Enmity between the Orthodox churches in Ukraine as collateral damage of the Russian aggression
April 11, 2023
  • Cyril Hovorun
    Professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios College, University College Stockholm, and a director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles
Cyril Hovorun writes about the deepening of the conflict between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (part of the Russian Orthodox Church), expressing regret that the two churches are in a mindset of fierce competition rather than dialogue.
Three senior hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church refused to stand up to commemorate the fallen Ukrainian soldiers. May 2015. Photo courtesy of LB.ua
The Russian aggression against Ukraine has unexpectedly consolidated segments of Ukrainian society that before the war seemed irreconcilable. One exception, however, has been groups that strongly affiliate with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was established in December 2018 and received its recognition in January 2019, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The latter remains a part of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite its efforts to partially separate from Moscow and partially to camouflage its remaining connections with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Despite these connections, before 2014, the UOC, besides being the largest religious group in Ukraine, was also one of the most respected institutions in the country. After 2014, the situation changed, however, and the attitude of Ukrainian society to the UOC has dramatically worsened.
“One of the reasons for that was the support offered by the UOC for the regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Another was the blindness that its leaders demonstrated during the annexation of Crimea and the proxy war in the Donbas.”
The bishop of the occupied Luhansk, Panteleimon (encircled), participated in the Kremlin celebration of the annexation of Ukrainian territories. March 2022. Photo courtesy of LB.ua
Symbolic of this blindness was an episode in the Rada in May 2015 when three senior hierarchs of this church demonstratively stayed sitting while everyone else, including other religious leaders, stood up to commemorate the fallen defenders of the country.

After the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the UOC finally acknowledged the perpetrator and condemned its aggression. However, it still fails to acknowledge its own mistakes and the crimes of some of its hierarchs, such as outright collaboration with the occupiers. For example, the bishop of the occupied city of Luhansk, Panteleimon, dared to participate in the Kremlin ceremony marking the annexation of Ukrainian territories.

The unwillingness of UOC leaders to tackle the issue of collaboration by its hierarchs and clergy with the aggressor has reportedly outraged President Zelensky. He initially kept out of religious matters. Now, however, he personally launched a campaign to contain and cleanse the UOC from Russian influence and instrumentalization. This campaign resulted in systematic searches of the UOC premises by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), culminating in the recent attempts to expel the monastic community of the UOC from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. The latter is a UNESCO site that belongs to the Ukrainian state. The UOC has rented it since Ukraine became an independent state.

The provocative behavior of the UOC is an important factor that is changing the attitude of the state and society toward the UOC, though not the only one. Another factor has its roots within Ukrainian society itself, which has been deeply traumatized by the war. One of the natural reactions to pain is to inflict pain on the one who causes it, or at least one who is believed to cause it. This is what motivates Ukrainians to support their army and demonstrate bravery that the whole world marvels at. But there is a downside to this.

Some traumatized Ukrainians, when they cannot reach the real enemies, invent enemies closer to home. These imagined enemies are usually other Ukrainians who seem to side with Russia.

It is one of the reasons for the hostility that many Ukrainians feel toward the UOC.

The UOC has become a placeholder for the enemy that a traumatized society can take revenge on. I repeat: the UOC itself has done a lot to become a kind of scapegoat in the imagination of most Ukrainians. Nevertheless, most UOC members have themselves suffered from the war, and many have contributed to Ukraine’s victory, sacrificing their resources, health and even life. Still, many Ukrainians, traumatized by the war, do not care to make distinctions about who is good and who is bad in the UOC. As a result, the entire ecclesial structure has become a compact and convenient target, which compensates for the pain caused by the Russians.

It seems that some in the UOC enjoy being the scapegoats. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain their pathological denial of their own mistakes and their desire to keep provoking society. This is likely because they see themselves rather as martyrs. It is easy and self-indulgent for them to take such a position when, in contrast to real martyrs, they do not have to risk their lives and freedom for their faith. The only risk to the lives of UOC believers comes from the Russian aggression. Some bishops have been prosecuted only because the Ukrainian state finally decided to stop exempting them from the law. They consider persecution the possibility of being held accountable before the law like the rest of society.

Unfortunately, many in Ukraine prefer to simplify the situation and depict it in black-and-white terms. In this view, the UOC is an embodiment of the threat faced by Ukrainian society. The popular imagination, sparked by such a black-and-white picture, translates it into hatred for the UOC. Thus, Ukrainians who identify themselves with the UOC are hated by other Ukrainians – not because of what they are doing, but just because they belong to the UOC. This is clearly discrimination on the basis of attachment to a group. The Ukrainian authorities have decided that they will not stop such discrimination.
Unfortunately, the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is taking advantage of the social trauma and using it to expand its territory and influence at the expense of the UOC.
That is how one can see the attempt of the OCU to take over the Lavra and thus earn some symbolic capital. It seems that OCU leaders, as well as the Ukrainian authorities, are not bothered that the Lavra, as a result of their policy, could be depopulated.

The two Orthodox churches in Ukraine, the OCU and UOC, are in a mindset of fierce competition rather than dialogue. They say they want dialogue, but their actions prove otherwise. Under Yanukovych, the UOC was similarly opportunistic in trying to appropriate what belonged to its peers. The big loser of this competition is the Ukrainian people, who remain divided, even though it is vital for them to be unified.
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