‘Restoration’ of justice
Ukrainians hail independence for nation’s Orthodox Church
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.
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.