Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on April 17 that Ukraine might have an independent, unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church as early as July 28—the anniversary of Kyivan Rus’ adoption of Christianity. He made this prediction after the Ukrainian parliament voted to support the president’s efforts to convince Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant autocephalous status to the combined Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC)-Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
During an official state visit to Istanbul, Poroshenko met with Patriarch Bartholomew on April 17. The two leaders held seven hours of closed-doors discussions before the president announced “Ukraine is as close as ever to the emergence of its own Unified Orthodox Church.” Poroshenko refused to divulge the details of the agreements he reached with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Opposition members of parliament claim that Poroshenko’s efforts are a charade designed to help the president’s party at the polls next year. While electoral politics may have influenced the exact timing of the talks in Istanbul, they represent the culmination of many years of efforts to have the Kyiv Patriarchate recognized. Two hundred sixty-eight parliamentarians voted to endorse Poroshenko’s efforts, far more than the 132 members of the president’s party.
Ukrainian nationalists have been trying to establish an autocephalous church since 1992, when Patriarch Filaret broke with the Moscow Patriarchate and established his own congregation, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate. The Moscow church banned Patriarch Filaret, excommunicated him, and eventually declared him anathema for his action. For the nationalists, however, it is a question of politics, not theology. “Unity is our main weapon in the fight against the Russian aggressor,” Poroshenko told the parliament. “This question goes far beyond the ecclesiastical. It is about our finally acquiring independence from Moscow.”
Poroshenko pointed out that the Kremlin regards the Moscow Patriarchate as “one of the key tools of influence over Ukraine.” His thoughts are echoed by Archbishop Zoria Yevstratiy of the Kyiv Patriarchate, who said that the differences aren’t about faith. “Moscow is using its influence over Ukraine in the church as an instrument of hybrid warfare against Ukraine,” said the prelate.
Within Ukraine itself, the Kyiv Patriarchate is clearly winning. According to the Razumkov Center, among the 27.8 million Ukrainian members of Orthodox churches, allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarchate has grown from 12 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2016. Much of the growth has come from believers who previously did not associate with either patriarchate. The undeclared war with Russia has forced people to choose between the rival churches, a choice that was not necessary before 2014.
Another study puts the number of Kyiv Patriarchate members at 46 percent of Orthodox believers. According to Archbishop Yevstratiy, “When those in the Moscow Patriarchate declare that they supposedly are the largest confession (in Ukraine), this isn’t true.” The Moscow Patriarchate is “at a minimum two or even two and a half times smaller a confession than that of the Kyiv Patriarchate.”
As expected, the bid for independence from the Moscow Patriarchate faces stiff ecclesiastical opposition from the Moscow church. They point out that Moscow annexed Kyiv’s Metropolitan in 1686, and that Ukrainian clerics are therefore under Moscow’s authority, and not Constantinople’s. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew therefore lacks the authority to grant Ukraine an independent status.
Archbishop Yevstratiy dismisses these arguments. He claims that the 1686 annexation was accomplished by use of force, already a violation of canonical law. In a Facebook posting, he wrote that the ecumenical patriarch had granted autocephaly unilaterally to Orthodox churches in Estonia in 1996, Bulgaria in 1998, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2014. Thus, “the practice of granting Tomos (an official Church declaration) on autocephaly by Constantinople in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confirms that the Ecumenical Patriarchate alone makes this decision, without the need for prior agreements with other Churches.”
What happens among the various Orthodox communities is worth watching, as it impacts questions of Ukrainian sovereignty, the influence of Moscow, and the ecclesiastical legitimacy of the congregations. Poroshenko’s July 28 deadline might be rushed, however.
To avoid making a decision on autocephaly, the Ecumenical Patriarch referred the recognition question to a study group two years ago. Without additional knowledge of what occurred between Patriarch Bartholomew and the president, it is impossible to state with any certainty if the patriarch has come to a decision. As the editorial board of the Union of Orthodox Journalists wrote, “You do not have time to count how many times a week the mass media express the thesis of official representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate about the ‘soonest recognition’ by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
James J. Coyle is the author of Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts (2017: Palgrave Macmillan) and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.