Putin’s War has Come to the Pews

By Hannah Gais

The Ukraine crisis is exacerbating tensions among Orthodox Christians.

One year on, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is threatening to further fracture Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

While Orthodoxy has played a role in Ukraine-Russia relations long before the 2013 to 2014 Euromaidan protests and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine, a decades-long divide has found renewed prominence in the past year. From churches being used to store weapons for the rebels to calls from pro-Ukrainian church leadership to send weapons to Kiev, it’s hard to deny that the war has come to the pews.

Like the Ukraine-Russia foreign policy divide, Ukraine’s inter-Orthodox conflict has its roots in two divergent perspectives on the relationship between national identity and faith. As a result, it’s had profound implications for Ukrainian religious and political life.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave way to yet another period of re-imagining the church’s relationship to national identity. Throughout the 1990s in both Russia and Ukraine, different denominations jousted for followers, and religious affiliation grew across the board. In Russia, church membership fell largely under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. In Ukraine, however, the playing field was far more mixed, with three different Orthodox churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – vying for membership. Because the church in Moscow claims Ukraine is under its jurisdiction and doesn’t recognize either the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate or the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church as canonical, the restoration of church property that took place in the 1990s has been one of the main points of contention, at least until now.

Today’s tensions can be most directly traced back to 2009, when the newly elected Patriarch Kirill gave a spiritual boost to Putin’s “Russian world” concept, which defines Russia as a transnational entity whose influence goes beyond the Russian Federation’s borders. At the Third Russian World Assembly, Kirill presented the church’s narrative about the baptism of the Rus’, the predecessor of imperial Russia, under Prince Vladimir in 988 as evidence that the so-called Russian world isn’t limited by its borders. Kirill’s Russian world was one bound by the church’s historic jurisdiction, of which Ukraine was part.

During the Euromaidan protests, these tensions came to the fore. Putin, who claimed Crimea was the equivalent of “the Temple Mount in Jerusalem” for Russians, has used the narrative established by Kirill to justify Russia’s actions. In the meantime, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate has found renewed prominence. “[T]hey greatly helped … [the] participants of Maidan campaign,” cultural historian Vladyslava Osmak told Voice of America. “Priests of this church were always together with people on barricades praying and fighting with them.”

“The clergy are also divided. There are clergy who are radical separatists pushing for merger with Russia, etc,” said Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council during a panel at Fordham University on Putin’s use of religion in sustaining the war in Ukraine. “There are very many, I would say, patriotic clergy. I think it’s a pretty mixed bag, and these … forces are creating a deep crisis, precisely because the church was instrumentalized by these major political actors.”

Increased church involvement on both sides does have its drawbacks. Many of them aren’t limited to Ukraine’s religious life.

For one, Putin and Kirill’s use of religious language and imagery has transformed Orthodoxy in Ukraine, turning membership into a matter of national identity. By May 2014, a shift was already apparent in the Orthodox faithful. According to one public opinion poll, of the 70 percent of the population that identified as Orthodox, 32 percent identified as members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate – up from 26 percent in 2013 – and 25 percent identified as members of the the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate – a 3 percent decline. Another poll found that 74 percent of Ukrainians believed the church should always side with the people over the authorities. Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine, a band of troops who call themselves the Russian Orthodox Army has appeared, whose commander is alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence.

It also creates a quagmire for church leadership, especially those in or near the areas of conflict. “The [Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the] Moscow Patriarchate has found itself in a very delicate position,” noted Patriarch Filaret in an interview with EurasiaNet. “On the one hand, it can’t speak against its people. On the other hand, being dependent on Moscow and having their own Moscow patriarch, they cannot call aggression by its name.”

Religious minorities, such as the Greek Catholics and Muslim Tartars, have found themselves in a difficult place too. Russian lawmakers and clergy, not to mention state media, have been eager to claim that the instability in eastern Ukraine has been instigated and perpetuated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate and Greek Catholics.

“The [Greek Catholics] aggressive statements, moves undermining the canonical Orthodox religion, active contacts with the dissent and desire to split up the united multi-ethnic Russian Orthodox Church, did enormous harm to Ukraine and its people, and also to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue,” noted Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, in June 2014. On other occasions, church and state officials have claimed Greek Catholics and “schismatics” (i.e., Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivian Patriarchate) are out to destroy the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarch and have perpetuated discrimination against Orthodox Christians. In reality, much of Moscow’s ire comes from the group’s decidedly pro-Ukrainian stance.

But arguably the most dangerous effect these religious tensions can have is perpetuating a “menace of unreality.” Since the beginning, neither side has been able to come to an agreement on the nature of the conflict and interpretations of events on the ground are extremely varied. The church, with its own interpretation of the conflict, is only deepening this divide, not bridging it.

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and a fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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