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Liberated Ukraine

After the Maidan overthrow, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remained a social ground in which the ideological narrative of the new leadership was not yet anchored – but this terrain is also to be conquered: at the beginning of 2019, despite criticism from the entire Orthodox world, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the secession of its own Ukrainian orthodoxy. President Petro Poroshenko celebrated the recognition as a major political victory for his government in the election campaign. For many believers of the still largest denomination in Ukraine, however, autocephaly resulted in open discrimination.

In December 2018, the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OKU) was founded with the participation of then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and two exarchs from the United States as part of a hierarchical assembly. It was an association of two non-canonical ecclesiastical structures that were active in the country at that time. They were non-canonical because none of the 14 Orthodox national churches had recognized their separation from the pro-Moscow Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOK). For this reason, their relatives were also considered schismatics. The UOK is under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, with far-reaching autonomy rights. This in turn unites up to three-quarters of all Orthodox believers worldwide.

Did Patriarch Bartholomew have exceeded his powers?

At the beginning of January 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople single-handedly recognized the newly founded OKU by awarding the so-called Tomos, an ecclesiastical decree granting it autocephaly, in a ceremony at which, unsurprisingly, Poroshenko was also present. With this act, bartholomew exceeded the boundaries of his authority under church law, according to established orthodoxy in Ukraine and other states.

After all, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had thus voluntarily resumed a schismatic church, thereby not only undermining the ecclesiastical integrity of the Moscow Patriarchate, but also ignoring the entire system of the synodal church structure. With his status as “primus inter pares”, the first among equals, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople cannot argue, critics point out. This status does not confer special powers under church law, they say. In response to Bartholomew’s single-handedness, the Russian Orthodox Church ceased eucharistic communication with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Ex-President Poroshenko may have seen himself as the “new Henry VIII.”

Poroshenko, on the other hand, took the parchment that showed the text of Tomos on his campaign tour across the country. Under the slogan “army, language, faith”, the election campaign was intended to mobilize mainly national-conservative and anti-Russian voters. “By establishing his own ‘church’, he wants to present himself as the new Saint Vladimir in time for the first round of the presidential elections in March 2019 – he was the most important prince of The Kievan Rus, who initiated, among other things, their Christianization; He may even see himself as the new Henry VIII,” US analyst and ex-diplomat Jim Jatras commented on the “Tomos Tour.”

However, the autocephaly based on the Tomos met with great scepticism among most believers in the interior. One of the reasons was Bartholomew’s own claims because of the Tomos on the administration of the OKU and on the valuable church property it possesses. The Tomos, according to the widely held view, has much more to do with political claims to power in Kiev and Constantinople than with the concerns of the Orthodox faithful, critics say. Moreover, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as a self-governing church, already enjoys far-reaching autonomy rights. With more than 12,000 congregations, it remained the strongest religious community in the country. On the church holidays, it was able to mobilize tens of thousands of believers to its processions, while the religious community claiming autocephaly had no nearly as large following.

After the Maidan, nationalists exercised cultural hegemony

There are a few things to note about this. After the february 2014 coup – dubbed the “revolution of dignity” or merely the “Maidan Revolution” by protagonists, but a coup d’état by opponents – nationalist forces in Ukraine have gained considerable influence. The loss of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to Russia as a result of a referendum and the Russian-backed rebellion against the Maidan government in Donbass have cultivated patriotic and anti-Russian sentiments in parts of the population. Against this background, the Maidan government has legitimized anti-Russian actors, including ultranationalists, as “fatherland defenders.”

This was particularly resonating in the Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west and centre of the country. The government in Kiev was able to use nationalism to mobilize society and declared the firm ties with the US, NATO and the EU to be a state resonance, while at the same time breaking with Russia as an alleged “aggressor state”. Pro-Russian parties have been smashed or banned. The state significantly expanded its security services. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church remained the only social terrain in which the ideological narrative of the new leadership was not yet anchored.

Communities forced to rename

Poroshenko’s advance towards autocephaly was aimed at conquering this terrain as well. He and his supporters argued that true Ukrainian independence was impossible without breaking the “spiritual bondage to Moscow.” However, the hoped-for mass transfer of priests and congregations of the UOK to the new National Church of Ukraine was not. The state resorted to legal-administrative pressures, for example by withdrawing the rights to church property, converting congregations or refusing to approve amendments to the statutes in many dioceses and monasteries of the UOK. Simultaneously with the establishment of the “National Church” OKU in December 2018, the Ukrainian Parliament passed the “Renaming Act”, according to which all congregations of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church are to be obliged in future to change their names and in future to indicate their membership in the administrative center in the so-called “Aggressorland”, which has been the rule of the Russian Federation since 2017. Because of the new regulation, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could no longer call itself “Ukrainian”, but only “Russian”. For example, as long as the municipalities have not complied with the obligation to rename, they cannot carry on an economic activity.

But that is not all, especially in the West and in the centre of Ukraine, violent attacks on priests and believers, arson, vandalism and hostile takeovers of the churches by radical militias have been commonplace since 2014. During the “Tomos Tour” there was another wave of attacks, which in many cases were at least tolerated by the authorities and the executive. The Union of Orthodox Journalists counts up to 140 documented cases of violence or state arbitrariness on an interactive map of the country in recent years.

“State Church” did not pay for elections

Petro Poroshenko won only 25 percent of the vote in the run-off for the presidency in April last year, failing in an attempt to secure his re-election. His rival, actor and TV comedian Vladimir Selensky, won with 73 percent. Poroshenko’s interference in church affairs and the creation of a “state church” did not benefit the unpopular president. But legal discrimination against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church continued even after his election.

The “renaming law” still hangs like a sword of Damocles over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, currently it is stopped only because of a decision of a local court, which now has to be reviewed by the highest courts. Violent attacks and intimidation are also still taking place. They will continue to be either tolerated or supported by local authorities. The difference with the situation before is that the backing no longer comes centrally from Kiev. The actors who are involved in the attacks are local authorities or political parties who set the tone there. Some areas of western Ukraine have already had some new “hotspots” since the summer of 2020.

National Corps organizes attacks

Just a few days ago, several members of the nationalist organization National Corps demolished the fence around the private property of a UOK priest in the Ivano-Frankivsk region with hammers and crowbars. The extremists recorded their action on video and posted it online along with verbal threats.

Earlier, the local mayor had publicly threatened the priest and the faithful that they would “not allow Muscovites to build their church here.” At a meeting in front of the priest’s property, he demonstratively took a hammer in his hand. The incitements were supported by the clergy of the Greek Catholic Church, which can also be seen in an interview on a local TV station.

Nevertheless, according to the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Blessed Metropolitan Onuphrius, the acts of persecution are losing vehemence compared to earlier times, since the actions against the UOK are no longer controlled from Kiev.

Selensky stops backing from Kiev

“What is happening today is an echo of what happened under the former president. In some cities in western Ukraine there are still places where the confrontation is not yet over, but it no longer has any support from the center,” he said in an interview for the YouTube channel Perschi Kasazki. Onuphrius is a monk and very popular among believers. He considers discrimination against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be a spiritual test in order to “stay awake and not to make yourself too comfortable”.

Lawyers such as the lawyers of Public Advocacy, who say they are the only law firm for Christian rights in international organisations such as the UN or OSCE, see it differently. According to assessment of experts on canon law from this non-governmental organization, President Vladimir Selensky did not in fact continue the open policy of persecution of his predecessor.

“However, the structure of the Schismatic Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been created in fact and the process of repression has been set in motion,” they say. “Although there are currently fewer violations of the law against believers of the UOK, systematic problems remain unresolved. In fact, there is no longer any mass confiscation of the churches, but no one is returning buildings that were stolen as early as 2015-2020. Other violations of the law, such as illegal rewrites of UOK municipalities to the OKU, also remain.”

“Any wrongdoing will not be corrected

They do not give an optimistic forecast for the future. The state will stick to its policy of comprehensively and systematically shrinking the rights of the denomination associated with the Moscow Patriarchate. Hatred and hostility towards their believers would be further stoked. The conclusion of the NGOs:

“Although the violations of the law are indeed less intense, we see no signs that the Ukrainian state at least tends to change its repressive strategy against the UOK.”