Eastern Orthodoxy risks split over independence for Ukraine’s church

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, center right, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, sits with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, center left, prior to their meeting at the Patriarchate in Istanbul on Aug. 31, 2018. Orthodox Patriarchate’s Metropolitan Emmanuel of France says "there's no going backwards" in granting Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastic independence from the Russian Orthodox Church to which they have been tied for hundreds of years. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

PARIS (RNS) — The head of the world’s Orthodox churches has thrown down the gauntlet to Moscow, risking a split in eastern Christianity after its rich and powerful Russian branch repeatedly supported controversial Kremlin policies and blocked church unity in Ukraine.

Faced with a stalemate among three rival churches there, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared all three of them valid and urged them to create one independent body for all Ukrainian Orthodox believers.

This step, an unusually decisive act in a very slow-moving church, promptly brought accusations of heresy from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has overseen Orthodoxy in Ukraine since 1686. Its Moscow Patriarchate also took the unusual step of breaking communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Moscow Patriarchate, which claims over half of the world’s estimated 250 million to 300 million Orthodox believers, warned that Bartholomew’s step could lead to the biggest division in Christianity since the Great Schism of 1054 separated the Greek-speaking East based in Constantinople from Rome’s Latin-speaking West.

On its face, the dispute is about who can decide whether Ukraine can have its own “autocephalous” or autonomous church — the Orthodox world’s spiritual leader in Constantinople (the name the Orthodox still use for the city that became Istanbul in 1453) or Russian Patriarch Kirill in Moscow.

The dispute is fueled by a long-simmering political power struggle that challenges a key element of Kremlin influence. The Ukrainian church is so important to Moscow that computer hackers linked to the Kremlin reportedly tapped into the email accounts of Bartholomew’s closest aides to find out what they planned to do about it.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, leads a religion service as Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodoros II, second right, attend a ceremony marking the 1,030th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir, the leader of Kievan Rus, a loose federation of Slavic tribes that preceded the Russian state, in Moscow on July 28, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“Moscow has created this problem — they shot themselves in the foot by supporting (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, the proxy war in eastern Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea,” said Brandon Gallaher, an Orthodox theologian at the University of Exeter in Britain.

“If these things had not happened, this problem probably would have rumbled on for a long time more,” he told RNS.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a family of 14 independent regional churches that share communion and common doctrines. Unlike the pope in Roman Catholicism, the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of the churches but has limited practical authority over them.

One of his prerogatives is the right to declare a regional church autonomous, usually when a traditionally Orthodox country became independent of a larger neighbor.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate declared in April that it would do this for Ukraine and, after months of fruitless contacts with Moscow, reaffirmed that decision on Oct. 11.

The split in Ukraine has been brewing for over a quarter-century. When Ukraine broke free from Russia in 1991, some Ukrainian clerics set up their own Kiev Patriarchate to head a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow.

The Moscow Patriarchate maintained its long-established local branch, confusingly also called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and declared the breakaway church heretical.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate stood by the Moscow church as the only valid Orthodox body in Ukraine, recognizing neither the new church nor a smaller local one re-established after being banned in the Soviet era.

But as the years went on, the Moscow Patriarchate alienated Ukrainian nationalists by moving closer to the Kremlin, openly backing Putin and receiving major contributions from Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

The Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral opened in 2016 near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

By refurbishing old churches and building new ones both across the former Soviet Union and around the world, the Russian Orthodox Church also helped Kremlin efforts to expand Russian influence at home and abroad.

One visible result of this drive is the gleaming new Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened in 2016 near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where Moscow’s church has few followers.

When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backed Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalists stepped up their appeals for Constantinople to act.

The issue of uniting the three Ukrainian churches could have been discussed at a pan-Orthodox council that Bartholomew called in 2016 — the first such summit in 1,200 years — but the Russian church boycotted the meeting.

With Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and a majority of Kiev’s Parliament pushing for an autonomous church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate studied the issue and decided to put the unity of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians first.

“It is unthinkable that the Ecumenical throne … remains inactive when Orthodox people suffer and seek a solution to church problems that have tormented them for centuries,” Bartholomew said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center left, and Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and clerics during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, on Oct. 21, 2018. The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate says it will move forward with its decision to grant Ukrainian clerics independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. (Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service via AP)

The decision to recognize all three rival groups as valid is a gamble and its success is not guaranteed. Observers doubt the rival churches can agree to merge anytime soon into the new united body Constantinople wants to see emerge.

“The new church will not be the sum of the existing churches, but of the existing people,” the Rev. Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told Hromadske television in Kiev. “We don’t know exactly when this will happen.”

By contrast, the political significance of the decision was immediately clear.

“This is a matter of our independence. This is a matter of our national security. This is a matter of our statehood,” Poroshenko said after Constantinople reaffirmed its decision.  “The empire is losing one of the last levers of influence on its former colony.”

Metropolitan Hilarion, the foreign affairs director for the Moscow Patriarchate, denounced the move as “unlawful and canonically void” and said it amounted to “the self-liquidation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as the coordinating center for the Orthodox Church.”

“Constantinople is now in schism,” he said, adding that the United States appeared to have played a part in the decision because of its support for Ukraine.

“The Moscow Patriarchate, unfortunately, seems to be hostage to the Russian state’s interests in the region, even if they claim the opposite,” Metropolitan Emmanuel, a top adviser to Bartholomew, said in an interview with the Athens daily Ta Nea.

Ukraine is the cradle of Christianity in what later became Russia, thanks to the baptism in 988 of Kiev’s Prince Vladimir, and losing it will be a spiritual, material and political blow to the Moscow Patriarchate.

How serious this blow will be is hard to estimate. Moscow claims to have more than twice as many parishes as Kiev in Ukraine. But a recent poll said 45.2 percent of Ukrainians support the Kiev Patriarchate while only 16.9 percent are loyal to Moscow.

Kiev supporters claim up to 30 percent of Moscow’s Ukrainian church will switch to the local patriarchate, bringing along parishioners, church buildings and monasteries. But nobody really knows.

Calls in recent months from both sides for calm reflect fears that disputes in Moscow-linked parishes over switching or staying could lead to violence.

“We can expect anything … (even) bloodshed,” Metropolitan Hilarion has said.

A full moon rises above the golden domes of the Orthodox Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 4, 2004. Ukraine lobbied hard for a religious divorce from Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

About the author

Tom Heneghan

Tom Heneghan is a Paris-based correspondent


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  • I wonder how long it will take before people get killed because they don’t believe the “right” way?

  • “The Moscow Patriarchate, which claims over half of the world’s estimated 250 million to 300 million Orthodox believers, warned that
    Bartholomew’s step could lead to the biggest division in Christianity since the Great Schism of 1054 separated the Greek-speaking East based
    in Constantinople from Rome’s Latin-speaking West.”

    Unmitigated hot air.

    Every member church of the Orthodox communion is independent. There are now and have been in the past breakdowns in communion between churches over a variety of issues such as calendars and icons.

    The Moscow Patriarchate for the time being is on board the Russian program – for the time being.

  • These guys have some really great costumes. Much better than the RC costumes. Maybe the RC bishops should have a synod to upscale their costumes. The RC bishops could give several fashion designers a non-voting role in the synod.

  • There are some blatant errors in this article.

    Mr. Heneghan declares : “One of his [Ecumenical Patriarch’s] prerogatives is the right to declare a regional church autonomous.”

    He stumbles right out of the box when he fails to realize that “autonomy” and “autocephaly” are two different things.

    “Autocephaly” refers to a regional church that is completely self-governing, and is not a part of another regional church. The Constantinople Patriarchate, Russia, Serbia, etc., are autocephalous churches.

    “Autonomy” refers to a church that is self-governing, but is still a part of another regional church, and whose primate must be confirmed by the regional church of which it is still a part. For example the Japanese Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church MP are autonomous under Russia, while the Church of Sinai is autonomous under Jerusalem.

    The issue in Ukraine is the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, not its autonomy.

    Further, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s right to declare a regional church autocephalous (or even autonomous) is not widely recognized outside Phanariote circles, and his recent actions in Ukraine are being strongly criticized by other Orthodox Churches. Time will tell how this all pans out.


    “Phanariotes, Phanariots, or Phanariote Greeks were members of prominent Greek families in Phanar, the chief Greek quarter of Constantinople where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is located, who traditionally occupied four important positions in the Ottoman Empire: Grand Dragoman, Grand Dragoman of the Fleet, Hospodar of Moldavia, and Hospodar of Wallachia. …”

    “They emerged as a class of moneyed Greek merchants (of mostly noble Byzantine descent) during the second half of the 16th century, and were influential in the administration of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan domains in the 18th century. The Phanariotes usually built their houses in the Phanar quarter to be near the court of the Patriarch, who (under the Ottoman millet system) was recognized as the spiritual and secular head (millet-bashi) of the Orthodox subjects – the Rum Millet, or “Roman nation” of the empire, except those under the spiritual care of the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Ohrid and Pec – often acting as archontes of the Ecumenical See. They dominated the administration of the patriarchate, often intervening in the selection of hierarchs (including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople). “

  • Wikipedia is unfamiliar with current Orthodox lingo in which “Phanar” and “Phanariotes” is often applied in a strictly ecclesiastical sense to mean “those who promote a very broad view of the canonical prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate”. Such a view is de rigueur for those within the Patriarchate, but is often given a much cooler reception by those outside it.

  • The connection is there in the article, but for non-Orthodox all of it is a mystery.

    “They dominated the administration of the patriarchate, often intervening in the selection of hierarchs (including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople).”

    Moscow, of course, sees itself as the New Constantinople, which also is a mystery to non-Orthodox along with the importance of canons.

  • In the East, where primacy was largely seen as a due to the importance of a particular city within the Empire, the prominence of Constantinople in the Patriarchal hierarchy was seen as a natural consequence of its being the Imperial capitol. After the eclipse of the Empire, the power and status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was maintained -and enlarged – by the Turks as a convenient tool of control. The Ottoman’s decline led to a consequent decline in the reach and power of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while the rise of Russia increased the prestige and reach of the Moscow Patriarchate -giving some street cred to the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome (Which I don’t believe was ever actually proclaimed by any Council of the Russian Church.) In a practical way the Russian Church is becoming the leading voice in Orthodoxy – and given that in the East they tend to view primacy as based on practical, rather than apostolic, considerations, that is no small thing.

    On the importance of the canons, no doubt both sides in the dispute would agree. They simply have radically different interpretations of them.

  • Just a trivial point. The Czars, the Romanoffs, I believe were descended from the Byzantine imperial family and this descent was part of the assertion of being the Third Rome. But I may be wrong. Is there any basis to this?

  • Does Putin’s positioning himself as the protector of Christians in The Middle East have any role in this?

  • In the old days the Emperor (Byzantine, later Russian) often assumed the role of protector of Christians in the Middle East. Although not an Emperor, as the world’s foremost Orthodox leader of a (sort of?) super power, it’s rather natural for Putin to assume that role. Certainly no other ruler is really looking out for the Christians of the Middle East.

  • Ivan III Vasilyevich, Grand Prince of Moscow and All Russ, married Sophia Paleogina, the daughter of Thomas Paleologos, who was the claimant to the Byzantine throne after the death of Constantine XI. The claims of the rulers of Moscow to be the successors to the Byzantine Emperor rest primarily on religious grounds (the sole major Orthodox sovereign), but the marriage provided an additional connection as well, and Ivan added the Byzantine eagle to his official seal.

    Ivan was, of course, not of the House of Romanov, but of the earlier House of Rurik. When the rule of the country was transferred to the Romanovs, the idea of the Russian Tsars being the successors of the Byzantine Emperors was transferred to them, as the succession was felt to reside in the office of the Russian Tsar, not in a specific dynasty.

  • There are claims of heresy by the Russian Church according to this article. It quotes a Metropolitan of the MP as stating such about the EP’s decision of recognition.

  • Any claims of heresy are politically motivated.

    internecine Orthodox disputes are basically incomprehensible to Westerners.

  • No. Metropolitan Hilarion claimed the EP’s action was “unlawful and canonically void”, not that it was heretical.

    Heresy and a violation of administrative canonical norms are two different things.

  • There were no claims of heresy. (See above.)

    The dispute is simply about the meaning of the second part of Canon 28 of Chalcedon. The EP interprets it expansively as giving it nearly universal powers outside of its own Patriarchate. The Russians maintain a strictly historical interpretation, applying only to the specific original historical situation (lands disordered by barbarians) being addressed.

    It’s like the difference between expansivist and originalist interpretations of the Constitution. Not really rocket science.

  • Actually, the article states that when clerics in Ukrain established the local Orthodox Church UP, the OC MP declared it was heretical.