The Russian leadership is increasingly turning to religious rhetoric in its propaganda around the war against Ukraine, citing defending Orthodoxy and the “de-Satanization” of Ukraine among the aims of the invasion. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) apparently sees no problem in bestowing sacred qualities on a brutal war against a neighboring Orthodox country. Nor is the ROC concerned by the impact of its actions on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which has for centuries been part of the ROC, albeit with broad autonomy rights. Now its previous ties with Moscow have left it fighting for survival. 

The Russian invasion prompted the UOC Council to declare complete independence from Moscow on May 27, but this has failed to preclude the talk in Ukraine about the need to close down the church for its prewar ties to the Moscow Patriarchate. Among the proposed solutions is folding it into the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was granted autocephaly (independence from another country’s patriarch) by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople back in 2018. 

The situation the UOC has found itself seems to be hopeless. Some of its senior clergy have openly collaborated with the occupying Russian army, raising suspicion about the loyalty of the rest. Since October, the Ukrainian authorities have been carrying out searches of UOC churches and monasteries across the country. Dozens of its senior clergy are now under criminal investigation or on Ukraine’s sanctions list, while some have left for Russia with the retreating Russian army.  

Such a profound crisis notwithstanding, the UOC has demonstrated surprising resilience. Only 10 percent of UOC parishes—about 1,200 out of 12,000—have gone over to the jurisdiction of the autocephalous OCU since the beginning of the war. The UOC remains the biggest church in Ukraine, a country in which 12 percent of the population go to church weekly, compared with just 6 percent in Russia. 

This can largely be explained by the efforts of the UOC itself, which since the start of the war has supported the Ukrainian army, provided humanitarian aid, and helped to organize humanitarian corridors into besieged Mariupol, earning thanks from President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Many UOC priests stopped including Patriarch Kirill in their public prayers as soon as Russia invaded. Even members of the clergy and congregation who held pro-Russian views before the war are outraged by the public positions of the ROC and the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, they are reluctant to break off relations with the ROC and unite with the OCU, due to long-standing animosity with the latter, often on a personal level, and due to fear of being branded schismatics by other branches of the Orthodox Church.

Furthermore, the OCU is forbidden under the terms of its autocephaly from establishing parishes outside of Ukraine, since that is considered the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Ukrainian refugees attend other Orthodox churches abroad, such as Polish, Czech, Finnish, and Serbian. But those churches are not found everywhere, and ROC places of worship abroad—where the Ukrainian diaspora used to make up a significant proportion of the congregation—have largely lost their Ukrainian churchgoers since the start of the war. Accordingly, the UOC has established parishes in thirty-two European cities, including Antwerp, Cologne, and Leipzig.

In any case, it would be impossible to ban the UOC entirely, for various reasons. Under Ukrainian law, each parish, diocese, or monastery is a separate legal entity, meaning there are thousands in total, which would all have to be banned individually.

It would also likely incur public anger. A draft law banning activity by “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation” sparked indignation in the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces. A complete ban is therefore unlikely, but the Ukrainian government is making it clear that the future of the UOC depends on how convincingly it can show that it has severed ties with the ROC.

Canon law is not codified, making it difficult to say what the precise status of the UOC is right now. The UOC itself has already adopted a new independent charter stating that it is not obliged to adhere to decrees passed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet the ROC still considers the UOC part of the ROC. The website of the Moscow Patriarchate lists all of the Ukrainian bishops. The ROC has made no resolutions, except to issue a statement on May 29 “expressing support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in connection with the unprecedented pressure from various quarters.”

There is no agreement in global Orthodoxy on the procedure for granting autocephaly. Back in 1970, the ROC awarded it to the Orthodox Church in America, which to this day has still not been recognized by either the Constantinople Patriarchate, or other Orthodox churches. 

When Constantinople granted autocephaly to the OCU in 2018, it prompted the ROC to break off relations with Constantinople. In an ideal world, the Ecumenical Council would make the decision on autocephaly, but the Orthodox churches are too divided to assemble for the council: there is always a church that refuses to attend and is at war with another.

The UOC has declared full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, but has yet to fulfill any of the three requirements for doing so: an official request for autocephaly (something the Ukrainian government might view as recognition that it is part of the ROC, though it would be absurd to deny the historical ties between the two churches); the consent of the church from which it is gaining independence; and the approval of the other Orthodox churches. However, even these requirements are enshrined in a document that, although signed by representatives of all the Orthodox churches, was not included in the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Council, and therefore has not technically been passed.

In any case, given the existence of the autocephalous OCU, the prospect of that status also being granted to the UOC looks unlikely. And while the UOC uniting with the OCU would suit the Ukrainian government, that’s unrealistic: the UOC’s rhetoric toward its rival jurisdiction remains aggressive.

In all likelihood, the UOC’s only option is to try to buy time and react to events as they unfold. Meanwhile, it remains in a legally and canonically gray area of de facto independence that is recognized only by itself.

By:
  • Ksenia Luchenko