Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Will it secede from the Russian one?

Ukraine’s Religious Scene: In Quest for an Independent Orthodox Church6 min read

Sasha Mishcheriakova

While politicians help forward plans for a united Ukrainian Orthodox church, a recent survey shows that the population is not overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the idea. However, if successful, the move could reduce the country’s dependence on Russia and possibly pave the way for a more consolidated Ukrainian society.

Ukraine’s religious setup is a difficult one to analyse, and its several major competing church organisations add to the established image of a divided country. That’s why a recent move towards creating a united and independent Orthodox church has been widely discussed in Ukraine’s mass media. However, to get an official status, such a church would require approval from other independent Eastern Orthodox institutions around the world. What they agree on currently is that Ukraine’s only authorised Orthodox church is the branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, while all other religious organisations remain unrecognised. Given Russia’s aggressive actions over the recent years, this is a situation many Ukrainians consider negatively, as it implies Moscow’s continued influence over a part of its neighbors religious life.

The official Kyiv openly regards the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool for keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. Therefore, the idea of a united and independent church has recently got a boost from political forces. This April, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko turned to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians, with an official letter to ask for independence for the Ukrainian church. The move was supported by the Parliament and some major religious leaders in the country. The Patriarch is now considering the request, with a decision expected to arrive in late July.

Poroshenko recognises the reasons for seeking an independent Ukrainian church being more than just religious ones and sees it as an important step in lessening Russia’s influence over Ukraine. This has caused concerns about the political nature of his motivations, given the presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2019. The president emphasises that the local church will not be a state one, but criticism arises anyway regarding the state’s meddling with religious affairs, especially voiced by the chiefs of the Russian Orthodox Church. Proponents of the idea, however, highlight the benefits of having an independent Ukrainian church, such as increased sense of unity among the population.

Ukraine’s Many Churches

To grasp how popular the move is among Ukrainians themselves, it is vital to understand how the religious scene works in the country. A survey on religious attitudes and practices of the population conducted in March 2018 by Ukraine’s Razumkov Centre shows recent distribution of believers across the country’s diverse collection of churches. According to the survey, 67 per cent of Ukrainians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, most claiming loyalty to one of the several religious organisations. Among these organisations, two stand out as the most popular ones: the already mentioned Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. While the former only enjoys 12.8 percent of followers according to the survey, it insists on calling itself the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, implying that it is the only officially recognised Orthodox church in the country. As such it claims to be the largest church by the size of parishes.

The Kyiv Patriarchate church currently holds loyalty of 28.7 percent of all respondent. It came about after seceding from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992. Back then in the newly independent Ukraine, a national church was wanted by the liberally oriented elites, but it failed to receive recognition from other Orthodox churches around the world. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate styles itself as a possible core for the new united church. It saw a noticeable increase in membership over the recent years, from 15 percent adherents in 2010 to almost a third of the population in 2018. This was accompanied by a decrease in followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the number dropping by half since 2010. The changes in membership sizes could partly be attributed to political reasons: Crimea’s annexation and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine have greatly shifted popular attachment to many Russian things among Ukrainians.

Another religious organisation is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church enjoying adherence of 0.3 percent of the population. It was established during Ukraine’s short-lived independence period in 1919 and re-established as a self-proclaimed independent church in the 1990’s. It is also supportive of the united Orthodox church idea and would agree to step under the Kyiv Patriarchate’s authority in this case.

Many Ukrainians don’t feel affiliated with a particular denomination, considering themselves simply “Christian”, “Orthodox”, or “believer”. In the survey, 23.4 percent of all respondents considered themselves “just Orthodox”, although this response was highest in 2000 with 38.6 percent of the population. The abundance of various church organisations might be one of the reasons for this, as believers might not see much difference among them, their rites and even names being similar. However, following Russia’s aggression and certain political tints the religious life in Ukraine in taking on, it could be possible that more Orthodox population would feel the need to determine their church of choice.

In addition to the Orthodox churches, the Greek Catholic church is followed by 9.4 percent of all respondents, with almost 40 percent considering themselves Greek Catholic in the western part of the country. Following Orthodox rites but recognising the authority of the Pope, the church became separate in 16th century when Poland-controlled western Orthodox parishes were united with the Catholic Church. Ukraine’s other religious minorities include adherents of Rome Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, and Buddhism.

Popular Support for a United Church

The main concerns about the idea of a state Orthodox church are that it might violate freedom of conscience and create obstacles for other religious organisations to operate freely. Only 12 percent of the population are therefore supporting it, according to the survey. Respondents also note that a state-affiliated church seems foreign to the very nature of Ukrainian society, as it has traditionally included many cultures and denominations. At the same time, more people than before support an independent national church that would not be related to the state (as claimed by the president). Although only a third of the respondents say they favour the idea, there are less of those who are against it compared with 2014. Respondents are divided on whether Ukrainian Orthodox believers should rally around the existing Kyiv Patriarchate church or create an entirely new independent religious organisation. In any case, less people than in 2010 believe that Ukrainian church should remain part of the Russian Orthodox Church (9 percent compared with 22 in 2010), a shift most likely tied with Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Many agree Ukraine’s chances of receiving independence for its national church are high, citing Patriarch Bartholomew’s accepting the request for consideration as a good sign. Ukrainian media outlet Hromadske notes Poroshenko’s confidence in publicly referring to a positive outcome as a proof of previous successful negotiations. Ukraine’s new church can become an important step towards negotiating the divides in its society and lowering influence of Russia. At the same time, the way its creation has been initiated by the President and the Parliament demonstrates how closely religion and politics are related in Ukraine. Indeed, the Razumkov survey shows almost half of the population considers religion part of political life, while every third Ukrainian believes that politics is the main reason for interdenominational conflicts in the first place.

Sasha Mishcheriakova is currently finishing her master’s degree in the CEERES program connected to both University of Glasgow, Scotland and University of Tartu, Estonia. She writes about human rights and multilingualism in post-Soviet states.