Ukraine’s split from Rus­sian or­tho­doxy a blow for Putin


Rus­sian church sug­gests grant­ing in­de­pen­dence risks schism among Eastern Chris­tians

Vladimir Putin suf­fered one of his big­gest de­feats in the long war for Ukraine this week. It came not on the bat­tle­fields of Don­bass but in the ven­er­a­ble of­fices of Pa­tri­arch Bartholomew I, the arch­bishop of the city still known in the Or­tho­dox Chris­tian world as Con­stantino­ple.

In a de­ci­sion fraught with geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences, Bartholomew – who, as head of the Con­stantino­ple (a city long since re­named Is­tan­bul) branch of the Eastern Or­tho­dox Church, is the clos­est thing the Or­tho­dox world has to a pope – de­clared on Thurs­day that he in­tended to rec­og­nize the in­de­pen­dence of the Ukrainian Or­tho­dox Church, end­ing cen­turies of def­er­ence to the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church and its Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill in Moscow, who has led the body since 2009.

This is far more than a shuf­fling of church pa­pers. In grant­ing what’s known as au­to­cephaly to the Ukrainian Or­tho­dox Church, Bartholomew has thrown the weight of his of­fice be­hind Ukraine’s long strug­gle to free it­self from Moscow. Mil­lions of Ukraini­ans who have du­ti­fully at­tended churches that de­ferred to Kir­ill, a close ally of Mr. Putin, may now feel more com­fort­able at­tend­ing churches that look to Ukraine’s own arch­bish­ops for guid­ance.

Bartholomew’s move also tore a large hole in Mr. Putin’s im­age as the leader of the world’s 300 mil­lion Or­tho­dox Chris­tians. It’s an im­age the Rus­sian Pres­i­dent has care­fully cul­ti­vated through his coun­try’s con­fronta­tion with the West, em­brac­ing an in­creas­ingly con­ser­va­tive do­mes­tic agenda – op­pos­ing gay rights and abor­tion, mak­ing a show of his own religious ob­ser­vance – as he sent troops into Ukraine and Syria.

Even Mr. Putin’s place in Rus­sia’s his­tory books is smudged by Thurs­day’s an­nounce­ment. The leader cel­e­brated at home for re­claim­ing Crimea – which Rus­sia seized and an­nexed from Ukraine in 2014 – has now seen the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church lose mil­lions of fol­low­ers as an al­most di­rect re­sult.

Bartholomew also for­mally re­ha­bil­i­tated Ukraine’s Pa­tri­arch Fi­laret, who was ex­com­mu­ni­cated two decades ago over his ef­forts to break away from Moscow. Fi­laret is a harsh critic of the Krem­lin, declar­ing shortly af­ter the annexation of Crimea that he be­lieved Mr. Putin was un­der the in­flu­ence of Satan and on track for “an ig­no­min­ious end and eter­nal damna­tion in hell.”

Con­cerns quickly spiked about how Mr. Putin might re­spond to the de­ci­sion from Con­stantino­ple.

“In the event that the events which are de­vel­op­ing take the course of il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties, then of course, just as Rus­sia de­fends the in­ter­ests of Rus­sians and Rus­sian speak­ers – and Putin has spo­ken about this many times – Rus­sia will de­fend the in­ter­ests of the Or­tho­dox,” Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told re­porters in Moscow on Thurs­day.

There were fears the Krem­lin would stir up re­sis­tance to the move among Ukraine’s Or­tho­dox Chris­tians, par­tic­u­larly those who live in Rus­sian-speak­ing re­gions of the coun­try. Ahead of Thurs­day’s an­nounce­ment, Hi­lar­ion, an in­flu­en­tial Moscow bishop, was quoted as say­ing, “Of course peo­ple will take to streets and pro­tect their sa­cred sites” rather than hand them over to a newly in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian Or­tho­dox Church.

“Moscow wants that there would be re­sis­tance. We, Ukraini­ans, don’t want re­sis­tance,” Fi­laret said in Kiev.

A re­cent study found that about two-thirds of Ukraine’s 42.5 mil­lion peo­ple con­sider them­selves Or­tho­dox Chris­tians.

Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko was elated with Bartholomew’s de­ci­sion, say­ing in a tele­vised state­ment that it was “a vic­tory of good over evil, light over dark­ness” that “fi­nally dis­pelled the im­pe­rial il­lu­sions and chau­vin­is­tic fan­tasies of Moscow.”

Look­ing to boost his na­tion­al­ist cre­den­tials ahead of an elec­tion next year, Mr. Poroshenko added that au­to­cephaly for Ukraine’s church “is a ques­tion of our in­de­pen­dence, na­tional se­cu­rity, state­hood, a ques­tion of world geopol­i­tics.”

In an­other move that could be in­ter­preted as a sign of Moscow’s dis­plea­sure, fight­ing surged this week in Don­bass, the eastern re­gion of Ukraine, where Krem­lin-backed sep­a­ratists have es­tab­lished armed pro-Moscow en­claves. The Ukrainian army said four of its soldiers and six sep­a­ratist fight­ers were killed on Wed­nes­day, just be­fore Bartholomew’s de­ci­sion was an­nounced.

More than 10,300 peo­ple have died in the re­gion since fight­ing be­gan there in early 2014.

The Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church, mean­while, sug­gested that al­low­ing the Ukrainian branch to go its own way could lead to a full-blown schism within Eastern Or­tho­doxy. The Or­tho­dox Church has been cen­tred in Con­stantino­ple/Is­tan­bul since it broke with Western Chris­tian­ity in the 11th cen­tury over a num­ber of po­lit­i­cal and ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal is­sues, in­clud­ing the Pa­tri­arch of Con­stantino­ple’s re­fusal to rec­og­nize the pri­macy of the Pope.

The Rus­sian church is the largest Or­tho­dox group­ing, with about 150 mil­lion fol­low­ers. The Ukrainian branch has been un­der Moscow’s ju­ris­dic­tion since the late 1600s.

“With its ac­tions, Con­stantino­ple is cross­ing a red line and cat­a­stroph­i­cally un­der­mines the unity of global Or­tho­doxy,” said Alexan­der Volkov, a spokesman for Kir­ill. Call­ing the de­ci­sion “cat­a­strophic,” Mr. Volkov warned that the Rus­sian church would no longer re­gard the Con­stantino­ple Pa­tri­ar­chate as “first among equals” if Bartholomew fol­lowed through with it.


Pa­tri­arch Fi­laret, head of the Ukrainian Or­tho­dox Church of the Kiev Pa­tri­ar­chate, con­ducts a ser­vice at the Volodymysky Cathedral in Kiev on Thurs­day. The Ukrainian church has been granted in­de­pen­dence from the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church.


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