Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, and since then (and before, as well, dating back one hundred years) there have been efforts among the Orthodox faithful and their leaders—political and religious—to establish an independent (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
And since 1991, the Moscow Patriarchate has been unable or unwilling to settle the schism in Ukraine that has left millions of Orthodox faithful there outside of the canonical Church. Now, after so many years, after so many studied requests, and after so many special appeals, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is responding—consistent with its ecclesiastical responsibility and canonical right—to heal the schism.
With great pastoral care and discernment, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recently stated that he “will not leave his Ukrainian sons unprotected and abandoned, [nor]…remain blind and deaf to the appeals that have been repeated for more than a quarter of a century.”
In 2014, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and among other things annexed Crimea. The revolutions and deadly political protests, both before and after this Russian aggression, united most Ukrainians, including in their desire to have an independent church. One can argue, rather ironically, that it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who served as a catalyst for the unification of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s political leaders joined forces to advance ecclesiastical independence for their country. President Petro Poroshenko has said that “Autocephaly is an issue of our independence. This is an issue of our national security.” Moreover, Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted overwhelmingly earlier in the year to adopt a resolution in support of an independent church.
This is not only the will of politicians: it is the Orthodox faithful of Ukraine themselves who sincerely desire independence—a fact conveniently overlooked by supporters of Moscow. It was a falsehood when Metropolitan Hilarion recently stated that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was “against the Ukrainian Orthodox people.”
According to the most recent and reliable data (available in Ukrainian here), 67.3% of respondents in Ukraine identified as Orthodox. From this subset, 42.6% claimed allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), while only 19.1% people were loyal to Moscow. When asked about the prospects of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, a majority supported unity around the UOC-KP or a new independent Church; less than one in ten (9.2%) supported unity around Moscow. More tellingly, though, when asked explicitly about the creation of a state church, 38.4% said it should be the UOC-KP, while only 8.5% supported Moscow.
It’s not just the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine who want nothing to do with Moscow, it’s the Ukrainian faithful in North America as well. Both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and in Canada are under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch—another fact conveniently forgotten by those pushing Moscow’s narrative.
The messaging and misinformation coming out of Moscow is becoming more aggressive, with accusations against His All-Holiness that include disparaging photo-shopped images of the Ecumenical Patriarch—a man who has sacrificed his entire life for the unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. To the astute spectator, this desperation emanating from Moscow not only serves to highlight its fear of losing ecclesiastical control over Ukraine, but is a tacit acknowledgement that the truth is not on its side.
The actions of Moscow, including its decision to stop commemorating His All-Holiness and to suspend con-celebrations with hierarchs of the Ecumenical Throne, display a lack of spiritual maturity. Contrast Moscow’s methods with the Orthodox asceticism that imparts the language and actions of Constantinople and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Moscow’s information warfare against Constantinople (which I wrote about in January for Public Orthodoxy, and which was re-confirmed by an international Associated Press investigation last month) includes among other things baseless accusations that the Ecumenical Throne refuses to dialogue.
Those who believe this fairytale should re-examine the lead-up to the Holy and Great Council in Crete, when Moscow did everything in its power to disrupt pan-Orthodox dialogue and attempted to sabotage the Council, which included having the issue of autocephaly removed from the Council’s agenda.
There is a simple reason that Moscow does not want to discuss autocephaly and the process for obtaining it: because not only could it negatively affect its role in Ukraine, but it would limit Moscow’s ability to act unilaterally consistent with its Russian World ideology.
Past examples of such actions include unilaterally granting “autocephaly” to the Church of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1951 and to the OCA in 1970. More, Moscow has unilaterally granted autonomy to churches in the Diaspora (e.g., Japan and China) and encroached onto other canonical territories, such as the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea. This strategy at an operational-level includes Moscow clergymen commonly withdrawing from pan-Orthodox services in order to conduct them alone in Russian embassies and consular offices.
Moscow miscalculated how the Ecumenical Patriarchate would react to its Holy and Great Council-related underhandedness, just as it has miscalculated Constantinople’s transparent plan for autocephaly in Ukraine—and the express desire of the Ukrainian people for it. When autocephaly is granted, Moscow’s ecclesiastical ambitions will be diminished. To any critical observer, this political calculus is the priority for the Russian side—not the pastoral care of the Ukrainian people or the healing of schism in that country.
The time for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is past due; in the history of the Orthodox Church, while not the only or defining factor, there is a clear connection between national independence and ecclesiastical autocephaly, and it should be no different in Ukraine.
Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes about Orthodox Christianity and is a Contributor to HuffPost Religion.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.