One of the biggest differences between Eastern and Western Europe is the role of the church. On paper, they are separate, but in Eastern Europe, tradition trumps the law and the influence of the church is immense. In Ukraine, the church is the most trusted institution, which is a good thing, but the fact that one of its strongest branches openly sympathizes with Russia means that the secular world can’t choose to ignore this issue any longer.
Ukrainian religious life is best known for its division between the Kyiv and Moscow Patriarchates. The split took place in 1992 on the grounds that an independent country should have its own church. Since then, there were numerous attempts to unify the church from the inside but the ideological differences seemed too wide. The Kyiv Patriarchate was known for its strong pro-Ukrainian position, while the Moscow Patriarchate was seen as a supporter of “Russkiy mir” ideology (Russian world) and unity between Russia and Ukraine. This stereotypical division was confirmed by the church’s reaction to the Euromaidan and the subsequent Donbas war.
The Kyiv Patriarchate strongly supported the Euromaidan movement. Priests were not only among protesters in the Maidan at all times, but churches and monasteries in central Kyiv were used by revolutionaries as hospitals, canteens, and dormitories. The Moscow Patriarchate remained faithful to now disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych and his allies and even praised the brutal actions of riot police against peaceful protesters.
But the Moscow Patriarchate’s real face was revealed when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. The church turned a blind eye to Russia’s direct involvement in the war, calling it a civil war instead. It also managed to outrage Ukrainians by its numerous refusals to bury dead Ukrainian soldiers as heroes who fell defending their country. This didn’t go unnoticed by worshipers.
The actions of the Moscow Patriarchate became a catalyst for renewed talks about an independent and united Ukrainian church. The presidential administration has actively engaged in this process, but it merely took over an issue that had been hot for some time. But something changed. The Verkhovna Rada and the government had never supported the president’s overtures in the past. The government’s now unanimous position reflects the readiness of the state to take a mediator role if needed, but more importantly it signals that Ukrainian society is ready for this step.
Public opinion demonstrates a strong desire for a united church and that the Kyiv Patriarchate should become the basis for it. In 2010, 22 percent of Ukrainian Orthodox believers associated themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate, while 34.5 percent were loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. In just eight years, the numbers have changed dramatically: in 2018, 43 percent affiliate themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate, while the Moscow Patriarchate has only 19 percent. Although not officially recognized by Constantinople, the Kyiv Patriarchate is the biggest and most influential church in Ukraine.
Most experts and religious authorities say that granting the Ukrainian Patriarchate Tomos—or a document from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople recognizing its autocephaly so the bishop doesn’t report to any higher authority—is almost a done deal and just months away. Doing so would redraw the religious borders of Eastern Europe for the first time in almost 400 years.
The importance of this decision is hard to overestimate. The Orthodox church and its influence on its neighbors is one of the last remnants of the Russian empire. It is also one of the most effective instruments to spread Russian narratives and influence opinion. In the case of Ukraine, the stakes are even higher because it gives the aggressor-state direct access to the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. It’s not an overstatement to regard Ukraine’s independent church as a matter of national security.
Second, an independent Ukrainian church will strongly diminish the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. Without its Ukrainian parishes, it will no longer be the world’s largest Orthodox church, which Russian priests have used to demand more rights and a stronger position among the global orthodoxies. For Russia it will be a double blow: losing both Ukraine, and its international position in the religious world.
Finally, a united church will impact Ukrainian political life. If successful, Poroshenko will get the credit. However, many still speculate if church unification will increase Poroshenko’s popularity and whether those supporting the idea will become Poroshenko’s supporters by default. Undoubtedly, Poroshenko will use the church as one of the cornerstones of his presidential campaign, along with strengthening the army and the status of the Ukrainian language.
Granting a Tomos to Ukraine’s Kyiv Patriarchate will be an important milestone, but it will be just the beginning of a long process to unify the Ukrainian church. Parishes then will have to decide if they want to join the new church, a question that revolves around power and property. However complex and long, this process must start. A united national church is the last missing piece to make Ukraine truly independent.
Kateryna Kruk is a Ukrainian political scientist and communications expert fellow at StopFake and the European Values Think Tank. In 2014, the Atlantic Council awarded her its Freedom Award for communicating the Euromaidan Revolution to the world via Twitter. She tweets @Kateryna_Kruk.