June 14, 2022
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, heretofore a part of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared its independence last month after expressing disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, had conveyed his support for what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the “special military operation” on multiple occasions. Among other things, Kirill said that Russia has never attacked anyone. Rather, the current hostilities are about protecting the population of Donbas, an eastern region of Ukraine. This coincides with the official Russian line: Russian troops are deployed to protect the people living in Donbas, not to attack Ukrainians.
The stance of Metropolitan Onufriy, who is the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has been dramatically different from the outset of military hostilities. Onufriy called on Putin to stop the “fratricidal war” immediately. He said that the war repeats the sin of Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy. Such a war, said Onufriy, has no justification, either with God or with the people.
In his recent phone conversation with Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis warned him against following Putin’s line too closely. Francis called on Kirill not to be “Putin’s altar boy.” This admonition was not received by the Moscow Patriarchy particularly well.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church boasts more than 10,000 churches. Polls have shown that about 16% of the Ukrainian population are UOC adherents, though estimates vary. (The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not to be confused with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, whose recognition by the Patriarch of Constantinople three years ago triggered a visceral reaction by the Moscow Patriarchy.)
Patriarch Kirill expressed understanding of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s decision last month. His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy, said Kirill, and the bishops should act wisely and not make the lives of believers more complicated than necessary.
Apparently, Kirill is willing to recognize the reality of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church without antagonizing the Ukrainian church’s leadership. Perhaps he is hoping for reunification later, when conditions allow. Still, given that Russian media portray the conflict as an existential struggle for the survival of Russia, such an “understanding” stance is sure to earn Kirill some criticism.
That said, Kirill does not seem to have too many options. Trying to replace the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church now would probably backfire. Trying to set up still another Orthodox church in Ukraine fully under the Moscow patriarch’s control is simply not feasible.
In the meantime, Metropolitan Onufriy did not pray for Kirill as the head of the church during Sunday liturgy.
In his address prior to launching the “special military operation,” Putin cited the common Orthodox faith as an important sign that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. But the Ukrainian church, which had held the two peoples together, has now split away from the Russian Orthodox Church. This undermines the legitimacy of Putin’s argument.
During Putin’s reign, the Russian state has showered multiple favors upon the Russian Orthodox Church. Businesspeople were directed to donate to the church. Lavish cathedrals have been built. The religious landscape has been largely cleared of competition. The Western missionaries who had flooded Russia after the Soviet collapse are largely gone. The infamous Yarovaya law, which significantly restricted missionary activities in Russia, has ensured that leaders of other faiths do not have a noticeable presence in Russian public life.
In exchange, the Russian Orthodox Church gave legitimacy and support to Putin’s policies. Among other things, the Moscow Patriarchy controlled the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This included personnel appointments. All hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, including Metropolitan Onufriy, were cleared with the Moscow Patriarch. And the Russian state had ample opportunity to influence Ukrainian Orthodox leaders through this and other means.
Now that the power to appoint and remove Ukrainian church leaders is gone, Kirill’s leverage over his Ukrainian brethren is significantly limited. By extension, Putin’s power to influence Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchs and their flock is limited. Ukrainian church leaders of various Orthodox bodies are united in opposition to what they see as a Russian invasion.
That was most definitely not the outcome Putin foresaw as he was launching his “special military operation.” Now, short of an outright Russian military victory and the capture of Kyiv, it is difficult to see how these churches will ever be unified again.
Andrey Shirin is an associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia, where he researches and teaches at the intersection of theology, leadership, and public life.