Fall 2014, Vol. 15, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


Current issue:
Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Religion in the News is Dead! Long Live Religion in the News!

The Contraceptive Mandate Marches On

Hell No, I Won't Go 

Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup        

Marriage is Always Complicated in Utah

Breaking Bad in Burma

Evangelicals Wimp Out on Immigration

Pew on Jew

Zen Master in the Garden

The Pope’s Israel Driveby

Noah: The Movie

The Art of RIN





Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup  
by Andrew Walsh


Journalists have been struggling to parse the role of religion in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. For months, wherever they turned, they registered that nobody was doing anything without deploying Orthodox clerics, symbols, or rituals to accomplish the business at hand: rouse supporters, console the bereaved, celebrate triumphs, defuse confrontations, or condemn opponents.

And yet, religion in Ukraine is manifestly Balkanized—with three contending Orthodox churches and a Catholic church that looks and acts Orthodox. More confusingly, most of the many players mobilized Orthodox rituals and symbols to bolster their conflicting positions in the complex Ukrainian struggle over whether and how to move away from Russia.

Consider this range of examples:

On May 13, as pro-Russian activists announced the results of their controversial plebiscite that claimed a 95 percent vote for autonomy in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, a Reuters photographer captured the image of an elderly man standing triumphantly before the barricade outside Donetsk City Hall, holding aloft an ornate crucifix in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

A few days earlier, a National Public Radio report described a group of elderly women setting up a table they covered with Orthodox icons brought from their homes to defend another pro-Russian barricade in Eastern Ukraine.

But in Kiev, to the west, as jubilant protesters surged into the Ukrainian parliament building on February 24 to celebrate the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, they passed through a gauntlet of “Orthodox priests, dressed in their robes, holding up crosses and splashing the citizen army of mostly factory workers, farmers and sons with holy water,” Charles Miranda of the London Telegraph reported.

Earlier, in the Kiev protests that swirled on the Maidan, the city’s chief square, from December to February, lines of priests and monks in black robes repeatedly interposed themselves between protesters and riot police, holding icons in their hands.

At 4:30 a.m. on December 4, one of the earliest spasms of violence took place. David Herszenhorn of the New York Times described Yanukovych’s riot police storming into Kiev’s Maidan, “spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons.” The bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery nearby began to toll a warning and the doors of the Orthodox church were thrown open to provide sanctuary for protesters.

Eastern Christians (a phrase of art that includes Byzantine Catholics, major players in Ukrainian identity politics, as well as Orthodox Christians) command a vast toolbox of powerful symbols and rituals and there’s nothing new about Orthodox people mobilizing them for public purposes. Historical accounts of Tsarist Russia’s 1905 revolution—which also played big in Ukraine—were replete with similar reports. More recently, many recall that in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, Orthodox symbols and priests accompanied Serbian assertions with similar vigor.

But in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Orthodox represented one “side,” and their symbolic actions were aimed at and roused only those on that side. Not so in Ukraine, which created puzzles both for journalists and for their audiences. In the examples listed above, some deployed Orthodox symbols and rituals to convey essentially pro-Russian messages and others to support the acceleration of Ukraine’s movement away from Russia. On still other occasions, contending factions collaborated to use Orthodox symbols and rituals to constrain violence.

On the Maidan last winter there was even a tent where clergy of many traditions (including Protestants) celebrated services attended by people of all faiths and none—a strikingly exceptional event in a region where Orthodoxy predominates and historical rivalries are keenly felt. As a result, even journalists who thought they were equipped with a score card had trouble telling the sides apart and, as a result, were hard pressed to assess the role of religion in Ukraine’s complex breakdown.

To outsiders, almost everything about Ukraine—geography, history, nationality, religion—seems fractured and contested. “We’re used to thinking of Ukraine as a grey and hazy place of disorder and uncertainty, a country befitting a name that translates to ‘borderland,’ just off the edge of the map, between blocs we still insist on describing as ‘East’ and ‘West,’” the Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Doug Sanders wrote on July 25.

But the pervasive “Orthodox” quality of religion in Ukraine is one feature that suggests that there is a whole there somewhere, that Ukraine is not simply a hodgepodge of places and peoples thrust together by history. The problem is that the whole is a cultural commonality shared with other countries in the region, notably Belarus and Russia, and to a lesser degree Slovakia and others.

One real challenge for journalists—especially the majority who parachuted in to cover an unfamiliar story—is the overabundance of germane historical context. Where to begin with the problems of Ukraine?

In the 10th century, when missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought Orthodox Christianity to the Eastern Slavs in what was then called Kievan Rus? In the 13th century, when Kievan Rus was divided by Mongols and invaders from Poland and Lithuania, tearing Ukraine into eastern and western zones that have had long-lasting meaning? In the late 16th and 17th centuries, when Byzantine Rite Catholicism was created and the power of the Tsars of Moscow swept westwards? Or in the repeated redrawing of Ukraine’s borders during the 20th century, culminating with the collapse of Soviet power in 1991?

Journalists wandered around in this vast history, interviewing Ukrainians whose loyalties derived from one moment or another of this conflicted past. They found Greek Catholics in western Ukraine, whose historical experience was shaped by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, and who mostly espouse a maximalist vision of an independent Ukraine and embrace a Western orientation. In the Russian-speaking east, in the Don River basin—a region called New Russia since the early 18th century—the journalists found Orthodox Ukrainians who wanted a soft and permeable border with Russia, and even some who simply viewed themselves as Russians.

On the ground, the religious situation looks like this. The largest religious organization is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is largely self-governing but linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Next in size is an upstart Orthodox jurisdiction, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), organized to counter the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1990s, in the early days of Ukrainian independence.

Third comes the Byzantine Catholic Church, dominant in the far west of the country, but anxious to express its Ukrainian identity by doing things such as moving the seat of its chief bishop from Lvov in Galicia to Kiev. And fourth is a small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, strongest in western Ukraine and closely tied to Ukrainian Orthodox émigré churches in Europe and North America and to a brief period of Ukrainian Orthodox independence in the early days of the Russian Revolution.

When the New York Times’ David Herszenhorn looked for help in explaining the religious dynamic on December 5, he found experts advancing an explanation rooted in the country’s religious diversity. “Ukraine has the most pluralistic religious market in Eastern Europe,” Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Liberty told him. “Because none of the churches unite more than a quarter of citizens, there is a balance of power.”

But that explanation ignores a clearer and perhaps more illuminating generalization, one that takes account of the shallow reality of Ukrainian religious pluralism: Since the 1980s, the rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism has dealt the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine a series of ever graver setbacks. And the most serious to date have been the revolt on the Maidan and the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych.

In the mid-1980s, only one of the four Orthodox and Catholic groups listed above existed as a public religious actor in Ukraine: the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1946, Stalin had suppressed the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine and handed over its churches and believers to the Moscow Patriarchate. Except for a small cluster of Protestants, the Moscow Patriarchate was Christianity in Ukraine.

The patriarchate’s religious monopoly began to erode during the Gorbachev years of the late 1980s, when, under pressure from the Vatican, the Greek Catholic Church was permitted to re-emerge and began to reclaim churches and believers and to recreate its institutions. Within a decade, it had 3,000 parishes up and running, mostly in the far western reaches of the country.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine itself cracked up. Filaret Denyskeno, metropolitan of Kiev, who had been the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief bishop in Ukraine since the early 1970s, led a movement to carve out an independent (“autocephalous” in Orthodox parlance) national church. He consorted briefly with the overseas Ukrainians who were in the process of resurrecting the autocephalous Orthodox Church that had existed briefly in the 1920s, then decided to strike out on his own and create the autocephalous Kyiv Patriarchate.

The Moscow Patriarchate and most of its Ukrainian bishops resisted the break. In 1992, they set up an “autonomous” Ukrainian Orthodox Church (a church that elects its own leaders but which reports, ultimately, to a “mother” church—in this case, Moscow).

The upshot was three contending Orthodox churches in the newly independent Ukraine. Only one, the Moscow Patriarchate, is recognized as legitimate by other Orthodox Churches around the world. But on the ground in Ukraine, there has been flux.

In the early 1990s, Filaret’s Kyiv Patriarchate aligned itself strongly with the president of the newly independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk. The Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian “exarchate” did the same with Viktor Yanukovych when he was elected president in 2010. Both churches wanted the power of the Ukrainian state on their side.

According to a sequence of studies performed by the Razumkov Center in Kiev, there has been very rapid growth in religion in Ukraine in the post-Soviet period, including the notable growth of Protestant and Pentecostal churches. A long series of Razumkov polls shows that the clergy are now among the most respected of Ukraine’s professionals. The social prestige of religion is high and Ukrainian sociologists think of the years since 1990 as a period of de-secularization.

The number of religious organizations in Ukraine (mostly congregations) grew from 6,263 in 1985 to 35,184 in 2010. During the same period, the number of monasteries (Orthodox and Catholic) surged from nine to 590 and the number of monastics from 439 to 6,742. Despite Protestant growth, Razumkov estimates that two thirds of the Ukrainian population claim to be Orthodox.[1]

In most of the statistical categories organized by Razumkov, the Moscow Patriarchate held a significant lead throughout the period—controlling the most parishes, monasteries and clergy, as well as more institutions like seminaries, Sunday Schools and publishing houses. But except for the number of monastics, where it remains far in the lead, the Moscow Patriarchate’s market share has been shrinking since 1985. And the Kyiv Patriarchate’s has been growing.

A 2006 survey by Razumkov found that almost 40 percent of Ukrainians identified with the Kyiv Patriarchate and only about 30 percent with the Moscow Patriarchate. The Greek Catholic population was about 15 percent and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church about three percent.

So what’s happening in Ukraine is a swing towards preference for a fully independent, national Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a process that accelerated during the winter protests on the Maidan. With growing plausibility, the Kyiv Patriarchate presents itself as this national Orthodox Church.

The Moscow Patriarchate, which is just as historically rooted in Kievan Rus as the Ukrainian one, is resisting mightily—not least because nowhere in the post-Soviet world is Orthodoxy thriving more than in Ukraine. But it is having a hard time figuring out how to sway Ukrainian public opinion.

It’s worth noting that a similar process of ecclesiastical decolonization took place in the Orthodox Balkans during the 19th century, when now autocephalous Orthodox Churches in Greece, Serbia, Romanian, Bulgaria and Albania broke away from a deeply resistant Patriarchate of Constantinople. It took the Patriarchate of Constantinople decades to reconcile itself to that.

Examined from this perspective, the current crisis in Ukraine has had two distinct phases—the Maidan (or “Euromaidan,” as many European journalists called it) and the pro-Russian rebellion that followed in eastern Ukraine. In both phases, the Kyiv Patriarchate took a clear, pro-Ukrainian line, and the Moscow Patriarchate was unable to develop a clear position.

In January, as the protests on the Maidan developed into a rebellion against Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance, the Kyiv Patriarchate was unequivocal. “The clergy of the Kyiv Patriarchate blessed the anti-government protesters and rolled up their cassock sleeves to help build barricades themselves,” Voice of America radio reporter Jamie Dettmer broadcast March 25.

On April 20, many journalistic outlets carried excerpts of Filaret’s Easter sermon condemning Russian aggression and predicting that Moscow’s “evil” would be defeated.

Indeed, Filaret had started on message in the late autumn and stayed there for the entire struggle against Yanukovych. In a December 5 interview with the New York Times, he said, “My opinion, personal, about how we should exit from this situation: First, Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Second: resignation of the government. If those conditions are met, people will be happy with that.”

The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Ukraine and in Russia itself, could not find a compelling response. In the first phase, on the Maidan, they called for peace and dialogue. Many of the Orthodox clergy and monks who stood between protesters and police belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, and they ardently opposed violence.

A report on the Russian website on January 24 caught the ambivalence of the Moscow Patriarchate’s clergy: “Monks from the Kiev-Caves Lavra, Fr. Gabriel, Fr. Melchisedek, and Fr. Ephraim stood on Grushevsky Street in Kiev with a cross and icons, between the demonstrators and the Ukrainian special police force ‘Berkut,’ and stopped the conflict. They entered the arena as peace-makers, and not in support of one side or the other.

“Although they were invited to join the ‘people,’ the fathers only prayed and sang the Paschal troparion: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’”

The hierarchs of the Russian Church had even more trouble articulating their views. On April 20, Radio Free Europe contrasted the Easter statement of Filaret with that of the Russian Patriarch, Kyrill, who called on God “to put an end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia.” While Ukraine was “politically separate,” it remains “spiritually and historically” one with Russia, Kyrill said.

On March 25, a Ukrainian spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate sought to explain his church’s position: “The church is with the people of Ukraine and its focus has been on bringing Ukrainian people together and avoiding the conflicts of the past that gave rise to the foundation of the Kyiv Patriarchate.”

A further challenge was an untimely leadership crisis within the Ukrainian Church Moscow Patriarchate. Its senior bishop, Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kiev, who had been elected in 1992 to replace the ousted Filaret, was very elderly and in poor health when the Maidan protests erupted. The church’s Ukrainian synod met on February 26 and elected the more vigorous Metropolitan Onufry of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna, in the southwest of the country, to stand in for Volodymyr, who died later in the spring.

Erasmus, the London Economist’s religion and public policy columnist, wrote the same day that Onufry “certainly looked like a man who will remain in step with Moscow.” Erasmus speculated, however, that the Moscow Patriarchate might be feeling pressed to reconcile with the Kyiv Patriarchate.

“If the new order in the Ukraine prevails, and the Ukrainian state is consolidated, pressure for the creation of a single national church may become almost unstoppable,” he wrote. “A new Ukrainian government may shift its powers of patronage in favor of the Kiev Patriarchate. If moves toward a national church are happening, the Moscow aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church would certainly not want to be frozen out of the process.”

By and large, journalists have not exerted themselves in this crisis to discover the Russian church’s point of view. Almost every significant story that mentioned its stance included a paragraph like this one by Neil MacFarquhar in the August 4 New York Times:

“The Russian Orthodox Church was resurrected after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, ending 70 years of often brutal Communist repression. The church seems only too happy to hitch its halting rebirth to Mr. Putin’s fortunes, hoping to attract more adherents. Although 80 percent of the 140 million Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox culturally, the number who actually attend church is tiny. The church says it is nearly 10 percent, but experts say it has long hovered around 3 percent.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union presented the Moscow Patriarchate with a situation it hated and feared: the possible loss of a third or more of their churches—in Ukraine most of all, but also in Belarus, Molodova, the Baltic States, and Kazakhstan. The patriarch responded by embracing autonomy for Orthodox Churches outside Russia proper and began to envision the Russian Orthodox Church as a transnational and even global church.

In Ukraine itself, the clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate are no less Ukrainian than those of the Kyiv Patriarchate or the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Metropolitans Volodymyr and Onufry, for example, are both from western Ukraine, while Patriarch Filaret comes from the Russian speaking region around Dontesk.

A handful of journalists—and, most consistently, the staff of the Christian Science Monitor—did pay close attention to the Moscow Patriarchate’s views and discerned some daylight between them and Vladimir Putin’s. A May 4 Monitor editorial noted, for example, the Patriarch Kyrill had called on the churches and clergy in Ukraine to “safeguard” the church’s “peace-making capacity” and asserted that “our Church is not succumbing to any political temptations and refuses to serve political positions.”

In the zones of eastern Ukraine that were seized by pro-Russian activists during the spring, journalists encountered lay Russian Orthodox enthusiasm for Russia and considerable evidence of individual priests acting to support pro-Russian militias. But there was little evidence that the church’s hierarchy was actively moving to support the rebellion.

On May 4, in the single best story on the religious divisions of Ukraine, the Monitor’s Fred Weir interviewed Patriarch Filaret, who made his views crystal clear:

“We suggest uniting the two Ukrainian churches and separating from Moscow altogether. They [Moscow] propose that we unite and subordinate the whole church to the Moscow patriarchate.

“The Ukrainian state will continue, and this state will have only one Orthodox Church. Our Ukrainian church supports the state, it supports the people and the Army. We pray for Ukraine as an independent state.”

Weir followed up with Nikolai Danilyevich, secretary of external affairs for the Moscow-linked Ukrainian church, who rejected Filaret’s formulation and called him a divisive figure.
“In our church we straddle the divide,” Danilyevich said. “In our church there are two tendencies, pro-Russia and anti-Russia, and we try to maintain a balance. What has happened in Ukraine is because the balance was disrupted, and now that split is shaking the religious sphere.”

It seems increasingly implausible that any church can, lastingly, restore that balance.



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