After 100-year battle, Ukraine wins independent church finally in 2019

After 100-year battle, Ukraine wins independent church finally in 2019


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This year, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke away from Russia, 27 years after Ukraine won independence

By  Oksana Grytsenko

Source - Kyiv Post

This year, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke away from Russia, 27 years after Ukraine won independence.

But this was not a 27-year battle.

Rather, victory came for Ukrainian believers after 100 years of struggle.

Eastern Orthodoxy’s highest body, the Ecumenical Church in Istanbul, recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in December.

Today, the new church is the largest in the country and the fifth largest Orthodox Church in the world. Almost 49 percent of Ukrainians said in May that they belong to it, far more than any other church, a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows.

The role of the church is more than just spiritual. A separate church for Ukraine goes against the Russian imperial concept of the historic and spiritual unity of Ukrainians and Russians. It contradicts the belief that these nations are part of one country.

“The independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was a kind of catastrophe for Moscow,” the leader of the new church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, said in April in Lviv.

Russia will not be able to get its grip on Ukrainian believers anymore, he said.

Earlier attempts

Back in 1686, Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV gave legal authority over the Kyiv Orthodox church to Moscow under pressure from the Russian tsar. This move provoked protests by Ukrainian clergy and parishioners. Today, Ukraine’s religious scholars compare it to church annexation.

About 100 years ago, following the break-up of the Russian Empire, Ukrainians made their first big attempt to end their church’s subordination to Russia. In January 1919, the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a short-lived state that existed in 1917–1921, passed a law on the autocephaly — i. e. independence — of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The government also sent its envoy to Istanbul to ask the Ecumenical Patriarch to recognize the Ukrainian church.

But that never happened. Moreover, none of the Orthodox bishops supported church independence. So, in October 1921, priests and parishioners consecrated Vasyl Lypkivsky as their metropolitan without bishops and in violation of Orthodox norms.

This new church was popular among the people. But after the Soviet Union took control of Ukraine, it suppressed the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. Most of its priests were imprisoned or killed during the Great Terror of 1930–1937.

“After the Ukrainian state disappeared, this church disappeared as well,” said religious scholar Oleksandr Sagan.

The second attempt to form an independent Ukrainian church came in the 1940s, during World War 2. The Polish Orthodox Church, which largely consisted of Ukrainians living on the territory of Poland, started consecrating bishops for Ukraine. In this way, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was established as a part of the Polish church. It spread to the rest of Ukraine, which was occupied by Nazis at the time.

In 1942, Nazi authorities recognized the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. But soon after, they stopped supporting the church because it had close ties to Ukrainian nationalists. When the Soviets regained control over Ukraine in 1944, this church was banned. Some of its bishops emigrated to Canada and the United States.

Attempts in the 1990s

On Aug. 19, 1989, a priest of the Church of Peter and Paul in Lviv proclaimed that his church would transfer from the Russian Orthodox Church to the restored Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. A year late, around 100 parishes had taken this step.

The renewed autocephalous church was led by Metropolitan Mstyslav (Skrypnyk), who previously headed this church in the United States. Metropolitan Mstyslav was a nephew of Symon Petliura, the Ukrainian military and political leader during the war for independence of 1918–1921. In 1990, in Kyiv, he was proclaimed the patriarch of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.

Separately, in November 1991, the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate gathered at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, Ukraine’s top Orthodox monastery, and requested that the Russian Patriarch grant Ukraine church independence. This request was ignored.

“Moscow with the help of the Soviet KGB secret service pushed back against this move and forced Ukrainian bishops to reject autocephaly,” said Sagan, who witnessed these events.

But some clergy split from the Moscow Patriarchate and joined efforts to create an independent Ukrainian church. One of them was Filaret (Denysenko), who had led the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church since the 1960s.

At first, Filaret was an opponent of church independence. In 1990, he was even a candidate to lead the Russian Orthodox Church, but lost the competition to Aleksei Ridiger, who became known as Russian Patriarch Alexy II.

After that, Filaret became a promoter of Ukraine’s church autonomy, for which Moscow stripped him from the title of Metropolitan of Kyiv and banned him from church service in 1992.

In June 1992, a group of Ukrainian bishops created the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, which was led by Patriarch Volodymyr (Romaniuk), a former Autocephalous Orthodox Church bishop.

Sagan said that Patriarch Volodymyr tried hard to unite Ukrainian Orthodoxy. But after he died and Filaret was elected patriarch in 1995, some bishops left his church in protest against Filaret and re-created the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church once again.

Filaret’s problem

After decades of developing Ukraine’s independent church, Filaret has eventually become one of its main problems.

In 2008, then-President Viktor Yushchenko negotiated with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant recognition to Ukraine’s church. But it didn’t come through. Yushchenko blamed this on the meddling of Russian Patriarch Kirill. But insiders say that another reason was Filaret.

“Filaret’s personality is toxic for many in the Orthodox world because he tried to involve himself in the issues of other Orthodox churches,” Sagan said.

In the 1990s, Filaret communicated with the unrecognized Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Montenegro. He created parishes in Russia and even meddled in the Orthodox issues in India, Sagan said. So, when former President Petro Poroshenko brokered a deal for the Ecumenical Church to grant a tomos of autocephaly — a decree conferring canonical independence — to Ukraine in 2018, one condition was that a new church be created and it could not be led by Filaret.

At first, 90-year-old Filaret agreed to become patriarch emeritus of the new church, which was headed by Epiphanius, his former secretary. But in June, he announced a split from the new church and the restoration of the Kyiv Patriarchate.

Filaret received almost no support. The other bishops stripped him of any control over the churches and monasteries in Kyiv apart from St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, where he has served for decades.

The experts say Filaret received such a mild punishment because of his personal merits and the church authorities’ desire to contradict Russian propaganda.

Religious scholar Dmytro Horyevoy said many believers of the Moscow Patriarchate share the prediction of Mother Alipia, a nun who died in 1988 and was known for her alleged prophecy and treatment of diseases. Alipia once said that Filaret would lose his clerical status before his death.

“So for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, it is important to keep Filaret in a church and to not allow the Moscow Patriarchate to use the cult of Alipia in religious disputes,” Horevoy said.

Growth and recognition

More than 500 parishes have left the Moscow Patriarchate and moved to the new Orthodox church since it was formed in December. But while there were 237 switches in February, by March it had dropped to 94, and in April to 14. In May, there was just one. The statistics didn’t improve much in the summer. In August, just three parishes have made the switch so far.

Horevoy explains this as the result of the euphoria that surrounded the new church’s creation. It was also boosted by the presidential campaign. Former President Poroshenko, who played a key role in the new church’s creation, used it as a part of his campaign strategy. He traveled all over the country with the tomos of autocephaly and even made campaign billboards featuring him and Epiphanius. They stood along major roads during the election period.

But after Poroshenko lost to Zelensky, who is not openly religious, the church found itself in an uneasy situation. Many parishes decided to wait and see how the situation develops under the new president, Horevoy said.

Sagan said the unclear situation with Filaret and the possibility that he might de facto lead the new church with the inexperienced Epiphanius, who is just 40, also made many foreign Orthodox Churches hesitate to recognize the new Ukrainian church. As of now, no Orthodox church other than Ecumenical Church in Constantinople has recognized it.

Experts say many Orthodox Churches remain under the control of Moscow. They include the Polish and Czech churches, Horevoy said. The Georgian church is afraid that Russia might recognize the churches of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian regions that fell under Moscow’s control after the Russian-Georgian war. The Serbian church is afraid the same might happen with the churches of Macedonia and Montenegro.

The Romanian church is trying to gain more cultural autonomy for the Romanian parishes in Ukraine before recognizing the Ukrainian church.

In July, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced that the Greek Orthodox Church would recognize the Ukrainian one “in the nearest future.” Experts say it might even happen this autumn. The churches of Jerusalem, Romania, and Bulgaria would follow it, Horevoy believes.

On Aug. 8, Zelensky visited Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul. Experts saw this as a sign that he understands that the church, which gained independence from Russia, is important for the state, which is in the sixth year of war with Russia. “Religious activity in Ukraine is a part of national security,” Sagan said.

On Aug. 17, Metropolitan Epiphanius held an all-night service in Lviv marking 30 years since the Ukrainian church’s third attempt at independence.

“That grain fell on fertile ground, and a big tree later grew from it,” he said. “It is our church, which is the spiritual guardian of the whole Ukrainian state.”