For faith or fatherland? Part 2


Head of the UOC KP Filaret (right) and head of the UOC MP Onufriy (left). Credits: printscreen from the video

We have already written about how the war in eastern Ukraine affects the activities of the religious organisations there. However, the change of power after Euromaidan and the subsequent military campaign has also had a marked influence on the work of the main churches in the other areas of Ukraine.

The seizure of churches belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) has been taking place since mid-2014. The attacks, carried out by local right-wing radicals, lead to the churches being released to the control of the non-canonical, autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC KP). Europe Insight analyses why this is taking place and how the situation may be resolved.

Origins of the conflict

The history of the conflict between the two religious organisations dates back nearly as far as Ukraine’s declaration of independence. At first the arguments over property between the churches were resolved in a predominantly peaceful manner. In the opinion of Director of the Ukrainian Agency for Strategic Research Dmitry Panko, “one must understand that as far back as the 1990s the situation in Western Ukraine has often been that the Orthodox community went over to the Kiev Patriarchate while the priest himself remained with the Moscow Patriarchate. Naturally, the new arrivals invited a new pastor from the UOC KP to serve in their church and the UOC MP claimed that there had been a ‘seizure.’” The expert is certain that “before there was no intentional policy on the part of the authorities or the Kiev Patriarchate directed at ‘seizing’ churches. This was the ‘local initiative’ of the members themselves.

However, Ukrainian radical nationalists had already begun to show a political interest in inter-confessional conflict back in the early 1990s. In 1992, representatives of Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO) blocked access for clergy loyal to the UOC MP to St Volodymyr’s Cathedral. On the local level, radicals periodically gave support to the UOC KP in Western Ukraine.

The eventual character of the inter-church relations was directly conditioned by the political processes in Ukraine. During the course of the presidential election campaigns of 2004 and 2010, churches took different positions. The UOC MP consistently supported presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych while the UOC KP supported Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 and Yulia Tymoshenko in 2010.

The excessive politicisation of the spiritual sphere has also cast a shadow on the spiritual life in which the fragmentation of Ukrainian society in ideological and foreign policy orientations is manifest. The UOC KP came to be perceived as a church/supporter of the construction of the Ukrainian nation-state and its Euro-Atlantic path of development. The UOC MP has until recently been associated with conventionally “pro-Russian” political parties (Party of  Regions, Progressive Socialist Party, Communist Party, Derzhava, and others).

During the years of independence, the UOC MP strengthened its positions exceedingly. “The Moscow Patriarchate,” thinks Dmitry Panko, “has always been the privileged denomination (not counting the period when Viktor Yushchenko was in power). Not rarely were its churches built using state or local budgets.”

Through 2014 a whole cohort of the most powerful Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians supported the church: Vadim Novinsky, Viktor Nusenkis, Viktor Yanukovych, Volodymyr Lytvyn, Viktor Medvedchuk, Oleksandr Moroz and even the current president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. The latter, according to the Ukrainian Weekly’s information, “provided it (UOP MP – Ed.) more than once with financial assistance – for which he even ‘won the praise’ of Pavel, Archbishop of Vyshgorod and Abbot of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, who is famous for his Ukraino-phobic position”.


The situation changed drastically during Euromaidan. The Moscow Patriarchate did not support the protests, in contrast to the Kiev Patriarchate, which opened  the gates of Mikhailovsky Monastery for protestors.

The UOC MP’s position frightened off some of the oligarchs who had sympathised with it. Additionally, in the opinion of Sergei Filipchuk, an historian of the UOC MP, the problem with the protestors directly originated in the disengagement of Viktor Yanukovich and the “family” from church affairs because of their need to focus on and resolve prevailing political problems. “The crisis of trust and management in the president’s inner circles caused a situation where the issue of the church became a secondary one to Yanukovich, and the Moscow Patriarchate was deprived of his support and protection,” the expert noted in conversation with Europe Insight.

It was literally just after Viktor Yanukovich’s flight (22 February 2014) and the assumption of power by the pro-European coalition that the UOC MP endured attacks from Ukrainian radicals. On 25 February a group of clergymen from the UOC KP accompanied by activists from the local Euromaidan attempted to seize  the Sumy Diocesan Directorate of the MP. The reason was that a service in memory of those fallen on Maidan had allegedly not been held in the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral, which is under the control of the directorate.

At the same time as the attack on the church in Sumy, a meeting was held in the capital of Ukraine between one of the leaders of the new government, Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, and representatives of the major confessions. During the course of the event, members of various confessions had to publically condemn the actions of the Viktor Yanukovich regime directed against Euromaidan.

The new authorities tried to use the legitimacy of the church to prevent the disintegration of the country. It is namely the church, as an institute enjoying the greatest level of social confidence, that could supply the needed influence over citizens of Ukraine with the objective of persuading them not to rebel against the authorities in Kiev and to follow the political course chosen by them.

Meanwhile that meeting may be considered the pivotal moment when not only neutrality began to be demanded of religious organisations but also public support of the new power. Over time it is clearly expressed political criteria that become fundamental to the evaluation of parish activities.

The UOC MP’s new strategy in its relations with the authorities first became apparent at the meeting with Turchynov. It can tentatively be called something like “loyalty in exchange for security”. In the words of  UOC MP Managing Director Metropolitan Borispolsky Antony, the current head of the church, Metropol Onufriy, condemned “the terrible events on Maidan (supporting the new official course in fact) and made a request to the authorities “to do everything possible to make it impermissible to seize the churches” of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. However, despite Turchynov’s promises “not to allow an escalation of inter-confessional relations”, attacks on UOC MP churches continued with the complicity of local authorities.

From February 2014 through the present moment, the objects of aggression on the part of Ukrainian right-wing radicals have been UOC MP parishes in Khmelnytsky, Ternopil, Cherkasy, Chernivtsi, Kiev, Volyn and Rivne Oblasts. According to the Russian Orthodox Church’s information, voiced by Patriarch Kirill at a meeting of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches in Chambesy (Switzerland), over 30 churches have already been taken over in Ukraine. “And not less than ten are located under threat of attack by schismatics and nationalists,” stated the patriarch.

In 2015 the largest clashes with seizures of UOC MP churches took place in the villages of Kuta, Zalukhiv, and Bashukakh. The attack on the churches were accompanied by violent attacks towards clergy members and peaceful citizens.

The events in the villages of Katerinkovka and Pticha are particularly significant because Ukrainian security forces acted against the parishioners. In Katerinkovka on 21 September, soldiers from the Ternopol-2 Battalion appeared on the side of the UOC KP and Right Sector activists, and they actively used a variety of special weapons against the believers.

Between 20 and 35 people were injured during the clashes, depending on the source. Among the victims were students at the Pochayiv Religious Seminary who tried to defend the church. They describe the event as follows:

On 18 December, supporters of the MP were attacked at the settlement of Pticha in the Rivne Diocese. Back in December the church in the villages had been recognised as the property of the UOC MP by the Kiev Economic Court. However, those faithful trying to return to it were stopped by representatives of the UOC KP and Right Sector supporters, who used physical violence against them, with the complicity of the police.

The sides’ positions

The UOC MP line boils down to blaming Kiev Patriarchate supporters and Right Sector activists for the seizure of churches in Western Ukraine. According to a statement by the Synodic Information and Education Division of the church, the plan is roughly the same everywhere: “At first active propaganda is circulated around the village. Right Sector activists, unknown activists, and UOC KP priests pass out brochures and leaflets on how bad and unpatriotic the UOC [MP} is. A lie is spread about the priests that they supposedly refused to hear the confessions of dying ATO fighters or perform services for those killed, that they do not want services held in Ukrainian, that it is a “Russian church”, and similar such nonsense. Then, some activists initiate their version of a ‘referendum’… After the ‘referendum’ they announce a village community assembly which they pass off as an assembly of the religious centre… Then it is loudly proclaimed throughout the whole country that yet another community has ‘decided to change jurisdiction’. This is a classic hostile takeover scheme.”

The UOC KP’s perception of these events is set in diametrical opposition. In the opinion of Archbishop Eustratius (Zori), the head of the church’s information agency, the statement by the Moscow Patriarchate is “part of the propaganda campaign which has been waged against Ukraine over the last few years, an element of the information and military aggression against our state. Those forces behind the aggression unfolding against Ukraine are also searching in religious issues for pretexts to meddle in Ukrainian affairs.” Speaking to Europe Insight about the seizures of the UOC MP churches, the Archbishop said that “this is not about seizures of some sort, nor about a conflict between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates. This is about  division within the Moscow Patriarchate community.”

The Right Sector ignored our request for their commentary on the participation of the organisation’s activists in the conflict. However, the Ukrainian radicals state on their official site that they are helping “Orthodox communities transition to the Ukrainian church”. “Our movement is currently focused on neutralising Kremlin instruments of influence operating among the Ukrainian public. One of these is the pope of the Moscow Patriarchate. Orthodox Ukrainians come to the church to receive Holy Sacraments and prayers; and in return they are worked over with anti-Ukrainian propaganda,” it says in their statement.

What to do

According to the experts that Europe Insight spoke with, the situation surrounding the UOC MP churches in Western Ukraine represents a serious political crisis. However, they are not in agreement over why it is happening and what the role of the Moscow Patriarchate is.

Director of the Agency for Strategic Research Dmitry Panko thinks that “in spite of all its efforts, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate remains a ‘Russian church’ all the same”. Lawyer Andrey Zubko believes that it is namely because of the “patriarchate lobby” in the Verkhovna Rada that the issues regarding the jurisdiction of religious communities cannot be regulated through legislation.

In turn, the Kiev political analyst Evgeny Lunyak is certain that the main problem of the Moscow Patriarchate is found precisely in its lack of a clear political position. “In the beginning, after the Revolution of Dignity, the UOC MP declared its neutrality and that it would not get involved in politics. But in Donbas they openly support the militants, and in Ukraine – the ATO. This inconsistency attests to the political weakness of the leaders of these religious organisations. And the weak will always be the victim of aggression, attacks, and pressure – especially on the part of radicals,” thinks the expert.

In their interviews with Europe Insight, the experts proposed several options for the resolution of all disputes between the religious communities. “Until appropriate action is taken (relating to the transition of communities into new jurisdictions – Ed.) one should not expect the conflict to end,” Andrey Zubko is sure.

Sergey Filipchuk agrees with him. “Not one political party has done anything to extinguish the conflict because this struggle is used in political gambling for increased ratings. The theme (of seizing churches – Ed.) may be used by the Right Sector and Opposition Bloc as a focal point in early parliamentary elections. This will help them strengthen their positions in central and western Ukraine,” stated the expert.

It is necessary to establish a direct line of communication between the churches in order to put an end to this situation. “Today what we see is just the lack of any dialogue,” thinks Yulia Tyshchenko, Head of the Supporting Democratic Processes Program at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research.

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