Religion and politics around Ukraine

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The latest episode related to the recognition of a Ukrainian independent Orthodox church demonstrates, once more, how toxic is the confusion between politics and religion. On 14 September, the Russian Orthodox Church announced the rupture of most of its links with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The relations have never been easy between the Moscow Patriarchate, home to the largest Orthodox community in the world; and Constantinople Patriarchate – the primus inter pares of world orthodox churches but without real power. There is no Vatican in the orthodox world.

The Moscow Church was reacting to declarations by Ukrainian President Poroshenko, other officials and Constantinople Patriarch Bartolome, after a flurry of diplomatic visits through the Orthodox world by the three involved ‘camps’, that the recognition of an autocephalic ecumenical church of Ukraine was on the finishing line. Fears of a schism in the orthodox world were briefly lifted when the final decision was postponed by a month to 8 October.

But then came the bomb: on 7 September, Bartolome sent two representatives in Kiev for a meeting with Poroshenko. The move was denounced, including in Ukraine, as anticanonical because the move was made without the agreement of the Metropolitan of Kiev and Ukraine Onuphre. For Moscow, it was “a new stab in the back from the Patriarchate of Constantinople” as happens “each time the Russian Orthodox finds itself in a difficult position” according to Russian Metropolitan Hilarion. He was addressing a press conference to comment on the decision to cut the links taken during an extraordinary synod (the supreme collegial institution of the Russian hierarchy) and concluded that this was “a kind of diplomatic rupture”.

The reference to a “stab in the back” refers to previous support by the Constantinople Patriarchate for recognition of the autocephaly of other Orthodox churches in new republics on the canonical territory of Moscow Patriarchate before their independence.

But Ukraine is a different question, and a lot more complex. There are of course the historical links. More importantly, the country is home to three orthodox churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox church attached to the Moscow and the all Russia Patriarchate under Metropolitan Onuphre, regrouping the majority of the parishes; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the patriarch of Kiev, a branch that broke away from Moscow in 1992 under the controversial Filarete (who recently declared Putin possessed by Satan); and the Autocephalous Ukrainian church, briefly created during the Revolution and suffering from its association with the Nazis during the second world war. Among the other Christian denominations, the Graeco-catholic church plaid a historic role by allowing believers in Western Ukraine to keep a catholic identity distinct of the Polish.

Political games

The recent lobby of President Poroshenko at Constantinople and in the Orthodox world has to be seen as part in his campaign for reelection next year. His record in not good, the promises of Maidan being largely forgotten and discontent on the rise. His best card is the nationalist one, keeping tension with Russia high enough to project him as the ultimate defender of the security of the country. To “win” the recognition of a unique autocephalous church of Ukraine would turn him into the president who finally offers Ukraine a full national identity enterily distinct from that of Moscow.

The intention is not new. Since 1992, the religious-political card has been used by all presidents and many political figures. Poroshenko has reframed the narrative by identifying this thirst of national independence no longer as a post-Soviet happening but as a need to assert national identity away from an enemy who seized Crimea and invaded the Donbass.

This is also a better way to secure Western backing, including for pressuring Patriarch Bartolome, whose life in Istanbul is uncomfortable. Poroshenko knows that it is enough these days to wave the Russian flag to get Western support. In this case, he benefits too from ignorance of the complexity and the traditions of the Orthodox world by the West.

Typically, on 11 September, Poroshenko received Samuel Brownback, the American ambassador for international religious freedom, who declared the support of the United States, now and in the future, for the right of Ukraine to have a national Orthodox church. President Poroshenko thanked America for its support to Ukraine in that process.

This cannot reassure Ukrainians, including those depending on the Kiev patriarchate, who protested the choice of the two emissaries chosen by Constantinople to continue discussions in Kiev: Mgr Daniel and Mgr Hilarion, an American and a Canadian bishop. For some it proves that Bartolome is not a free man; for others it revives fears that the creation of a national Ukrainian church (to the difference of a Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly) would involve the Graeco-catholic church, reinforcing the role of the north American diaspora vis a vis Ukraine’s identity.

For the moment, it seems that president Poroshenko has lightly weighed the benefits against the risks of the operation. In an already fractioned country, he risks adding to political and regional fractionism a religious war which will reinforce the historical divides.

Not the best way to reinforce national unity.

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