Orthodox christian icon brought to Euromaidan Protests as a symbol of faith. Image by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikicommons

Orthodox christian icon brought to Euromaidan Protests as a symbol of faith. Image by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikicommons

By Irina Papkova

The ongoing political crisis in Ukraine has been punctuated by profound religious imagery. For several days in January 2014, three Orthodox monks prayed round-the-clock in the No-Man’s land separating the protesters on Kiev’s Maidan and the riot police, temporarily halting the spiraling cycle of violence. The same month, the Huffington Post ran a series of stunning photos depicting the heavy presence of Orthodox and Greek-Catholic priests among the protesters. Witnesses from the Maidan consistently reference the “religious spirit” of the gathering, exemplified by thousands of people coming together to sing the “Our Father” as they faced down the Yanukovich regime.

The sight of believers and clergy from various backgrounds demonstrating solidarity during the anti-Yanukovich protests highlighted the deeply religious character of Ukrainian society. It also belied the deeply divided nature of the country’s confessional landscape. Historically, Ukraine’s religious fissures paralleled the fundamental political cleavage running through the heart of the country, namely, the question of the place of Russia in Ukrainian self-identification.  As the revolutionary events of 2013-14 rolled forward, religious believers had to make potentially life or death decisions about whether to throw their weight behind an openly anti-Russian opposition.

For one confession at least, the choice has been an easy one.  The Eastern Rite Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which accounts for about 10% of Ukraine’s population, has been unequivocally supportive of the Maidan and subsequent post-Yushchenko government.   This is unsurprising, given that the Greek-Catholics have historically been based in Western Ukraine, a part of the country traditionally oriented towards Europe rather than Russia. Ukrainian nationalism as a political idea has its roots in Western Ukraine, and there have been fleeting reports that Dmitro Yarosh, leader of the ultra-right nationalist party “Right Sector” is himself a member of the Greek-Catholic church. Moreover, the Greek-Catholics have deeply traumatic memories of forcible mass conversions to Orthodoxy under Stalin in the late 1940s, an event that could not but solidify their anti-Russian sentiments.  The church has positioned itself as thoroughly supportive of the revolution; for example, its head, Svyatoslav Shevchuk (Major Archbishop of Kiyv and Halych) has publicly appealed both to the European Union and to Pope Francis I to stand in solidarity first with the pro-European forces in Kiev.

The Greek-Catholics aside, Ukraine is an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country.  But the Orthodox community is split among three competing jurisdictions: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Kievan Patriarchate, and the more marginal Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. While the reasons for the division are beyond the scope of this article, it is sufficient to note here that both the Kievan Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church have traditionally been associated with Ukrainian nationalism, defined by a rejection of ecclesiastical loyalty to Moscow.  The Kievan Patriarchate was particularly conspicuous in its support of the Maidan, for example by allowing protesters to use its nearby monastery of St. Michael as a dormitory and field hospital.

Together, the Kievan Patriarchate and Autocephalous Church account for perhaps 25% of Ukraine’s Orthodox believers. The remaining jurisdiction, the UOC-MP, is far larger (with approximately 50% of the faithful) and its complicated situation is of special concern as Ukraine faces the prospect of spreading communal violence between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians.  The church acknowledges the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, as its spiritual head. It has, in the past, openly supported pro-Moscow politicians in Ukraine, particularly in the presidential elections that originally brought Victor Yanukovich to power in 2010.  Among Ukrainian nationalists, the UOC-MP has been, in the past, viewed rather skeptically as the Kremlin’s fifth column.

However, contrary to expectations, historic ties with Moscow have not translated into unequivocally loyal support by the UOC-MP either for (former) Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich or for Putin’s annexation of Crimea.   Throughout the early months of the Maidan protests, the position of the UOC-MP was conciliatory. The church’s senior bishop, the elderly Metropolitan Volodymyr, called for a peaceful, dialogue-based resolution of the crisis; at the same time, he expressed approval for the protesting “young people” on the Maidan, praising them for caring about the future of their country.

As the situation in Kiev deteriorated in the first two months of 2014, so did metropolitan Volodymyr’s health.  On February 24th, three days after Victor Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev, the Synod of the UOC-MP promoted Metropolitan Onufri of Chernovtsy and Bukovina to the position of acting senior bishop. Onufri’s first move as head of the UOC-MP was to send an open letter to patriarch Kirill asking him to intercede with Putin in favor of saving the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  In the meantime, lower level UOC-MP clergy throughout Ukraine demonstrated an increasing tendency to support Ukraine’s position against the Russian annexation of Crimea; over the first weeks of March, a number of priests demonstratively supported Ukrainian soldiers and sailors as they faced occupying Russian forces. Perhaps most tellingly, a number of UOC-MP bishops have been publicly critical of the Crimean takeover, with Metropolitan Sofronii of Cherkassk and Kanevsk calling Putin and his political supporters “bandits” on March 21st. The picture is not entirely black and white: a number of UOC-MP bishops have made public statements in favor of the Russian position in the Ukrainian crisis. But the sentiment in the wider ranks of the church appears to be the one promoted by Metropolitan Onufri.

All of this poses interesting questions for the future of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia.  The UOC-MP accounts for approximately half of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church; the anti-Putin sentiment prevalent among its ranks presents a challenge for the patriarch Kirill, as he seeks to maintain a positive relationship between his church and the Kremlin.  Metropolitan Onufri’s stance against the Crimean annexation cannot sit comfortably with Kirill, the more so since by ecclesiastical protocol Onufri is the second senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, ranking only below the patriarch himself.

This may explain why patriarch Kirill has been entirely silent on the Crimean crisis, claiming ill health and excusing himself from the formal ceremonies accompanying the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. There is very real fear in Moscow that, as a result of Crimea, the Russian Orthodox Church will lose half of its parishes and thereby its status as the world’s largest and most powerful Orthodox community. The process may be irreversible: in February, the UOC-MP established a commission tasked with opening a dialogue with the Kievan Patriarchate, aimed ultimately at reconciling the two competing churches.  Since the Kievan Patriarchate has been unequivocal in its support for a Ukrainian Orthodox church fully independent from Moscow, patriarch Kirill is right to be concerned.

Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011.Irina’s current research includes religion and politics in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Image: By Mstyslav Chernov/Unfame/http://www.unframe.com/photographers/102-mstyslav-chernov.html (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons