By Christopher Miller
When Father Kostyantyn Kuznetsov rang the bells and swung open the doors of the blue-and-gold-domed St. Stritenskiy Temple in 2015, it marked a small but significant victory in an intensifying dispute that’s shaking the Eastern Orthodox Church, the world’s second-largest Christian denomination.
First planned as a Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate, as the local wing of the Russian Orthodox Church is known, construction of St. Stritenskiy began in 2014, as Russia-backed separatists swept through Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and seized city after city.
But parishioners of Kostyantynivka’s other houses of worship under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church “saw armories in their churches, they saw priests calling for separatism and [for] people to join local separatists’ forces,” Father Kostyantyn, a descendant of Russian aristocrats from Foros, in Crimea, who previously spent 11 years as a priest in the Moscow Patriarchate, told RFE/RL in September.
The last straw for many of them came that May, when separatist militiamen opened fire on an Orthodox priest as his car approached a checkpoint at night, killing the 40-year-old husband and father of three.
“We made a decision that this church will belong to the Kyiv Patriarchate,” Father Kostyantyn explained, referring to his parish of more than 100 worshipers and one of the two breakaway denominations formed in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Construction of St. Stritenskiy — the city’s first and only one loyal to the Kyiv-led church — was completed soon thereafter.
Kostyantynivka, an industrial city of roughly 80,000 in Ukraine’s east, sits not only a little more than a rocket shot from the front lines of the simmering war between the Ukrainian Army and Russia-backed separatist forces. It is also one of many at the center of a politically charged spiritual conflict that is pitting Eastern Orthodox Christians against each other and setting the stage for a religious schism of historic proportions.
A Cry For Independence
The dispute at hand centers around granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, or the right to be ecclesiastically independent. If granted, the designation would strike a serious blow to the heart of Russia’s historic claims to Ukraine and deny Moscow religious authority over Ukraine’s roughly 30 million Orthodox believers.
There are 14 independent Orthodox churches worldwide that recognize each other as canonical. Each national church comes under a particular patriarchate, but all essentially answer to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople — the old Greek name for Istanbul, Turkey — who is considered “first among equals.”
Ukraine is not among the group of 14; at least not yet. But last month it was granted a path toward such recognition, when Bartholomew appointed two bishops as delegates and sent them to Kyiv in preparation.
Ukraine currently has three Orthodox denominations: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which remained subordinate to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and two breakaway entities — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, neither of which is recognized by the global Orthodox community.
The three are nearly indistinguishable in terms of their rituals but differ when it comes to the issue of church independence. And, along with the Russian church, they each trace their history to the ancient medieval state of Rus in Kyiv.
The Kyiv Patriarchate is headed by 89-year-old Patriarch Filaret, who was once a front-runner to head the Russian Orthodox Church but was excommunicated as Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union and he pushed for an independent Ukrainian church.
Bartholomew is expected to give Ukraine a so-called “Tomos,” or ordinance, granting it autocephaly at a synod perhaps as early as this month.
Should that happen, Filaret is the obvious choice to lead the newly formed church, and he told Reuters last week that despite his age he was ready to do so.
“If I fought for 26 years for the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church and believed that it would happen, then, of course, as long as God gives me strength, I will serve the Ukrainian church till the end,” Filaret said.
‘Matter Of National Security’
The Tomos is strongly encouraged by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has said it is necessary to “guarantee our spiritual independence from Moscow.” Of course, amid flagging poll numbers and growing public disillusionment with his administration, the push could prove critical to Poroshenko’s reelection effort in March. In recent weeks, billboards have sprung up across the country that the president claims to have paid more than $380,000 for to champion the notion of the Tomos.
Polls show that many Ukrainians support the move. A survey conducted in May and June by the Center for Insights in Survey Research, a project of the International Republican Institute, showed that 39 percent of respondents definitely or somewhat support independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while 29 percent oppose it to at least some degree, and 32 percent remained undecided.
Kyiv’s Western backers have also come out in support of independence for the Ukrainian church. “The United States respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs,” read a statement from State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on September 25.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church opposes it. In late September, the Moscow-based church took the contentious step of suspending diplomatic ties with Constantinople after reports that a Tomos for Ukraine was imminent; its patriarch, Kirill, who is a staunch ally of President Vladimir Putin, said that he would stop praying for Patriarch Bartholomew.
Kirill’s fierce opposition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence was further highlighted in a leaked partial transcript of an extraordinary meeting he had with Bartholomew in August. According to the transcript, Kirill repeated talking points pushed in recent years by the Kremlin and Russia’s state-run media, saying Poroshenko’s government was asking for the tomos to strengthen its legitimacy after seizing power “by way of a coup during the Euromaidan,” as the 2014 street uprising in Kyiv was known; that Ukraine’s current leadership doesn’t represent the Ukrainian public; and that Ukrainians and Russians “are one country and one people.”
The latter are the words of Putin himself in defending Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. “We are one people,” he told a joint session of parliament at the time, referring to Russians and Ukrainians. “Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities,” he continued, adding that the ancient medieval state of Kievan Rus “is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
By December, Putin had gone further, calling a city in Crimea “Russia’s Temple Mount” because it is where Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler of Rus, was baptized in A.D. 988.
Ukraine regards such statements part of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” — a military strategy said to combine conventional and irregular warfare, propaganda, and cyberattacks — against its much smaller neighbor. That is why the issue of independence for the Ukrainian church “goes far beyond religion” and is a matter of “national security,” in the words of Poroshenko at an Independence Day military parade in August. “It is similar to the strengthening of the army, protection of the language, struggle for membership in the European Union and NATO,” he said.
Ukrainian Worshipers Rebel
Ukrainian worshipers say they have seen the hand of the Russian church and its local arm, the Moscow Patriarchate, in that hybrid warfare. “I heard how they invoked aggression. They said that Crimea was not Ukraine, that Donbas was not Ukraine,” Father Kostyantyn said.
Local media have reported on priests of the Moscow-led church refusing funerals and last rites for Ukrainian soldiers killed in battle, as well as harboring Russia-backed separatist fighters and blaming Kyiv for starting the war — despite evidence that has since come to light during more than four years of fighting to suggest that Moscow instigated it.
Those alleged actions have prompted believers across Ukraine to rebel, sometimes in creative ways.
For instance, with no Kyiv Patriarchate church in Bakhmut, a city of roughly 90,000 residents about 25 kilometers east of Kostyantynivka and closer to the front line of the ongoing war, Natasha Zhukova and her husband, Volodymyr Tsaryk, who fought in Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Zakarpattia Brigade, took the unusual step of baptizing their first-born daughter Sofia in the Greek Catholic Church.
Zhukova says they could not bring themselves to christen their child in a church that was “doing propaganda” for Russia and pro-Russian entities in Ukraine, and which had taken the side of the separatists in the war.
On a larger scale, scores of Moscow Patriarchate churches across Ukraine ousted their priests and switched allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarchate — even in predominately Russian-speaking, eastern cities like Kostyantynivka, where the idea of a church of the Kyiv Patriarchate once seemed unattainable.
‘All Of Us Believe In God’
But millions of Ukrainian worshipers have stuck with the Moscow arm of the church, despite the bloodshed.
One evening in late September, inside the 157-year-old wooden St. John the Baptist Temple of the Moscow Patriarchate in Bakhmut, Father Serhiy led Mass for around 40 parishioners. Afterward, he tells RFE/RL that he is frustrated by the “brewing religious confrontation, which Ukraine does not need.” He has been offended, he says, by accusations that he and fellow priests of the Moscow Patriarchate are working against the country.
“There is some strong criticism [from some Ukrainians] that we are agents of the Kremlin, that we apparently receive instructions from there, that I have a Russian tank in my garage, that I have a gun under my robe, that I can kill a Ukrainian at any moment…that I am a Muscovite,” Father Serhiy says. “But I have never supported conflicts or war — ever. And I even became a sort of pacifist. I hate weapons, guns.”
Many worshipers at the Moscow Patriarchate church said their allegiance was purely religious, not political, with many insisting that they are “pro-Ukrainian.”
“Some support Russia, some [support] Ukraine, but all of us believe in God,” says Oleksandr Dyachenko, a Bakhmut photographer who became a devout Orthodox Christian and member of the parish after the death of his wife in 2009.
As an active supporter of the Ukrainian Army — a stance that earned him a beating by Moscow-backed separatists, resulting in liver damage and sutures in his face, when they briefly controlled Bakhmut in 2014 — he struggles internally with the fact that the church to which he belongs acts like an arm of “the aggressor country,” as he puts it.
“We just don’t have a church that is part of the Kyiv Patriarchate here,” he says, defending his attendance at the church. And Father Serhiy, he adds, “is my friend and my spiritual father. It would be difficult for me to give up on him just because he serves under the Moscow Patriarchate.”
But if Ukraine gets its way — and its Tomos — Father Serhiy’s church in Bakhmut might go the way of Father Kostyantyn’s in Kostyantynivka.
Filaret, head of the Kyiv Patriarchate, has predicted that many of the Moscow Patriarchate churches will switch their allegiance en masse.
Father Serhiy brushed off a question about whether he would be on board with that. Whatever happens, he says, he just hopes that it won’t “turn into a full-blown religious conflict” that would put at risk “Ukraine’s holiest sites,” such as the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, “which are the basis of our Christian faith.”
“If this fight begins, it will be an everyone-against-everyone fight, an irreversible fight.”