Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Is the Moscow Patriarchate Seeking a Belarusian ‘Scenario’ for Its Ukrainian Branch?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 1 – A Kremlinological reading of recent moves by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church suggests that Moscow hopes somehow to engineer the replacement of the head of its branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, a step intended to bring the Ukrainians to heel but an attempt likely to further alienate it from Moscow.

            On December 25, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate held a meeting at which it discussed “events in Ukraine and adopted special declaration about them as well as replaced the longtime head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus (

            A close reading by the “Religion in Ukraine” portal of that document, both what it says and even more what it doesn’t say, suggests that Moscow may seek to replace the top leader of branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate -- as it recently did in Belarus -- to ensure ideological loyalty (

            The editors of “Religion in Ukraine” note that at one level, the Moscow declaration “does not contain anything special.” It reiterates what the Patriarchate has said many times before: “the Ukrainians must not violate the unity of the Russian Church” and “only the moral values of ‘historic Rus’ can give a future to the people of Ukraine.”

            But there are two interesting details about the document, the editors continue.  On the one hand, the declaration makes repeated references to the need to “preserve and strengthen the family,” words that are clearly if not specifically an attack on European liberalism and those who support Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU.

            And on the other, despite its focus on “the Ukrainian question,” the Moscow declaration contains not a single reference to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or its leader Metropolitan Vladimir or to the recent statements religious leaders in Ukraine have made about the events there.

            “The absence of direct approval in church diplomatic language,” the editors of “Religion in Ukraine” say, “is to be read as an indirect disapproval of that position which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church occupies today.”

            In recent weeks, “the official speakers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have frequently spoken about the right of citizens of Ukraine to freely express their opinion and organize civic actions of protest as long as they remain within the limits of existing law,” the editors note. Only a few “marginal” figures like Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa have condemned the Maidan.

            The Ukrainian Orthodox Church as an institution, of course, has not officially praised the Maidan, “but to its honor, it has refrained also from praising the existing authorities. And that has allowed some of its priests to back in often outspoken ways the movement to link Ukraine to Europe.

                There is not a word about any of this in the Moscow declaration nor is there any condemnation of Kyiv’s use of force against the demonstrators, “Religion in Ukraine” says.  But it is clear which side Patriarch Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchate are on and which side they want their Ukrainian church to be on.

            Many Ukrainians have been critical of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for its failure to back the Maidan openly, the editors say. But the Moscow document shows what “the Moscow chiefs expect from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and what the UOC has not delivered as far as the Moscow Patriarchate is concerned.

            The Moscow Synod also provided an object lesson of what it would like to do in Ukraine, “Religion in Ukraine” says.  The synod replaced Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk with Metropolitan Pavel. Filaret is both old and ill and his retirement was expected, but Pavel is clearly the kind of churchman that Kirill wants to install in neighboring countries.

                Little known outside the Patriarchate, Pavel from the 1970s to 1990s served abroad, at the Russian Spiritual Mission in Jerusalem, in the United States, and in Vienna. He was thus subordinate to and promoted by the current patriarch when Kirill was head of the Synod’s powerful Department of External Church Relations.

            Pavel takes over in Belarus despite the fact that he has not served their before and “does not have Belarusian roots,” the editors point out, adding that for Patriarch Kirill the chief criteria for selecting anyone to such posts is personal loyalty and discipline.

            Unlike under Aleksii II, Kirill can do more or less what he wants in such situations because in contrast to his predecessor, the current patriarch does not have to deal with many churchman of his own generation and thus is unlikely to face opposition especially on questions of appointments.

            But Kirill and Moscow face a different situation in Ukraine than they did in Belarus.  They cannot simply appoint someone from the outside to be the metropolitan of Kyiv. That position according to church law is elected in Ukraine rather than appointed by Moscow. Moreover, Moscow has relatively few levers to affect the outcome of such a vote.

            At present, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is increasingly ignoring the Moscow Patrirchate and moving ever further away from it, the editors of “Religion in Ukraine” say.   “The more often [Ukrainians] hear calls from Moscow calls to preserve ‘the unity of the Russian world,’ the less convincing [those calls] are going to sound.”

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