Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Orthodox Church split affects invasion of Ukraine

NATO’s eastward expansion is just one reason Russia justifies its invasion of Ukraine. Another view is that there is foreign interference in the religious sphere of Ukraine, including alleged moves by the United States to incite a schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that both the West and a new rival patriarchy “have the same goal” of weakening Russia and making enemies of the fraternal peoples, Russians and Ukrainians.

Experts say that the religious aspect is not the main reason for the attack, but it cannot be ignored either.

“You cannot talk of religious war. However, (the invasion) has a religious dimension,” said Rev. Cyril Hvorun, a Ukrainian-born Orthodox priest who teaches ecclesiastical, international relations and ecumenism at Stockholm University.

Kirill made his remarks in response to a letter from the interim head of the World Church Council, which urged him to “raise his voice” and mediate with the authorities to stop the war.

Kirill argued that the war was not the fault of the Russian authorities and that the root of the conflict is threats from abroad, both political and religious.

He highlighted that in 2019 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople formally recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a country that the Moscow Patriarchate considers to be under its jurisdiction. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Turkey, is considered the “first among equals” among Orthodox Patriarchs, but unlike the Pope, he has no authority beyond his territory.

In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of being “directly involved in the current crisis of conservatives” and of “financing Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to pursue a divisive policy, including in Ukraine.”

He provided no evidence of such alleged manipulation, although US officials spoke in favor of Ukrainians’ right to religious self-determination.

Most Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox, but the controversy goes beyond numbers. Patriarch Kirill is a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both promote the idea of ​​a “Russian world” forged over a millennium of Orthodox Christian culture shared by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukrainians say that they are a separate people related to the Russians. On the eve of the war, Putin criticized modern Ukraine, saying it was an illegitimate Soviet invention. He argued that conservative Ukrainians who remained loyal to Moscow were in danger.

In his first sermon since the invasion, on March 6, Kirill alluded to the concept of the Russian world. He said a “spiritual” conflict is taking place in Ukraine between a foreign liberal establishment, which wants countries admitted to a world of excessive consumption and freedom to hold “gay parades”.

Religious disputes in the region date back to the arrival of Orthodoxy in that part of the world over a millennium ago.

In the first centuries, Orthodoxy in the Kyiv region was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But in 1686, as the Church in Constantinople weakened under Ottoman rule, the Ecumenical Patriarchate arranged for the now independent Moscow Patriarch to appoint the chief bishop of Kyiv. The Russian Orthodox Church maintains that this was a permanent change of jurisdiction. The worldwide patriarchy confirms that this was somewhat temporary.

Hvorun says that the history of the modern Church makes it clear that the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a project of the United States.

“The idea of ​​an independent church came to Ukraine about 100 years ago,” Hvorun said.

Ukraine had an independent Orthodox Church during a brief period of independence in the 1920s and after breaking away from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

The two main branches were united and recognized by Patriarch Bartholomew worldwide as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019. Moscow strongly opposed this move.

“Unless that step was taken, Kirill and the whole world could refer to the various Ukrainian churches as scholasticism,” said Catherine Vanner, a professor of history, anthropology and religious studies specializing in the field. “The rivalry around the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate escalated at that time.”

The dispute became politicized, Hvorun said, but it was “in response to the politicization of the Russian Church at the behest of the Kremlin.”

The US State Department praised the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This, as well as contacts with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolomeo, who has met with dignitaries from the United States, speak of Russian interference by the United States in the dispute.

Ukraine is currently ruled by a secular Jew, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not interfere in religious matters, according to Vanar.

Many Orthodox Ukrainians remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. But they are reconsidering that allegiance because the Russian patriarch did not condemn the Russian invasion.

“Sadly, Patriarch Kirill’s peace ring is hollow as he condemns the invasion of a sovereign nation in the name of the imperialist notion of a ‘Russian world’ that no longer exists.”


Associated Press religious coverage is supported through a partnership with The Conversation US with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for the content.

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