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Ukraine’s Most Powerful Spiritual Force Faces a Choice

The war has made the Orthodox church a force for national unity. Where will it go from here?

One Friday afternoon in late July, on the bank of Kyiv’s Lake Jordan, more than 400 Ukrainians gathered to celebrate their national christening. Cupcakes, pies, and cookies with blue-and-gold frosting, knitted and stitched handicrafts and pictures of national poet Taras Shevchenko filled kiosks that also sold boozy fruit juice and humongous slabs of brisket. Uniformed soldiers from the 244th battalion of the Ukrainian army chatted with wives, girlfriends, civilians and vendors intending to donate their earnings to that unit. High school kids horsed around with what looked to be an empty rocket case near moms presiding over screeching toddlers in a sandbox.

An hour into the eclectic festivities everyone hushed, and Father Georgi Kovalenko took over and chanted prayers. Another priest, Father Cyril Hovorun, gave a sermon and spritzed the gathering from the waters with which — 1,035 years ago to the day, according to lore — the baptism of Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv began the incorporation of present-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus into Christendom.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago violently asserted a claim to the baptismal legacy of 988 celebrated that day in July. Since the February 2022 invasion, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has preached that the Russian army is protecting the “Russian World,” or Russki Mir— the unity of Orthodox Slavs ruled for centuries from Moscow. This mythic history has sometimes found adherents in Ukraine itself; many at the baptism festival were old enough to remember this same anniversary a decade ago, when then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych joined Vladimir Putin, Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, and Russian Orthodox clergy to celebrate the community among Russian-speaking Christian peoples.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine — to which Fathers Hovorun and Kovalenko belong — is now Ukraine’s most important spiritual institution. Long governed by the Russian Orthodox Church, it was granted independence (called “autocephaly”) and equality with Moscow in 2019 by the patriarch of Constantinople — who is first among the equal heads of the Orthodox churches. Orthodox Ukrainian priests have played a patriotic role in their nation’s post-Soviet history; they led prayers during the Maidan uprising in 2014 and now supply more chaplains to Ukraine’s military than any other church’s clergy. The OCU’s patriotism is coupled with its conservatism — it opposes civil unions and the since-ratified Istanbul Convention against Domestic Violence (for using the word “gender,” which offended church teaching about the sexes). For all its centrality to Ukraine’s spiritual life, however, the OCU is an ecumenical church — it does not lead a state religion, and frequently works with Ukraine’s many (and quite traditional) Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.

Unsurprisingly for a nation at war, Ukraine has become more religious in recent years. More than half of Ukrainians now consider themselves Orthodox. Volodymyr Zelensky, the secular Jewish president, has invoked Christian imagery to motivate his nation’s fight for independence. Putin and the Russian church say they want to save Ukraine from faithlessness, and from the Ukrainian point of view, they’re succeeding. In the last five years, 1,500 Ukrainian parishes have left the Moscow Patriarchate to join the OCU.

Most Ukrainians think their country will win the war, and most think that churches are basically doing good work. The OCU hopes that the good public standing of Ukrainian Christianity isn’t just wartime sentimentality, but points towards a spiritual future that Ukrainians truly love and want to live for, even once the fighting stops.

Once the fighting does stop, Ukraine will likely be a full member of the European community — and Ukrainian youth, like youth elsewhere in the West, are much more secular than their parents. What that will mean for the church and society is unclear, but the OCU seems intent on keeping Ukrainian society basically traditional, even as Ukraine depends for its security on nations that are anything but.

A week before the anniversary of Prince Volodymyr’s baptism, I spoke with Father Sergiy Berezhnoy, one of hundreds of OCU priests detailed as chaplains to the Ukrainian military. Besides giving pastoral care — we paused for 30 minutes so Berezhnoy could speak with a family mourning a soldier just killed at the front — priests in the army teach civics.

“When I am with soldiers, we talk about how it is important to protect our own country, how it is important to protect our children, our history, our religious tradition … an ecumenical tradition” in contrast to the “Kremlin religion” propounded by the Russian Orthodox Church, he told me.

Berezhnoy makes that contrast with some authority, since he is himself a refugee from the Moscow Patriarchate. Raised in the Ukrainian wing of the Russian church, a younger Berezhnoy distributed propaganda on behalf of the same “Russki Mir” concept that underwrites Moscow’s aggression today. Berezhnoy joined the priesthood but was pushed out of his parish in early 2018 for speaking in favor of the Ukrainian church’s independence from Moscow. After centuries of subordination to the Russian church and inequality with the other churches of world Orthodoxy, the Ukrainian church finally gained autocephaly — the power to determine its own leadership and make certain other liturgical and organizational decisions — a few months later in January 2019. Berezhnoy joined the newly independent OCU, and now leads the parish located next to the birthplace of Ukrainian Christianity.

Prince Volodymyr’s conversion in 988 marked Kyiv as the central point of political and spiritual connection between the lands around it and the Byzantine empire. The patriarch of Constantinople created a metropolitanate — a district of ecclesiastical life — based in Kyiv and appointed its leader. Church Slavonic, a language created by Byzantine clergy for the purpose of disseminating the texts and ideas of the eastern Roman Empire, became the language of liturgy. Volodymyr’s son Yaroslav built Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral (probably named for the Byzantine Hagia Sophia), and the local orthodox broke communion with Rome along with the rest of eastern Christianity during the Great Schism.

Between the late 16th and late 17th centuries, however, orthodoxy in Ukraine was shrunk and then subordinated to Moscow. In 1596, the orthodox metropolitan of Kyiv rebelled against Moscow by leading fellow Westernizing priests back into the Roman Catholic church while retaining the Byzantine rite. The Catholic king of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth recognized the new Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as his realm’s only eastern church — which meant, as historian Serhii Plokhy has described it, that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who remained Orthodox were considered lawbreakers. After decades of inter-church polemics, Orthodox rights in the commonwealth were restored. In 1648, a Cossack revolt — backed by the Orthodox metropolitan of Kyiv and by Crimean Tatars — established a predecessor state to modern Ukraine, albeit one still governed from Warsaw. In 1654, Cossack state formed an alliance with the Romanov tsar in Muscovy, beginning Moscow’s long domination over much of Ukraine. In 1685, Russian Orthodox prelates persuaded the patriarch of Constantinople to give Moscow jurisdiction over the Kyivan patriarchate.

But Ukrainian Orthodox believers retained an independent streak. From the fall of the Russian empire in 1917 until before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian orthodoxy made a couple of abortive attempts to separate from Moscow. But in a sense, the most significant intellectual move towards the Ukrainian church’s independence came thanks to Poland when in 1924, the patriarch of Constantinople issued a tomosor decree, declaring the Orthodox Church of (newly independent) Poland to be autocephalous. The Polish Orthodox church, like Ukraine’s, had been subordinate to Moscow while Poland was part of the Russian empire. Eastern Poland included many Orthodox Ukrainian believers, and the patriarch of Constantinople confirmed their independence from Russian Orthodoxy. The patriarch wrote that “the first separation from our See of the Kyivan Metropolia … as well as their incorporation within the Holy Muscovite Church was accomplished contrary to canon law.”

In other words, he declared that the mother church of Kyiv is Constantinople, not Moscow. Regardless of Ukrainians’ long political subjugation to Moscow — by 1924, most of Ukraine had been forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union — Kyiv retained a direct, original claim to the spiritual heritage of Byzantine Christianity.

The efforts of Orthodox Ukrainians to win formal independence from (and equality with) the Russian Orthodox Church were finally rewarded in 2019, when patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church its own tomos of autocephaly. There had been two Orthodox churches in Ukraine formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, both descendants from previous 20th century attempts to make Ukrainian Orthodoxy independent. (A third Ukrainian church was and remains a subsidiary of Moscow.) A 2018 agreement merged the two branches into one church now called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led since then by Epiphanius I, the metropolitan of Kyiv, whom Father Berezhnoy calls “one of the leaders of the Ukrainian nation.”

Long employed by Moscow to suppress Ukrainian national consciousness, Orthodoxy in Ukraine now facilitates it. The Maidan protestors who brought down the Kremlin-sympathetic government of former President Yanukovich were led in morning and evening prayers by Orthodox Ukrainian clergy, who converted St. Michael’s monastery in central Kyiv into a hospital for wounded dissidents. Little unites a people like the hope of resisting a violent invasion, and the present one has collected many thousands of Ukrainians into battalions pastorally cared for by Orthodox clergy, who, according to the Orthodox prelate leading the chaplaincy program, have made Prince Volodymyr into a kind of informal patron saint among the armed forces.

The exodus of parishes from the Moscow Patriarchate has meant rapid growth for the OCU, adding the equivalent of a “Cyprus or Macedonian Orthodox Church,” says Viktor Yelenskyi, a former parliamentarian who leads a state commission on freedom of conscience. A July 2023 letter from 300 priests still belonging to the Ukrainian wing of the Moscow Patriarchate urged its leader, Metropolitan Onufry — who has condemned Russian aggression without fully severing ties with Russian Orthodoxy — to formally remove his church from Moscow’s jurisdiction.

Maryan Martynenko, counsel to the OCU, jokes that the unification of two churches into the OCU was “the biggest M&A process in recent Ukrainian history.” Bringing the Moscow-aligned churches into the OCU would be an even bigger deal. The Ukrainian wing of the Moscow Patriarchate doesn’t want to settle with the OCU. But a shrinking flock, the ambiguity of their current status, and a government hostile to their connection with Moscow may force the question.

Metropolitan Klyment — a senior prelate in the Ukrainian wing of the Moscow Patriarchate — told me in an interview that “we have every reason to say that we are a church that is independent from Moscow.” Every reason, that is, except that they haven’t formally severed relations. Indeed, Father Hovorun says, “it’s impossible to be clear” about the current status of the church Metropolitan Onufry leads. “To Moscow they imply that we are with you still,” but to Ukraine, they imply the opposite.

Part of what’s keeping Orthodox Ukrainians from forming a single church is the Moscow Patriarchate’s yearslong polemic — in public and to parishioners — against the OCU’s clergy. One OCU prelate tells me that the Ukrainian wing of the Moscow Patriarchate demands, as a condition of rapprochement, that the OCU concede that many of its priests are not, in fact, priests. The nut of the controversy is priestly ordinations by a Ukrainian metropolitan who’d been defrocked — thus losing the power to ordain — by the Russian church in the 1990s. As part of the process ending in the OCU’s independence, the patriarch of Constantinople cancelled the Russian Orthodox Church’s decrees against the metropolitan. The cancellation doesn’t apply retroactively, so the priests the bishop ordained were validated through a well-precedented act of dispensation — a decree Klyment dubs a mere “certificate.”

Two pieces of legislation now before the Ukrainian Rada (the national parliament) would effectively prohibit Ukrainian churches from associating with the Russian Orthodox Church. Rostyslav Povlenko, a Rada member from ex-president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party, supports a bill that would make affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church illegal and push its Ukrainian wing to reach terms of agreement with the OCU patriarch. But even proponents of the milder, government-backed bill believe it is wrong to treat any relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church as merely spiritual in character.

“The Moscow Patriarchate is not just helping Putin,” says Yelenskyi, whose commission is quite involved with Ukrainian church life. “It’s a normal participant in the aggression” and therefore “we shouldn’t allow these structures to operate.” Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, he said, “elaborated a heretical teaching very close to jihad,” namely, that “if you would be killed on the battle line in Ukraine, your sins wash away.”

And suspicions occasionally swirl that Moscow-aligned priests are disloyal to the Ukrainian government. A senior prelate in the Ukrainian wing of the Moscow Patriarchate was recently sentenced to several years in prison for collaborating with Russia; junior clergy have been among those prosecuted for helping the invaders. Combine Russian Orthodoxy’s historical dependence on the Russian state, Kirill’s close relationship with the Kremlin, and the afflatus the patriarch employs in defense of Putin’s armies, and it’s understandable that so many Ukrainians see Kirill’s church as the propaganda organ of a hostile state.

Homosexuality has been been a central focus of Kirill’s campaign to recompose the Russki Mir. A March 2022 speech he gave in defense of the war asserted that “pride parades are designed to demonstrate that sin is one variation of human behavior. That’s why in order to join the club of those countries, you have to have a gay pride parade.” Putin’s own remarks on the subject usually employ phrases like “traditional values.”

It’s been reported that Ukrainian support for equal rights for LGBTQ people has doubled since the war began. Inna Sovsun, a parliamentarian sponsoring legislation to legalize civil partnerships between any two adults, put it this way in a recent interview: “Because Putin made homophobia such a big part of his political agenda and [Russian] national ideology, people automatically associate him with homophobia.” Edward Reese, a communications officer for the organization Kyiv Pride, says that “Russia is exporting its homophobia and transphobia to … post-Soviet countries” like Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers standing and conversing with each other.
Edgar Su/Reuters

The OCU — in partnership with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, several Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Muslim groups — opposes the civil partnership bill, complicating the intersectional account of the war offered both by Kirill and by many of Ukraine’s liberal supporters. At a recent meeting of its governing body, the OCU reiterated its hostility to same-sex partnerships. Archbishop Yevstratiy of the OCU explained that the civil union legislation is “a way of justifying sins,” and worries that “same-sex partnerships are not the final point … the very words of the Bible, of God’s expression, will be proclaimed as prohibited hate-speech.”

Compared to gay marriage laws in the West, the civil partnerships bill is quite modest, as Sovsun’s legislative director, Maria Klyus, explained to me in an interview. Civil partners — any two adults — would be given hospital visitation rights, the right to inherit tax-free, some welfare benefits, and information when one partner dies (an especially important issue for the partners of soldiers). Married couples and civil partners would be distinguished by family law, Klyus says — “civil partnerships don’t cover anything connected to parental rights. You do not have the possibility to adopt children. You do not automatically have parental rights over your partner’s child.” Also, civil partnerships are easily dissolvable — “all you need is a judge to say, there is a will of one party to end it,” whereas divorce judges can order waiting periods before ending a marriage.

Zelensky has suggested that he supports civil partnerships. The Ukrainian army has advertised the valor of its gay soldiers. Many in the Rada support the liberal bill and think members of the European Union would smile on its passage.

But passage is still dicey. A 2022 survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology — the source of the data that support for civil unions has doubled — indicates that support for extending rights to same-sex couples (rather than gay individuals) is not high. Forty two percent of Ukrainians oppose civil partnerships for same-sex couples even without the right to joint adoption, 27 percent are neutral, and fewer than a quarter are in favor.

Destroyed Russian military vehicles on display in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

The president’s own Servant of the People party is itself divided about civil partnerships. Oleksander Alexichuk, a parliamentarian from Servant of the People, told me he opposes the civil partnerships law for going against the spirit of Ukraine’s constitution, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. “The foundation of Ukrainian society is the institution of the traditional family,” Alexichuk said. Regarding opposition to the law among the populace: “The perception of this law, we have to look at it through the prism of faith and God.” His sentiments were echoed in interviews I did with three other members of Parliament from Servant of the People: Ihor Fris, Georgiy Mazurashu and Andrii Bogdanets. “Historically our government and society are quite religious,” Bogdanets said. Mazurashu told me civil partnerships are wrong for a “Christian country.”

It’s possible the desires of Ukraine’s European and American allies will settle the civil partnerships debate. The influence of churches is “significant but not decisive,” says Mykola Knyzhitsky, a member of the Rada from the European Solidarity party from Western Ukraine. “The will of Ukrainian society to join the EU is way bigger than conservative principles.”

Vladislav Davidzon, European culture correspondent for Tablet Magazine and a frequent commentator on the Ukrainian war effort, says Ukrainians understand “the need to win multiple wars” — against Russia and domestic corruption and for national cohesion and Western support. The Ukrainian army has appointed a transgender American as its English-language spokesperson, which seems like a nod to the liberal views of the Biden administration. Davidzon, who has been reporting from and living in Ukraine for 14 years, doesn’t “think anyone in Brussels or in Paris will hold up [Ukraine’s] accession to the EU” if the civil partnerships bill doesn’t pass the Rada.

Whether the war ends with a peace deal or just pauses in a stalemate, civil partnerships and related questions will become major subjects of public debate, and the divisions within Zelensky’s very diverse ruling party — and of the country generally — will be impossible to ignore.

An Orthodox priest carries out services at the coffin U.S. serviceman Christopher James Campbell.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

The OCU is not a state institution on the model of the Russian Orthodox Church. It does not have the support that, for instance, the Catholic Church enjoys in neighboring Poland. But after its growth and prominence during the war, the OCU is unlikely to be a docile participant in Ukraine public life, especially on issues — like the civil partnerships bill — that it thinks oppose the church’s moral teaching.

The OCU will likely end this conflict as one of Ukraine’s major patriotic institutions outside the government as well as the country’s main spiritual authority. Whether it decides to wield its influence together with Ukraine’s other religious groups may determine the country’s path after the war — whether post-war Ukraine adopts the more secular profile of its Western sponsors, becoming a heavily-armed Belgium on the Dnieper or, alternatively, tries to become a nation that’s traditional and European and pluralistic all at once.

Source: Politico

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