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Russia’s patriarch has a lot to lose in Crimea

The Russian Orthodox Church cannot afford to alienate Ukrainians as it bids for primacy within the Orthodox world

By on Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Patriarch Kirill doesn’t want large sections of his flock looking westwards

Patriarch Kirill doesn’t want large sections of his flock looking westwards

As newly released Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko made her historic speech in Kiev on February 22, I was astonished to notice a statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the podium beside her. Its presence attracted little comment at the time, but to me it seemed very significant.

Only about five per cent of Ukraine’s population are Catholic, and the vast majority of those are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church or UGCC. (For “Greek”, read Byzantine or Eastern Rite – following the same liturgy and customs as the Orthodox but in union with Rome.) These should all be more at home with their traditional icons than with the very western devotion to Our Lady
of Fatima.

The explanation is to be found in the way this young nation-state lies uneasily between East and West, having long been under the yoke of powerful neighbours, particularly Russia. Catholics have historically been concentrated in the west of the country, closer to the power and influence of Catholic neighbours. The eastern part of the country is predominantly Orthodox and was until recently under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate. While many in the West have been disturbed by the stance of Patriarch Kirill, apparently inclined to toe the Putin line, we need to understand the historical reasons for this.

Stalin forcibly incorporated the UGCC into the Orthodox Church in order to eliminate outside influence. With Ukrainian independence in 1991, it emerged from the catacombs to play a major role as a focal point of national sentiment. With its liturgy in Ukrainian, instead of the Old Church Slavonic, it embodied the aspirations of many Ukrainians, especially – though not exclusively – in the west of the country, to belong to the modern, democratic and pluralist club of the western democracies. Since these were the circles which triumphed at Maidan, it is probably fair to say that in terms of influence the UGCC punches above its numerical weight in the new Ukraine. This in itself worries the Orthodox, who have always seen the Eastern rite Catholics – disparagingly termed “uniates” – as a Trojan horse cunningly dreamt up by a Vatican bent on annexation.

The Orthodox of Ukraine, meanwhile, are beset by divisions, with no fewer than three separate hierarchies none of which recognises the others. The largest group, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), remains loyal to the “Mother Church” and alone enjoys recognition by the main players of Orthodoxy worldwide. Its numerical strength, unsurprisingly, lies in the pro-Russian east of the country. Those who want a national, autocephalous (self-governing) Church are mainly present in western Ukraine. They are divided into two groups, of which the larger split from Moscow in 1995 and established a patriarchate in Kiev, while the other is the much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), which was founded in 1919 and, like the UGCC, went underground under the Soviets.

All of this leaves Patriarch Kirill in a bit of a quandary. The Patriarch of Constantinople (who presides over a minuscule flock in Istanbul) has traditionally been seen as the honorary leader of world Orthodoxy. Russia has the world’s biggest Orthodox church by far, and covets the primacy. For Kirill, then, numbers are important; he doesn’t want large sections of his flock looking westward. This is part of the reason why declarations by Moscow-based clerics during the crisis have mirrored rather uncritically the Kremlin’s line, with its incredulous (not to say mendacious) claims that the protesters in Kiev were ultra-nationalist fanatics to a man and that Moscow is merely protecting ethnic Russians trapped behind Ukraine’s frontiers.

Another reason for the Russian Orthodox stance is that religion plays a defining role in the identity of the nation. Orthodox countries are the cultural heirs of Byzantium, where Church and state were never distinguished as they were in the West. The emperor protected the Church but he also ruled over it. This symbiosis has the advantage of creating a climate where faith can flourish, but it also has the downside of making it relatively easy for those in power to use religion for their own ends. There have always been churchmen aware of the dangers of this, but there have also been plenty who thought it a fair trade-off.

It does seem, however, as if Kirill was taken aback by events. Now that Putin is unashamedly grabbing Ukrainian territory – and we don’t yet know where he will stop – a new consensus around the national identity seems to be forming within the borders of Ukraine. There are reports that Church members and whole parishes who have hitherto remained loyal to Moscow are defecting in droves to the Kiev patriarchate. Kirill was not present at the session of the Duma which proclaimed the annexation of Ukraine and is no longer quite so vocal in towing the Kremlin’s line. Reports of violence against Catholic and separatist Ukrainian clergy in Crimea must unsettle him. I am sure that the patriarch is a sincere Christian who deplores violence in any form. But he also has a pragmatic reason for doubting a situation where the position of his own followers in what is left of Ukraine becomes yet more fragile, and the religious situation in the whole region less stable.

In 2016, after 50 years or so of planning, a pan-Orthodox council is due to meet. It will not quite be an Ecumenical Council (the last one recognised by the East took place in 787) but it is certainly the largest and most important event in Orthodoxy since then, aiming to define a united Orthodox approach to contemporary issues. Moscow, which at first blew hot and cold, has recently seemed to want to press ahead.

This is presumably because it believes it can exercise leadership over the assembly and define the agenda. Instability is not in its interests. Turning the majority of Ukrainian Orthodox into its enemies might be disastrous.

In case some Catholics are feeling smug about all of this, I would point out that we, too, in our history have been instrumentalised by secular powers and tempted by power politics. Today, while the Catholic Church has an outward administrative unity which many Orthodox might envy, we are perhaps less united than they are in terms of faith and worship. In spite of its organisational weaknesses, Orthodoxy is an impressive witness to the timelessness of the faith we share.

If we wish to be reunited with our brethren of the East, we have an interest in seeing them united among themselves. In the end, we need each other. Perhaps it was providential that Our Lady of Fatima found her way on to the podium at Maidan. Let us pray that she guides all of us through the present, dangerous times.

Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He is a researcher specialising in theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (18/4/14)

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