The Autumn of the Patriarchate: Public and state pressure deals a blow to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate

April 11, 2023
  • Georgy Chizhov
    Head of Reform Assistance Center (Kyiv)

Georgy Chizhov on how the conflict between the Orthodox churches of Ukraine developed over the last three decades, how the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate became a victim of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and how the scandal around the Kyiv Lavra will evolve.

Over the past three and a half decades, we have become accustomed to authorities in post-Soviet countries handing back over to believers churches that the Bolsheviks had once taken away. Thus, the recent news out of Kyiv sounds a little odd: the Ukrainian state is trying to take away the most famous monastery in the country, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. To understand what is happening, it is worth taking a dive into the difficult history of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in recent decades.

One country, two patriarchates

About a year before the collapse of the USSR, in the fall of 1990, the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), in response to an appeal from the Local Council and Synod of the Ukrainian Exarchate, granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC, later the UOC-MP, i.e. of the Moscow Patriarchate) independence and autonomy in administration. When Ukraine became an independent state, local bishops asked the ROC leadership to grant the Ukrainian Church full canonical independence (autocephaly), though that request was denied. The head of the UOC, Metropolitan Filaret (Denisenko), was subsequently removed and stripped of his church rank, soon after which he launched the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP).

Though in the early 1990s the noncanonical UOC-KP of Filaret enjoyed obvious sympathy from the Ukrainian authorities, most of the churches, parishioners and opportunities to influence officials at various levels remained with the UOC-MP.
The dominant position of the latter, basically directed from a neighboring state, was generally perceived by some of the Ukrainian elite as a potential threat.
Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed a tomos granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. January 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
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.
For most of Ukrainian society – both for opponents of the UOC and for its followers – the Church continued to be part of the Moscow Patriarchate.
A scandal erupted around the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in November 2022 when a choir in one of its churches (in the photo) performed a song glorifying Russia. Source: Facebook
Still, the Ukrainian authorities did not take visible actions against it.

The state takes on the Church

The situation began to change when, after several Russian agents in the leadership of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) were unmasked, Ivan Bakanov, a parishioner of the UOC, was removed as head of the SBU. His successor Vasyl Malyuk intensified the search for enemy agents in all directions. However, what drew the attention of the special services to the Church was something different and unexpected: a video circulated online in which the church choir in one of the churches of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is singing: “bells ringing is rising over Russia, Mother Rus’ is awakening.” The video stirred serious emotions across society, and calls were made for the government to respond.

In November, searches and other investigative measures were carried out at monasteries, churches and the premises of UOC dioceses throughout the country. The SBU found a mass of “pro-Russia” (or rather, simply Russian) church literature, over $100,000 and UAH 2 million in unaccounted for cash, strange people who identified themselves with Soviet passports or military IDs – though this clearly could not be framed as a large-scale spy network.

Nevertheless, following a search at the Chernivtsi-Bukovina Diocese of the UOC, which had been headed by Metropolitan Onufry before his election as primate, a treason case was opened. Agents found correspondence between the leaders of the diocese “with their Moscow curators where they received ‘manuals’ on the specifics of holding church liturgies after a full-scale invasion,” as well as “photocopied identification of Russians who fought against Ukrainian troops.”

The current Bukovina Metropolitan Melety said that the documents were falsified and left for Moldova. Charges were also brought against the metropolitan of Kirovograd, who, according to the SBU, “was in constant contact with the head of the ROC and carried out his instructions regarding the justification of Russian aggression and the taking of Ukrainian territories.”
Overall, criminal cases were brought against 61 priests, seven of whom have already been convicted, with two exchanged for captured Ukrainians.
Based on SBU evidence, 17 functionaries of the UOC-MP were sanctioned, while 19 clergy of the UOC who have Russian citizenship had their Ukrainian citizenship suspended. Ukrainian law does not allow for holding two passports, though this is often violated in practice.

Zelensky intervention

In December 2022, President Zelensky instructed the government to submit a bill to the Rada to make “impossible the activities in Ukraine of religious organizations affiliated with Russian centers of influence” and “to examine the legal grounds and compliance with terms for the use of property” of the National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Reserve. The property – the monastery, the Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary, the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Near and Far caves – was transferred to the UOC in 2013 by the Mykola Azarov government indefinitely and rent-free.

For the investigation, an interdepartmental working group was set up, which, after almost three months, found violations. What they are is not entirely clear, as the working group’s report has not been released. Ukrainian Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko clarified only that there are “quite a lot of violations, including new constructions on the territory of the Lower Lavra without appropriate permits.” Earlier, reconstruction of architectural monuments and construction of new facilities on the territory of the Lavra without appropriate documentation had been reported by investigative journalists from a RFE/RL project.

On March 10, the Ministry of Culture announced that the lease agreement would be terminated. The UOC monastery was given until March 29 to vacate the premises and hand it back to the state. Minister Tkachenko said that he did not demand that the monks be evicted, though he hinted that it would be good if they went over to the OCU, which back in December had registered its own monastery at the Lavra with the same name as under the UOC – the Holy Dormition Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

On the eve of the deadline set by the Ministry of Culture, one of the monks of the Lavra with the rank of archimandrite, Father Avraamy (Lotysh), previously unknown to the secular public, called on the brethren to go over to the OCU.

“In what is happening, I see the action of divine providence and an instigation for all of us to recognize the new canonical reality of the existence of a local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which has been granted a tomos of autocephaly,” said the archimandrite. The primate of the OCU, Epiphanius, blessed Avraamy to act as abbot at the Lavra, while Metropolitan Onufry predictably forbade him from serving. How many monks followed Avraamy is still unknown.

Immediately after the Ministry of Culture put out its demands, the UOC abbot of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebed), announced that the monks would not leave the monastery and later warned President Zelensky: “I tell you, Mr President, and your entire flock, that our tears will not fall on earth. They will fall on your head... The Lord will not forgive you or your family for this act.”

Note that Bishop Pavlo is perhaps the most scandalous hierarch of the UOC. He has repeatedly cursed and insulted journalists in the past, snatched a cellphone from a journalist and aggressively refused to cooperate with traffic police. In 2019, he told how four museum workers died after his curse. For his love of luxury goods – especially cars – he got the nickname Pasha-Mercedes. Despite all this, many of the parishioners of the Lavra consider him a good shepherd who opposes injustice.

On the morning of April 1, Metropolitan Pavlo was given notice of suspicion and his home was searched. He is facing two articles of the Ukrainian Criminal Code: Article 161 – “violation of the equality of citizens based on their race, nationality, regional affiliation, religious beliefs, etc.” – and Article 436-2 – “justification, recognition as lawful, denial of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, glorification of its participants.” The court put the metropolitan under round-the-clock house arrest.

Though Pavlo was forced to leave the Lavra, UOC believers are still not allowing a commission from the Ministry of Culture onto the site. The Sunday service on April 2 was held in the Lavra by Onufry himself. The police have so far avoided using force and have only stopped the fights that have been flaring up between “defenders” of the Lavra and opponents of the Moscow Patriarchate. The UOC is currently challenging the decision of the Ministry of Culture in court.
Clergy and laymen bar a Ministry of Culture commission from entering the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Source: VK
Bleak outlook

It seems reasonable to expect that the UOC will not be able to hold out in the Lavra. The political will of Ukraine’s leadership, combined with the status of the Lavra as a state reserve and, most importantly, the ongoing Russian aggression, which is shaping public sentiment, is in favor of unambiguously showing the door to the “Moscow priests” (this disparaging label is common throughout social networks and the media).

And it seems that things will not end with the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.
Next in line is the Pochayiv Lavra in Ternopil Region, which is also state-owned and was transferred rent-free to the UOC in 2003 for 49 years.
The Rada has already registered a draft resolution with an appeal to the Cabinet of Ministers to terminate the lease agreement. Both the OCU and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is popular in the west of the country, seek to hold services at the Pochayiv Lavra.

Meanwhile, the UOC got itself into a big scandal in the city of Khmelnytskyi. During a Sunday service in the city’s cathedral, soldier Artur Ananyev asked the parishioners how many people still had to die so that they would stop going to the church of the Moscow Patriarchate (according to other, contradictory testimonies, besides that, Ananyev is said to have poured water on the priest and thrown the gospel on the floor). In response, priest Igor Slobodyan and several other men in church vestments and ordinary clothes twisted Ananyev’s arms and threw him to the ground, striking him in the process. The soldier ended up in the hospital with a closed brain injury and brain contusion.

The response was swift and shocking. By that evening, a crowd of indignant citizens were out in front of the cathedral, collecting signatures to have it transferred to the OCU. Metropolitan of Khmelnytskyi and Starokonstantinovsky Anthony (Fialko) handed over the keys to the church and declared his readiness to go over to the OCU. The next day, the Synod of the UOC, meeting remotely, retired him. Slobodyan has left the city and perhaps the country. An emergency session of the city council deprived all 12 UOC churches located on city grounds of the right to use land. Meanwhile, the Khmelnytskyi Region Council completely banned the activities of the UOC in the region.

These moves are fully in line with public expectations. In coming days, some other cities and regions across the country will follow the Khmelnytskyi example, while the central authorities in Kyiv may have to further toughen their position under local pressure. In the meantime, state officials assure that freedom of religion in Ukraine is not under threat.
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