UKRAINE: With Orthodoxy torn apart in Ukraine, mediation is needed to heal it

While Ukrainian religious organizations are heroically engaged in humanitarian efforts, a conflict within Orthodoxy threatens the unity upon which the country’s future depends.


By Aaron Rhodes

Bitter Winter (07.02.2023) – Ukraine is in an existential struggle for the lives of its citizens and its existence as a sovereign state. The 1750 branches of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church pull together with a wide range of partners to assist internally displaced persons (IDPs) and to manufacture heating stoves. Their volunteers, and those of other congregations like the Victory Church, and the Roman Catholic Caritas-Spes work on the very edge of combat zones, as close as the military will allow. Volunteers have been killed transporting food to liberated areas of the country where basic services have been destroyed, and Russian bombs still fall.

Aid is both humanitarian and spiritual. According to Senior Pentecostal Bishop Mykhailo Panochko, “The government can’t do anything for the soul.”Ukraine is a religious country, with over 70 percent of the population declaring themselves believers. A substantial majority cleave to Eastern Orthodoxy, yet the humanitarian and spiritual efforts of those churches in the current crisis are overshadowed by the conflict between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/ Moscow Patriarchate (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine/ Constantinople Patriarchate (OCU).

The poisonous roots of this problem were planted by Stalin’s murderous policies toward Ukraine. As observed by the OCU Archbishop Yevstratiy, Stalin, noting that Kyiv was a “city of churches,” destroyed many in his efforts to make Kyiv a “city of socialism.” Indeed, from the window of Yevstratiy’s austere office one sees the beautiful St. Michael’s Monastery, but it is not the original one, built in the Middle Ages. That was leveled by the Soviets.

Stalin reversed his original ban on Orthodoxy when he saw its subversive political potential. He turned the Russian Orthodox Church into an instrument of Soviet centralization and the KGB. Under the rule of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, the politicization of the Church, while not endorsed by all Russian Orthodox clergy, is now reflected in Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s virulent pro-war utterances, including his promise that dying in the service of Russia’s assault on Ukraine “washes away all sins.”

As Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union and sought to reclaim its identity as an independent European state, not under Russia’s thumb, the ties between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriachate became a troublesome legacy of the Stalinist politicization of the faith. It is one no more easily solved than many other structural and mental legacies of Soviet totalitarianism. Subordination of Orthodox churches to central power structures is uncanonical.

The construction of a collective Ukrainian identity at the heart of the intra-Orthodox conflict

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was established in 2018 as an effort to strengthen the identity of the Ukrainian people. On 5 January 2019, it was granted the tomos of autocephaly (decree of ecclesial independence) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul. Epiphanius Dumenko, its primate, explained that, “We must move away from those Russian imperial traditions that have been imposed on us for a long time.”

Especially in the context of Russia’s 2014 attack and occupation of parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, a number of UOC parishes changed their allegiance.

While some UOC clergy have voiced support for Russia during the new episode of the war reignited last February—several have been charged with collaboration—UOC church leaders have insisted on their loyalty to the Ukrainian government. They insist that they have established legal independence from Moscow and made it explicit in a new charter. But OCU officials stress that it has still not been published and say that the claim of independence is a deception. There are competing sets of facts, and deep suspicions abound.

Legislation is now under consideration that is bringing this division to a head. According to religious scholar Viktor Yelensky, who heads the government’s State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, it will ensure that churches aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate will be sued in court, the draft laws focussing on institutions, not individuals. The legislation is seen by its proponents not as a “ban” on any religious activity or expression, but rather as an effort to free churches from foreign domination and influence.

The Urgency of Mediation

Yelenski said the legislation has broad popular support, but both Ukraine’s friends and its enemies see problems. No less an authority on intra-orthodox relations than Donald Trump Jr. weighed in with a Tweet, breathlessly announcing that “Zelensky is banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” One of Ukraine’s leading human rights activists, Yevgeniy Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, said he thought the bills were “a mistake” that would impose restrictions on millions of believers because of the crimes of a handful.

What is most worrying is the divisive potential of the current course of action. Oleksandr Bakhov, priest and head of the legal department in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and Member of Parliament, said the legislation “splits up society” and “benefits Russia.” Ukrainian authorities, spurred on by the passions of war, seem to be walking into a trap that will, indeed, be a gift to Russia and Russian propagandists in the West, where support is shaky.

In this situation, friends of Ukraine, and institutions trusted by both sides, need to step in and establish mediation aimed at bringing the disputing parties together. In our conversations in Kyiv, representatives of both sides evinced skepticism about the potential for dialogue. They need the services of expert mediators who can help establish a framework for discussion and build confidence. They need expert legal advice, for example from the Venice Commission, to check the compatibility of any proposed legislation with principles of the Rule of Law and religious freedom norms as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and in the standards agreed to in the Helsinki process. Time is running short.

Photo: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew handing the tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) to Metropolitan Epiphanius. Credits.


Aaron Rhodes is Senior Fellow in the Common Sense Society, and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom- Europe. He recently returned from a research mission to Ukraine, along with Monika Palotai, Visiting Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute; Kristof Gyorgy Verres, Senior Researcher at the Migration Research Institute; and Benjamin Bardos, Core Writer, European Horizons.

Further reading about FORB in Ukraine on HRWF website