Zelenskyy’s election has not stopped the rise of the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on display.

The tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on display. 

Op-ed, Ukraine

Exactly a year ago, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople extended autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), making it independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and fulfilling both the longstanding dreams of many Ukrainians and the political program of then-president Petro Poroshenko.

Since Poroshenko’s defeat by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, there has been a slowdown in the shift of Ukrainian parishes from the Moscow to the autocephalous Ukrainian church. Five hundred parishes shifted before that time; but only 100 have done so since, although more are likely to in the future.

What has not happened is any significant shift back: only two of the 600 parishes which earlier shifted from the Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) have shifted back, an indication that while the move away from Moscow may have slowed, it has hardly stopped, and that Moscow Patriarch Kirill has not reaped the benefits from Zelenskyy’s victory he and the Kremlin expected.

At the same time, the Ukrainian church has gained international support in the form of recognition by two Orthodox churches, Greece and Alexandria, and expects to receive it from four other patriarchates soon.

Universal Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos of autocephaly of the Ortodox Church of Ukraine on January 5, 2019 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Universal Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos of autocephaly of the Ortodox Church of Ukraine on January 5, 2019 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Moscow both religious and secular was wrong to think that Ukrainian autocephaly was only a Poroshenko project, that it would end with his departure from office or that it would be limited in its impact to Ukraine and not affect the Moscow Patriarchate’s standing abroad and at home, Aleksandr Soldatov says.

The specialist on church affairs says that autocephaly is something large numbers of Ukrainians are committed to and that the existence of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox church means that “the influence of the ROC MP is fading away,” first and foremost in Ukraine but not only there and not only outside of Russia.

According to Soldatov, “the only achievement of the Moscow Patriarchate during the presidency of Zelenskyy has been stopping the process of renaming the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) by a decision of the Ukrainian Supreme Court.” Otherwise, it has remained on the defensive there and is gradually losing out in the Orthodox world more generally.

At the start of this year, Soldatov says, the UOC MP still is the largest church in Ukraine with more than 13,000 parishes, but the autocephalous OCU has “about 8,000” and is growing rather than declining. In addition, there are “almost 4,000” Greek Catholic (“Uniate”) parishes and 20 loyal to Filaret’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate.

Petro Poroshenko while demonstrating Tomos in Vinnytsia. Source: 33 Kanal

Petro Poroshenko while demonstrating Tomos in Vinnytsia. (Source: 33 Kanal)

Soldatov argues that “the chain of foreign policy defeats of the Moscow Patriarchate is reducing the influence of Patriarch Kirill in domestic Russian political life.” That doesn’t mean that he is about to be sent into retirement in favor of Tikhon, Putin’s favorite Orthodox hierarch. But it does mean the patriarch is playing defense, not offense.

A slightly–but only slightly–more upbeat assessment of the position of the ROC MP in Ukraine and of Kirill more generally is offered by Andrey Melnikov, head of NG-Religii. He suggests that now it is obvious that many Ukrainians are sympathetic to the Moscow church, a victory for Kirill.

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And he argues that Kirill’s moves to convene an all-Orthodox meeting later this year show that the Moscow patriarch is not without influence. But in making that suggestion, Melnikov stresses two things. On the one hand, Moscow’s position is far weaker now than it was, something the Kremlin is anything but happy about.

And on the other, Ukrainian autocephaly, which Kirill first thought he could block and then acted as if he could reverse, is real and almost certainly permanent. That and not the back-and-forth among religious leaders in the Orthodox world is the most important result of one year of Ukrainian autocephaly.

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Edited by: A. N.

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