a first act, it was the forced “re-unification” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with Moscow. Alexius also called the Catholics in the Soviet Union to reject allegiance to the Pope.

Under Alexius (1945-1970) the Russian church aliened totally with the Soviet foreign policy. And since many priests and believers resisted to the Soviet power and were imprisoned and exiled, Alexius backed the authorities.

Since Gorbachev’s regime the Russian Orthodox Church’s role was upgraded. Putin made it a powerful spiritual weapon of his policy. After all, the majority of Orthodox Christians leave in Slavic or former communist countries while the Majority of Arab Christians are orthodox.

Through the Moscow’s religious hegemony, Kremlin completed its influence in Belarus and Ukraine.

The Russian church is totally identified with state policy and Putin acts as the Byzantine Emperors: he protects and uses the church.

Consequently, it was the Russian ministry of foreign affairs that followed the process of the independence of the Ukrainian church and was the Russian government that issued the toughest declarations.

A necessary step for Ukraine’s independence

Although Christianity arrived in Russia first in Kiev, the Orthodox Church became an affair of the Tsars. The Ukrainian church lost its independence in 1688 after the Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV granted to the Moscow church the right to appoint the metropolitans of Kiev. This was a temporary measure due to the difficulties in movement the Ecumenical Patriarchate faced in the Ottoman Empire.

As the Patriarchate of Constantinople explained, the reasons that led to that temporary act don’t exist anymore and the Ukrainian church can work in independence. This is in regards the Church and its rules.

But the independence of the Ukrainian church has a deep political meaning. It has to do with the real independence of the country.

Because Ukraine has an Orthodox majority population and that fact plays a major role in politics.

After the independence of the state in 1991, the independence of the church was a necessary step. The fact that it happened only now is due on Moscow’s resistance and influence over the country.

The Moscow-controlled parishes played the role of a ‘fifth column’ especially after Russia showed its aggression in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow must be praised in equal measure with the Ukrainian leadership for the creation of the Ukrainian Patriarchate. The Crimea annexation, Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk and Donbass as well as the latest development in Azov Sea were instrumental. It was Russian aggression and arrogance that are pushing things to go faster.

By creating a fully recognised national church Ukraine isolates the influence of Moscow among the faithful.

What is more, it is that the secular power receives powerful spiritual support in a moment that is crucial for the future of the country.

It is for this reason that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko invested time and efforts to the project. After all, as argued above, an Orthodox state has its own national (and in some cases nationalist) church.


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