Implementation of Ukrainian autocephaly may be first flashpoint in Zelenskyi era

Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill presiding over a meeting with the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on July 27, 2013 in Kyiv, Ukraine, less than a year before the Russian annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas. The head of this Moscow exarchate in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, is seated in the middle of the front row. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill presiding over a meeting with the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on July 27, 2013 in Kyiv, Ukraine, less than a year before the Russian annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas. The head of this Moscow exarchate in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, is seated in the middle of the front row. (Photo: kremlin.ru) 

Op-ed, Ukraine

Petro Poroshenko made autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a centerpiece of national strategy, used the power of the state to promote it by making it easier for parishes to shift from the Moscow church to the Ukrainian one, and has pledged to continue to fight for the independence of the national church even after he leaves office.

His successor Volodymyr Zelenskyy will not seek to reverse autocephaly, but he is clearly less interested in using government power to promote it, a position that some including Poroshenko will see as a retreat from autocephaly but that others are already saying will make the rise of a truly popular national church slower but more firmly rooted.

In a first assessment of what will happen next, religious affairs specialist Aleksandr Soldatov says that Poroshenko’s achievement of autocephaly was one of his most important “successes” but his efforts to promote it as a means of weakening the Moscow church in Ukraine are already being curtailed.

The key feature of those efforts was the renaming of the Moscow church from the current “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” (UOC MP) to “the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” a change that the Verkhovna Rada backed and that was intended to speed the shift of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine from a church that has often served as the Kremlin’s ally to a truly national Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Kyiv.

While many parishes have shifted – the exact number is a matter of dispute – “over the months since the tomos was granted, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate not only hasn’t lost its leading passion on the confessional map of Ukraine but even has begun a legal revenge,” Soldatov says.

A Kyiv court ruled that a Ukrainian law requiring the renaming of the UOC MP and establishing a deadline of April 22 violates the rights of that congregation, an action its leader, Metropolitan Onufriy views as a great victory – and perhaps one of the reasons he was the first religious leader to greet Zelenskyy’s election.

Many Ukrainians view this as a turning away from autocephaly and an indication that Zelenskyy won’t be its defender (see credo.pressdsnews.ua and depo.ua).

Consequently, both Poroshenko and the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada have pledged to defend not just autocephaly but the state-supported means by which they believe it can best be implemented (see risu.org.ua and risu.org.ua).

That sets up a fight between the former president and his allies and Zelenskyy and his, and it may mean that the shift of parishes from the Moscow church to the Ukrainian church will slow for a time, although it is unlikely to be reversed. Indeed, Soldatov in his assessment suggests that in his view, the prospects for Ukrainian autocephaly remain “very bright.”

That is because further separation of religion from politics likely to occur under Zelenskyy’s presidency may “breathe new life into the Ukrainian church rebirth. And the more successful and convincing this rebirth will prove, the fewer chances the Moscow Patriarchate will have to ‘hold Ukraine.’”

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Edited by: A. N.

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