‘Restora­tion’ of jus­tice

Ukraini­ans hail in­de­pen­dence for na­tion’s Ortho­dox Church

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International - By Chris G. Col­li­son

St. John the The­olo­gian Cathe­dral in Kharkiv is one of the only churches in Ukraine’s sec­ond-largest city where church­go­ers can hear hymns sung in the Ukrainian lan­guage. And for peo­ple at this church, Ortho­dox Christ­mas ser­vices have been es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful this year.

For cen­turies, the Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church has been sub­or­di­nate to Rus­sia’s. But on this year’s Ortho­dox Christ­mas Eve, which fell on Jan. 6, the spir­i­tual head of Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity in Is­tan­bul granted of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion to an in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian branch of the church, with a pa­tri­arch in Kiev rather than in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal.

“When we heard the news, we were so happy,” says Olya Tkachenko, who at­tends this branch of the newly in­de­pen­dent church in the city of Kharkiv, where Moscow-af­fil­i­ated churches greatly out­num­ber those af­fil­i­ated with Kiev.

“We have been wait­ing for this — peo­ple all over Ukraine who be­lieve in our coun­try, who be­lieve we should speak the Ukrainian lan­guage, who be­lieve we should go to a church that has ser­vices in Ukrainian,” she says.

Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko has made the es­tab­lish­ment of a uni­fied, in­de­pen­dent church a cor­ner­stone of his legacy. He has lob­bied the spir­i­tual head of the world’s East­ern Ortho­dox Chris­tian com­mu­nity, the Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch of Con­stantino­ple, to give its bless­ing in the form of a “To­mos,” a doc­u­ment grant­ing of­fi­cial sta­tus to a Ukrainian branch of the church.

Of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of an in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian church has been seen as a key step in mov­ing the coun­try farther away from Moscow’s or­bit. But it has also deep­ened con­flict be­tween two coun­tries that have been unof­fi­cially at war since 2014, when Rus­sia an­nexed the Crimean Penin­sula and be­gan fun­nel­ing weapons and fight­ers into Ukraine’s south­east. Low-level con­flict has been a near-daily oc­cur­rence ever since, al­though ten­sions flared in Novem­ber when Rus­sian forces cut off Ukraine’s ac­cess to the Sea of Azov and seized three Ukrainian war­ships. In re­sponse, the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment im­posed mar­tial law in re­gions bor­der­ing Rus­sia for 30 days.

Chris­tian­ity is the dom­i­nant re­li­gion in Ukraine. Ap­prox­i­mately 65 per­cent of Ukraini­ans iden­tify as Ortho­dox Chris­tian, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 sur­vey by the Razumkov Cen­ter, a Ukrainian think tank. But the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church has been vo­cally op­posed to the cre­ation of the new Ukrainian branch. Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill, the head of the Rus­sian church, who is seen as a close ally of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, has levied com­plaints with world bod­ies and bro­ken off re­la­tions with the Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch in Is­tan­bul in protest.

For Ukraini­ans, an of­fi­cially in­de­pen­dent church has been a long time com­ing. As the So­viet Union fell apart in the early 1990s, two break­away Ortho­dox churches formed in Ukraine — the Ukrainian Au­to­cephalous Ortho­dox Church and the Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church of the Kiev Pa­tri­ar­chate. Both have op­er­ated in Ukraine for more than 25 years, but they have been un­able to re­ceive of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion un­til now.

Last year, Pa­tri­arch Bartholomew I of Con­stantino­ple, the Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch, in­di­cated that he would grant of­fi­cial sta­tus to an in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian church. In De­cem­ber, the two break­away Ukrainian churches, as well as sev­eral parishes of the Moscow-af­fil­i­ated church that de­cided to change their af­fil­i­a­tion, held a uni­fi­ca­tion coun­cil in Kiev. They elected a pa­tri­arch to lead a new, united church.

Lan­guage pol­icy has played a large role in po­lit­i­cal dis­course. The Ukrainian gov­ern­ment has in­tro­duced a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial laws re­quir­ing the use of Ukrainian in schools and in cer­tain mass me­dia. Sup­port­ers say the laws are meant to pro­tect the sta­tus of the Ukrainian lan­guage and counter the in­flu­ence of Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda. De­trac­tors say the laws threaten free­dom of speech as well as the rights of other na­tional mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing com­mu­ni­ties of eth­nic Hun­gar­i­ans and Ro­ma­ni­ans on the western bor­der.

But a newly in­de­pen­dent church does not mean that ev­ery Ukrainian parish will pledge al­le­giance to Kiev. In Kharkiv, 15 miles from the Rus­sian bor­der, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of churches will re­main af­fil­i­ated with the pa­tri­arch in Moscow. Only four will be­come part of the newly united, in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian church — one for­merly af­fil­i­ated with the Au­to­cephalous church, the smaller of the two break­away churches, and three as­so­ci­ated with the for­merly un­rec­og­nized Kiev Pa­tri­ar­chate. One more is un­der con­struc­tion.

Em­rah Gurel/As­so­ci­ated Press

Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch Bartholomew I, cen­ter, signs the “To­mos” de­cree of au­to­cephaly for the Ukrainian church as Metropoli­tan Epipha­nius, cen­ter right, the head of the in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church, watches Jan. 5 at the Pa­tri­ar­chal Church of St. Ge­orge in Is­tan­bul.

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