Also at stake in Ukraine: the future of two Orthodox churches

KYIV, Ukraine — Standing in the cobbled courtyard of a medieval monastery, with an icy wind whipping his black robes and artillery shells echoing in the distance, Bishop Yefrem is tormented by the war that is slowly engulfing his city.

But while the Ukrainian government calls on all able-bodied men to defend the country against Russian invasion, the archbishop sees things a little differently. Because Russians and Ukrainians are one people with one religion, he said, the Russian military is not an enemy. Believers in Ukraine should “pray for peace, not for victory”.

Launched by President Vladimir V. Putin to reassert Russian influence in the region, the war in Ukraine – between two Christian armies and societies – is also a competition for the future of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

The Russian Church – of which Bishop Yefrem is a part – has made no secret of its desire to unite the branches under a single patriarch in Moscow, which would allow him to control the holiest places of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world and millions of believers in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for its part, slowly asserted itself under its own patriarch, reviving a distinct and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, following Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

If Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion, the Moscow church will almost certainly be expelled. If Russia wins, the Ukrainian church is unlikely to survive in Ukraine.

Prizes in the struggle include sacred sites such as the Cave Monastery, a sprawling complex of churches in Kiev overlooking the Dnieper River, whose golden onion domes glistened in the sun on a recent afternoon as artillery shells were exploding across the capital. In the caves, in the caves lie the mummified remains of the first saints of Slavic Orthodoxy, the control of which would symbolize the preeminence in this branch of Christianity.

After Ukrainian independence, the Patriarchate of Moscow retained access to the site, while the Ukrainian government officially owned it as a museum.

The branch of the church in Ukraine subordinate to Moscow also enjoys the loyalty of a majority of churches in cities, towns and villages in Ukraine, although the newly independent Ukrainian church has been successful in encouraging parishes to change their ‘allegiance. These efforts angered Mr Putin so much that he warned in 2018 that it could “turn into a heavy dispute, even bloodshed”.

Ukrainian political and religious analysts say the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been deeply infiltrated by Moscow and is seen by many as a tool of Russian foreign policy. Last week, when an angry mob chased a Russian preacher from his church in western Ukraine, the police did not intervene.

Christian teaching is also part of the battlefield. Priests loyal to Russia, in sermons recommended by their leaders on Sunday, emphasized pacifist gospels at a time when the country’s defensive strategy hinged on mobilizing civilians to fight. Many Ukrainians viewed this position as subversive or treasonous.

Archbishop Yefrem, a member of the Moscow church who celebrates Mass at the Cave Monastery, said he urged believers to pray. “Only God can bring peace,” he added.

“If an enemy came, yes, we could fight,” he said, explaining his position. “But this is a very important point regarding Ukraine. We are one people with the Russians and only the devil has spread enmity between us.

The Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church took a radically different view. In a televised sermon on Sunday, its patriarch, Metropolitan Epiphanius, strongly endorsed the resistance. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he said. “We pray and we act.”

Believers, he said, should defend the country. “Our heroic people are defending themselves from the attack of Russia, which is throwing its soldiers and weapons at our villages and towns,” he said. “And every hour of our resistance inspires more and more people around the world to support Ukraine.”

For the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, the stakes over who wins the war are high and likely to shape the future of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian church that formed after independence was legitimized in 2019 by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the high authority of Eastern Orthodoxy, outraged Russian political and religious leaders. Parishes in Ukraine soon began to shift loyalties, and the Ukrainian church today has about 700 parishes in the country, 12,000 of which remain under Russian influence.

“It is also one of the factors of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Ihor Kozlovsky, a specialist in religions at the Institute of Philosophy of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. “If our Church completely united under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow would lose its hegemony in the Orthodox world.”

Last week in western Ukraine, villagers angry at the Russian invasion expelled a Russian Orthodox priest from his church in Tsenyava, Ivano-Frankivsk region.

The mob “took the church away in a barbaric way,” Archpriest Georgy of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a phone interview. “They broke down the doors, drove out the parishioners.” He said the crowd was armed with guns. The priest called the police, but “no police arrived,” said Archpriest Georgy.

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken a cautious line in the dispute. Patriarch Kirill, the top church official in Moscow, made no mention in his Sunday sermon of the war that began three days earlier. Moscow’s top church leader in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, condemned the invasion and, in a video address, called on Mr Putin to stop it.

But the prayers read at the end of the liturgy in the parishes, which are coordinated by the leadership, only encouraged prayer and made no mention of the resistance – or of Russia, for that matter. “We pray for peace in Ukraine and that the enemy leaves our country”, said for example the prayer of a Saturday liturgy, without clearly condemning Russia.

“They are natural collaborators with Putin’s regime,” said Mr. Kozlovsky, the religious scholar, saying he was not surprised to see the church now undermining civil resistance.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches originated from the conversion of a prince of Kiev, Prince Vladimir in Russian and Volodymyr in Ukrainian, to Christianity in 988. In an indication that Mr Putin is driven by this story, having annexed Crimea in 2014, he erected a statue of Prince Vladimir next to the Kremlin walls in Moscow.

The Ukrainian church had been under the jurisdiction of Moscow since 1686, when under pressure from Russia it gave up allegiance to Constantinople, until 2019 when it officially regained its independence.

The churches share the same holy sites, perhaps the most important being the Cave Monastery and its catacombs housing the bodies of saints deeply revered in Ukraine and Russia.

In this ancient maze of dark tunnels lit only by oil lamps, a few worshipers visited on Tuesday despite the war raging on the outskirts of the city. In silence, they knelt before the coffins, or bowed and kissed them in the dark.

Marina Shuyeva, 37, a doctor, walked down the snowy stone paths, between medieval brick walls, crying.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Her son, she said, was trapped in a basement in the city of Kharkiv, which had been hit by Russian missiles on Tuesday. She said she knew nothing of his fate and could do nothing for him but come and pray in the caves.

“Write the truth,” she said of Russian troops now moving into Kyiv as well, with satellite images showing a mile-long column of Russian tanks on a road leading into the city. “They don’t save us. They kill us.

Outside, monks in black robes were walking. During a Russian service at the site, worshipers bowed to the deep, harmonious tones of a choir of monks.

The Christian faith encourages non-violence, said Darina Melnik, a 28-year-old former flight attendant who is studying at the Caves Monastery to become a nun in the Russian church.

“I think people who truly believe in God won’t be violent,” she said. “I understand our men who want to defend our country. But the Bible said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fighting outside the city, she said, “I pray for their souls. But we don’t know what victory looks like to God.

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