As Ukrainian Orthodox parishes affiliated with the Orthodox patriarch in Moscow defect to an autonomous Ukrainian Church, an upcoming summit of the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church may give voice to a growing body of support for a definitive break from Russia.
The May 27 meeting of laity and clergy in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate comes as the church has been banned in some Ukrainian jurisdictions, and amid a sharp war of words between its bishops and the leaders of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, clergy and laity in the Russian-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate have been split over the widely held perception that Kirill, the Moscow patriarch who oversees their Church, is complicit in the Russian invasion of the country.
For some, that complicity has led to departures - entire parishes leaving the UOC-MP, and mostly affiliating with the other Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the independent, or autocephalous, Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is recognized by the patriarch of Constantinople and many other major Churches in the global Orthodox communion.
As the war grinds on, the pace of departures has quickened. During most of April and May, the Moscow patriarchate has lost four or five of its Ukrainian parishes daily.
In one day alone, May 15, 21 congregations in different regions of Ukraine moved from the UOC-MP to the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
About one in three departing congregations leaves the UOC-MP without their pastor — the massive influx of laity has left the OCU with a sudden shortage of clergy in some areas.
As parishes leave the UOC-MP, a shrinking number of Ukrainians say they are affiliated with the Moscow patriarchate in Ukraine. During February and March, the number fell from 15% of Ukrainians to 4%, according to research agency InfoSapiens.
Still, it is difficult to say what that drop means; the situation will likely become clearer only after the end of the war, when social turmoil begins to settle into a “new normal.”
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The UOC-MP is facing more than a defection problem — the Church is also facing legal prohibitions in some parts of Ukraine, and a bill that would restrict the Church in the entire country.
The religious activities of the Moscow patriarchate have been already legally banned in some western and central Ukrainian territories, as intelligence reports indicate that some priests UOC-MP have collaborated with the occupation’s Russian troops.
Amid growing suspicion of the UOC-MP, a bill that would ban the Moscow patriarchate from the country was submitted to the Ukrainian legislature in late March; polling suggested it had the support of 51% of Ukrainians. But Ukraine’s parliamentary president, Ruslan Stefanchuk, said the bill will not come under consideration during the war.
Taras Antoshevsky, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, told The Pillar that it would be nearly impossible to permanently ban the activities of the Moscow patriarchate in Ukraine because registration documents of most UOC-MP parishes do not actually mention the Moscow patriarchate.
“Officially, they are registered as congregations or diocesan centers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, without mentioning the patriarchate. Even if all these parishes are deregistered, this does not mean that the Moscow patriarchate will disappear. They can exist without registration; they can re-register as independent Orthodox communities. Our legislation allows such communities. It is not about the name. A ban won't solve the problem,” Antoshevsky said.
Viktor Yelensky, a Ukrainian expert in religious studies at the Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and a member of the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 to 2019, agreed.
Yelensky told The Pillar that the bills introduced in the legislature are not well prepared, and it would be challenging to implement them in practice. The scholar said there is little reason to expect a national bill prohibiting the UOC-MP will ever be passed.
But Yelensky believes it is likely that local communities and regional governments will likely continue to ban or restrict the operations of Moscow patriarchate parishes in some parts of Ukraine.
Those bans present a serious crisis for the UOC-MP’s leadership.
When the bishops of the UOC-MP held a synod meeting May 12, they said in a statement that moves to restrict or prohibit the UOC-MP in Ukraine are “inciting enmity and discord on religious grounds.”
The bishops directed their sharpest criticism at a former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and at the “destructive” autocephalous “ideology” of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Poroshenko helped spearhead the organization and recognition of the independent OCU in 2018.
The UOC-MP said that Poroshenko and the OCU’s claim to autonomy were among the reasons for the Russian invasion — a theme repeated frequently in Russian propaganda about the war.
After the UOC-MP’s synod, the Ukrainian State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience responded with a statement which said the UOC-MP was “inciting religious hatred, insulting the feelings of believers and justifying the Russian war against Ukraine.”
On May 16, the OCU synod of bishops accused UOC-MP leadership of spending years promoting the Russkiy-mir ideology, which became “the foundation and the key justification of Russian aggression against our state,” the OCU said.
The OCU bishops also disputed last week the UOC-MP’s historical claims, noting that the Russian invasion began in 2014, before Petro Poroshenko became president of Ukraine, and before the OCU received a recognition of autocephaly from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The OCU synod called on the leadership of the UOC-MP “to recover from Moscow’s [poison], to see the real-life of the Church and society, their needs and aspirations.”
Experts told The Pillar that the UOC-MP’s bishops criticized Poroshenko to exploit animosity between him and the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as a tactical response to the efforts for a legislative ban.
“The current president has an unhealthy hostility to his predecessor and everything connected with him, so the UOC-MP is resorting to political speculation in trying to secure support from the current government. Their arguments are weak and do not stand up to criticism. But no one in the office of the Ukrainian president will criticize or punish them for this, because it plays in favor of the current government,” Antoshevs told The Pillar.
Yelensky agreed, saying the UOC-MP’s Synod of Bishops raised criticism about Poroshenko as “a 'button’ on which to press to get the necessary result from the authorities.”
“As for the extent to which Moscow might have influenced the emergence of such formulations, the Soviet writer Nikolai Sholokhov once said: ‘Of us, Soviet writers, vicious enemies abroad say that we write at the direction of the Party. The situation is somewhat different: each writes at the behest of his heart, and our hearts belong to the Party.’”
“With the UOC-MP now in a similar situation, there may be a bad relationship between the leadership of the UOC-MP and Patriarch Kirill now. Still, in any case, they continue to think in the spirit of Russian schemes. Their heart is there,” Yelensky said.
Even in places where the UOC-MP is not banned, observers have expected that Orthodox parishes will continue to migrate to the OCU, a move with both theological and political significance.
Antoshevsky expects the pace of that migration to increase in the weeks to come:
“The mood of people is radical, and the more Ukrainian soldiers who defend Ukrainian territory are killed, the more people become intolerant of the presence of the Church affiliated with the Moscow center. Going forward, it will be less and less dependent on whether priests want to cross over or not. People do not want to be in a Church that blesses the murder of their relatives and loved ones.”
But Yelensky’s prediction was more restrained:
“Imagine a situation where all of society gives up meat and switches to vegan food. But there is a corporation that sells meat. It has its supporters, there are a lot of meat-eaters in society, and even though the whole society hates them, they will still feel confident in their bubble and will continue to exist. Approximately the same can be said about the UOC-MP. Today they have a powerful religious corporation in Ukraine and are more concerned about how to protect it and preserve its integrity.”
Yelensky said that within the UOC-MP, there are differing views of the situation:
“They confuse the Church of Christ with the Moscow patriarchate and therefore are willing to endure persecution and suffer. On the other hand, priests, especially in the cities, do not depend on their flock and can therefore ignore their opinions. For example, they often depend on their sponsors who built and maintain the church.”
The escalating tension between Orthodox Churches in Ukraine is part of a fundamental period of change of the religious landscape in the country, which evokes the rapid religious changes which occurred in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Between 1989 and 1992, the Moscow patriarchate lost its monopoly on Ukrainian Christian practice, which it had held with the support of the communist top brass. The change opened the door to a revival of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the eventual proclamation of independence - autocephaly - from Moscow among some Orthodox believers and clerics.
Thousands of Ukrainian Christian communities left the Moscow patriarchate in those years. The new wave of departures bears striking similarity, and leaves uncertain whether there is a future for Moscow-aligned Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
To face the growing crisis, the UOC-MP will convene a meeting of believers and clergy on May 27, which will focus on “problems of church life that have arisen as a result of the war and troubling us all.”
According to unconfirmed reports, Kyiv’s Metropolitan Onufriy has clashed with Moscow’s Kirill and is generally angered by the war situation, so he wants to hear voices from different dioceses and understand the mood of his flock.
The Kyiv archbishop dismissed Metropolitan Anthony Pakanych, who is close to Moscow, from organizing the meeting, and both OCU and UOC-MP believers are cautiously optimistic that the UOC-MP leadership might come closer to a decision to break with the Moscow patriarch during the summit.
But Yelensky, told The Pillar, that change will not come easily:
“If there is any possibility of not changing anything, they will not change anything. Only when they see that there is no way out will they take some steps. Today's situation is different from 2014 [ed. note: when Russia started a proxy war against Ukraine in Donbas and annexed Crimea], and they are beginning to understand this. The first reaction of the UOC-MP episcopate was to ‘stand firm’ and punish those who moved to the OCU. Now I think they are ready for more radical steps. They would be ready to break with Kirill, but the main condition is preserving their structure as it exists. ‘The corporation’ must be preserved; that is their first and only concern. But they have no room to maneuver in the realm of canon law.”
The meeting has been the talk of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in recent days.
At a May 20 meeting of representatives of the Sumy diocese, which elected delegates to Kyiv, nearly two-thirds of priests present spoke in favor of breaking with Moscow, with a small minority speaking in the opposition. It is not clear whether other dioceses will have similar representation.
For his part, Antoshevsky believes the May 27 summit of believers is just a theatrical performance, a chance to “blow off steam,” within the Moscow-aligned church.
Antoshevsky pointed out that the UOC-MP’s canon law does not recognize any authority in a meeting like the May 27 summit:
“The decisions of such a meeting will have no canonical force. This can only be done by the Council of Clergy and Laity, which the bishops have decided not to convene. However, such proposals were heard from different dioceses. It's just an attempt to pretend to Ukrainian society that they are trying to solve the problem.”
But as the UOC-MP gathers to discuss its own future, the outcome of the meeting may well be a surprise, both in Kyiv and in Moscow.