Thursday, February 6, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians Less Concerned than Politicians about Church Divisions

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 6 – Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians care far less about the divisions between the church hierarchies descending from Kyiv or Moscow than do politicians and commentators, an attitude that seriously reduces the importance of the Moscow Patriarchate as a political player in Ukraine.

            In an article in “NG-Religii” published yesterday, journalist Yuliya Yurkova says that much of the discussion by politicians and commentators reflects a simplified and distorted view of the nature of religious preferences among Ukrainians and its political consequences for their country and Russia (

            One Russian politician, she notes, “not long ago proposed dividing Ukraine into Orthodox and Catholic parts,” as if western Ukraine was all Catholic and eastern Ukraine was all Russian Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate. That is an extreme case, but many talk about divisions between the Orthodox of the Kyiv Patriarchate and those of the Moscow Patriarchate.

            Such commentators assume that Ukrainians who go to parishes subordinate to the national Kyiv Patriarchate are inevitably pro-Maidan and those who go to parishes subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate are pro-Moscow, but that simply isn’t the case for most ordinary believers, Yurkova says. They are Orthodox who attend churches “of different jurisdictions.”

            A recent visit to Dneprpetrovsk in eastern Ukraine convinced her of that, she continues.  Despite the fact that regional officials “support” the Moscow Patriarchate congregations, the local bishopric of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate is “developing quite successfully.”  But that may have less to do with politics than many think.

            The Kyiv Patriarchate there last year opened the first “and so far the only” seminar in south-eastern Ukraine, a step that will allow it to “resolve the problem of preparing priests for [its] churches from the local population.”  At present, Yurkova says, in most of them, the priests come from western Ukraine.

            One Kyiv Patriarchate priest said he had resisted being assigned to eastern Ukraine because people in western Ukraine suggested that “it is difficult to serve in the east ... because everyone goes to ‘Moscow’ churches.” Some in Lviv, he said, even thought that by agreeing to go he had “transferred to another Patriarchate.”

            But according to Yurkova, many Ukrainian Orthodox are not focused on the divisions between the Kyiv and Moscow churches. One poll found that more than 40 percent do not care a great deal about the split between these hierarchies and, while they are aware of it, they do not know the details or allow it to dictate which church they attend.

            “The majority simply don’t consider [that] necessary,” Yurkova says.  As one believer told her, “I go sometimes there and sometimes here.” When he wants to go to church near his home, he goes to a Moscow Patriarchate congregation because it is closer; when he wants to do so near his work, he goes to a Kyiv church because it is nearby.

            “For me, this does not have [any] significance,” he said.

            Not every believer is totally indifferent. Some, even those who are not pro-Maidan, prefer the Ukrainian Patriarchate churches because the services are in Ukrainian, and some, even if they are, undoubtedly prefer the Moscow Patriarchate churches because there Russian is used. But in most cases, even these parishioners do not view such choices as exclusively political ones.

            Moreover, Yurkova continues, many priests on both sides of the divide appear to have an adopted a similarly apolitical approach and do not seek to attract or exclude people because of their support for one or another political line. But again there are exceptions, and these often attract the most attention.

            The reality, the “NG-Religii” journalist says, is that one only “rarely hears” about the divide between the two patriarchates in churches even though one hears a great deal about it on the streets and among commentators, a pattern that has important if not always recognized consequences for the two hierarches.

            On the one hand, it suggests that shifts in allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Kyiv Patriarchate may have less significance than many Ukrainian nationalists hope and many Russian nationalists in Moscow fear. And on the other, it means that the Moscow Patriarchate likely has far less influence in Ukraine than they claim.

            That is critical because Moscow Patriarch Kirill has argued that his church can play a major role in keeping Ukraine in Russia’s political orbit. If the patterns Yurkova found in fact hold, that is unlikely to be the case in many of the Moscow parishes there. And consequently, the Moscow church won’t be able to play the role Kirill suggests and that many fear.

            All this, of course, is not to suggest that the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not an important national goal, especially given the Moscow Patriarchate's pretensions, but rather to argue for a more cautious interpretation of what it and its Moscow “competitor” can in fact do during the current political crisis and beyond.


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