The Ukrainian authorities made inconsistent attempts to create a single local Church without any success.
Meanwhile, as Moscow’s ambitions grew, the Church was increasingly used to exert political influence on the Ukrainian elites and public opinion. By 2014, across dozens of UOC-MP dioceses, pro-Russian infrastructure (such as NGOs and “Cossack associations”) emerged
, while speakers were trained to propagandize the ideas of “Rus’ saved by the Triune.” The beginning of the hybrid war in the Donbas in 2014 was perceived differently by the clergy and parishioners of the Church: some went to defend Ukraine (receiving support from their priests); others called for peace, trying to avoid the question of who had started and was driving the war; and still others took a hardline anti-Ukraine stance.
In the summer of 2016, the Rada turned to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew for a tomos to be issued (a tomos is a decree from a church primate on a particularly important issue) to grant autocephaly to Ukrainian Orthodox believers. Then-President Petro Poroshenko became actively involved in the process. Despite opposition from the ROC and the UOC-MP, on December 15, 2018, a unification council
was held that unveiled the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The new Church included almost all the clergy of the UOC-KP and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC, another noncanonical jurisdiction), along with a small number of bishops and priests from the UOC-MP.
Perhaps the Ukrainian authorities were in too much of a rush to create the OCU. Almost all leadership positions in the new Church were filled with representatives of the dissolved UOC-KP and UAOC, meaning there was simply no room left in the OCU hierarchy for bishops from the UOC-MP who might join later. While Poroshenko remained in office, church communities, churches and priests went over from the UOC to the OCU, though after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president, that process practically stopped.Leave to stay?
Until recently, the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate remained the biggest in Ukraine by number of parishes (according to various sources, 10,000-12,000 versus about 7,000 for the OCU) and thus by number of parishioners. However, public opinion was no longer on its side. A nationwide survey
conducted in February 2020 showed that 60.6% of Ukrainians had a positive attitude toward the OCU and 5.4% a negative one. Meanwhile, the UOC had a negative approval rating: 25.7% of the respondents positively viewed it and 28.0% negatively.
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UOC has become even more controversial. On the one hand, its primate, Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky), who has a reputation as a clergyman who generally eschews politics. Right on February 24, 2022, he called on
Russian President Putin to “immediately stop the fratricidal war,” citing the “sin of Cain, who out of envy killed his own brother.”
Three months later, on May 27, a UOC Council took place, which, among other things, made changes
to the Charter on the Administration of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that “testified to the complete autonomy and independence of the UOC.” Since the invasion, more than 400 religious communities have already switched from the UOC to the OCU
In response, the Synod of the ROC affirmed
that the status of the UOC is “established by the Letter of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia dated October 27, 1990” – in other words, it did not recognize any of the moves while refraining from harsh statements. Many in Ukraine did not believe in the sincerity of the break between the UOC and Moscow. “The purpose of the [UOC] Council is to maintain the status quo and change the attitude of Ukrainian society toward itself without breaking with the ROC, with the head of the Moscow Patriarchate Gundyaev,” stated
OCU primate Epiphanius (Dumenko). “They did not resume relations with the ecumenical patriarch, but instead confirmed their previous decisions.” Politicians and publicists spoke in the same vein.
In September, one participant of the May UOC Council, Metropolitan Panteleimon of Lugansk and Alchevsk, took part in the Kremlin ceremony marking the incorporation of partially occupied Ukrainian regions into Russia. The abbot
of the Holy Savva Monastery, part of the Zaporizhzhia diocese of the UOC, was also seen there.
Several bishops simply moved to Russia and held services together with their peers from the ROC. From time to time, media reports emerged about UOC priests making statements and taking actions seen as pro-Russia.