The rough-looking young men brought clubs and brass knuckles to the Pechersk Monastery in Kiev, one of Orthodox Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites, apparently seeking to disrupt worship. Police spread-eagled them against a wall decorated in centuries-old frescos of solemn saints, then hauled them away. On the other side of the dispute, at a small church in the centre of Kiev, a dozen men organized round-the-clock guard duty, worried that nationalist radicals might make their third attempt in a year to seize the place of worship. The incidents underline the tensions in Ukraine as it prepares to establish a fully-fledged Orthodox church of its own.
The planned religious rupture from the Russian Orthodox Church is a potent, possibly explosive mix of politics, religious faith, and national identity. The imminent creation of the new Ukrainian church raises deep concerns about what will happen to the approximately 12,000 churches in Ukraine now under the Moscow Patriarchate. The question of what will happen to the property of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine after the emergence of a single local church is key and could be one of the most painful” issues of the Orthodox split. Since the late 1600s, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been a wing of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Many Ukrainians resented that arrangement, as it implied that Ukraine was a vassal state of Russia. Schismatic churches formed under their own Ukrainian leaders, but were not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches. That is about to change. The Istanbul-based patriarchate has removed an anathema against Ukrainian church leaders, a major step toward granting full recognition to a Ukrainian church that does not answer to the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church, furious at the move, announced it will no longer recognize the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
It fears it will lose sites including the Pechersk Monastery, the seat of the church’s Ukrainian branch and a major tourist destination renowned for its richly decorated churches. It’s not clear when the autocephaly will be granted. The two schismatic Ukrainian churches must decide who will be the patriarch of the unified church. Once that decision is made, Constantinople is expected to grant the independence order. In recent years, about 50 churches in Ukraine that were under the Moscow Patriarchate have been forcibly seized and transferred to the Kiev Patriarchate, according to Metropolitan Antony Pakanich of the Moscow-loyal Ukrainian Church.
“People have been forcibly dragged out of our temples, the locks sawn off,” he said. “People in camouflage and balaclavas, from radical organizations, have come and beat our believers and priests.” Some believers say they will forcefully defend their right to stay. The creation of a local church will push for a new round of confrontation. Supporters of canonical Orthodoxy have said they will defend their interests. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has hailed the creation of the full Ukrainian church as “a guarantee of our spiritual freedom,” and pledged that there will be no action taken against parishes that choose to remain under the Moscow Patriarchate.
Similar promises have come from Patriarch Filaret, head of the largest of the schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox churches. He said “creating a single Orthodox Church in Ukraine does not mean that the Russian Orthodox Church does not have the right to exist on our territory.” Some Ukrainian nationalists appear ready to use force. Radical right-wingers recently broke into a church in western Ukraine, beat up a priest, drove parishioners away and locked the building. The ultranationalist C14 group, sees the presence of Moscow Patriarchate churches in Ukraine as a form of propaganda by an “aggressor country” since the Russian Church has close ties to the Kremlin.
The war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists, which has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 has increased hostility toward the Moscow Patriarchate churches. Father Sergii Dmitriev, a chaplain in the Ukrainian army, was once part of the Moscow church but switched to the Kiev Patriarchate after the Russia-linked church refused to hold funerals for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war. “To be in the Moscow Patriarchate is to take part in the murder of Ukrainians,” he said. With such passions on both sides it is feared that more violence between the two sides lays ahead.
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