icon bookmark-bicon bookmarkicon cameraicon checkicon chevron downicon chevron lefticon chevron righticon chevron upicon closeicon v-compressicon downloadicon editicon v-expandicon fbicon fileicon filtericon flag ruicon full chevron downicon full chevron lefticon full chevron righticon full chevron upicon gpicon insicon mailicon moveicon-musicicon mutedicon nomutedicon okicon v-pauseicon v-playicon searchicon shareicon sign inicon sign upicon stepbackicon stepforicon swipe downicon tagicon tagsicon tgicon trashicon twicon vkicon yticon wticon fm
23 Dec, 2022 19:29

War of the churches: How Ukraine has become unsafe for millions of Orthodox believers

Why Ukrainian nationalists and the state persecute parishioners of the country’s largest church
War of the churches: How Ukraine has become unsafe for millions of Orthodox believers

“If you believe in God, I beg you, leave the church, let me bury my son!” a grief-stricken woman screams, kneeling in the snow in front of the priest. He is surrounded by Ukrainian officials and territorial defense fighters who are there to help him seize the church. A woman begs him in Ukrainian to stop. Her son, who went to the front and died in the battles for the city of Bakhmut, prayed in this church, and now the mother wants to bid him goodbye. “You didn't let me pray in front of the icon yesterday, your men beat me up. I beg you to leave, let me bury Volodya!”

Both the woman and the priest are Orthodox Christians, but decades, and even centuries, of political and ecclesiastical turmoil on the territory of modern Ukraine has created a chasm between believers which has grown wider since Russia’s military offensive began, earlier this year. 

In Ukraine, which is considered an Orthodox Christian country, not all believers feel comfortable and safe. This is because of actions of the state. 

RT explores why Kiev has forgotten Christianity’s vow of “love thy neighbor,” and why believers are ready to use force against their own.

Strangers among their own

Historically, the religious situation in Ukraine has always been tense. Every political crisis has led to a split in the church: the very formation of the state, the 2014 Euromaidan, the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018.

Ukraine has never had a united Orthodox church, and the nationalist-minded part of society has long been seeking one. The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has for many years been the most active denomination, but has been forced to fend off accusations of “working for Moscow” because of its formal subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russia’s attack has provoked a round of aggression against the UOC, with accusations of it “working for Russia” and “serving the Kremlin” heard with renewed vigor. Meanwhile, Kiev has made the fight against the UOC political. 

Immediately after the start of the military operation, the seizure of churches by force began in many regions of Ukraine. In March, armed supporters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), formed under the previous president, Petro Poroshenko, disrupted a service in the Pokrovsky Church of the Cherkasy region. They started a fight, attacked the priest, and dragged him out of the church. On March 7, the OCU seized the Anno-Zachatievsky Church in the Ivano-Frankovsk region. Opponents of the UOC came to the church, expelled those in attendance , calling them “parishioners of the aggressor" and changed the locks on all the doors.

A major scandal occurred this month in Ivano-Frankovsk. A church service was held with the participation of the new local bishop Nikita Storozhuk at the only UOC cathedral in the city. During the service, opponents of the UOC broke into the church to arrange a provocation and disrupt the service. “Away with the Moscow priest,” “Moscow KGB get back to Moscow,” shouted the provocateurs, who had responded to a call issued by an adviser to the mayor of Ivano-Frankovsk, Nazar Kishak. Some believers left the service with bloody faces, broken noses, and other injuries.

Violent seizures of churches in Ukraine have become a regular occurrence. From February to August, over 250 churches across the country were seized by supporters of the OCU, according to the information and educational department of the UOC. Official statistics for the entire duration of the conflict have not been disclosed yet.

The church is also under pressure from the state. Many monasteries in Ukraine have been raided: the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the Koretsky Holy Trinity Monastery, the Cyril and Methodius Convent. Recently, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced raids in three dioceses of the country – in the Zhytomir, Rovensk, and Transcarpathian Regions, with the Cherkasy and Volyn Regions later added to the list. The reasons cited were “counterintelligence measures,” “the fight against Russian special services,” and “the search for pro-Kremlin literature.” A prayer book, church literature in Russian or, for example, an icon of a canonized saint – the Russian Emperor Nicholas II – were all counted as evidence of anti-Ukrainian activity.

Ukrainian spooks say they are looking for “traitors of the Ukrainian people” among the clergy of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate. On August 5, 2022, the SBU detained a priest of the UOC, Sergey Tarasov. His daughter said that the security forces came to his house, searched him, and accused of treason. Later, his body was found in one of the Kiev morgues with a traumatic brain injury.

The highest clergy of the UOC have also come under surveillance from the Ukrainian security forces. On November 7, the SBU accused the Metropolitan of the UOC in the Vinnytsia Region of “inciting religious discord and insulting the feelings of citizens.” And on December 2, it said it suspected the Metropolitan of the Kirovograd diocese of the UOC of “pro-Kremlin” views. The names of the metropolitans have not been disclosed despite their high rank.

Kiev-Pechersk Lavra controversy 

The attempt to seize the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra – Ukraine’s main Orthodox shrine, belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – is a separate story. Raids took place on its territory, which the SBU explained as necessary “to prevent the use of the Lavra as a cell of the ‘Russian world’.” A week after that, SBU officers searched the abbot of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel.

The legal transfer of the Lavra to the subordination of the new Ukrainian church is currently under consideration. In early December, the charter of the monastery of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra appeared in the state register of Ukraine, and a representative of the OCU announced the re-registration of the Lavra to a new owner. However, Minister of Culture of Ukraine Alexander Tkachenko later denied this information, calling the incident not a transfer, but a “registration of a legal entity of the OCU on the territory of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Reserve.”

The creation of a “parallel” legal entity can be used by the OCU in future ownership claims concerning the Lavra. In conjunction with the raids, Vladimir Zelensky decided to ban religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence in Russia.” Even the lawyers of the Verkhovna Rada did not agree with the initiative, saying that it violates the constitution and will lead to “religious tension in society.” However, if the law is adopted, the fate of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra will be sealed. 


The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has faced unprecedented pressure in modern history: the seizure of churches, arrests of church clergy, criminal investigations, and the possibility of a complete legal ban. The leadership of the UOC declared full independence from the Russian Orthodox Church back in May, but the position of the authorities has not changed. Meanwhile, Ukraine became divided into “first-class Orthodox” – parishioners of the OCU, and “second-class Orthodox” – parishioners of the “Moscow-affiliated” church, as Ukraine claims. To strengthen national unity, the Ukrainian government is dealing a heavy blow to religious harmony, which will inevitably be a source of tragedy for millions of Ukrainians.

The patchwork of Ukrainian Christianity

At the time of the Russian Empire, there was no independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy in the Ukrainian territories was represented by the main religious organization of the empire – the Russian Orthodox Church. The first attempts to create an independent Orthodox Church began after the revolution of 1917.

The Ukrainian nationalist clergy took advantage of the political crisis to create an autocephalous church. The rebellious clerics were left to themselves and began to create a structure bypassing all the accepted rules. The newly formed Ukrainian Autocephalous Church turned out to be useful for the Bolsheviks, who used schismatics to fight the then influential Russian Orthodox Church. However, by the late 1920s, the anti-religious Bolsheviks no longer needed an independent Ukrainian church. Just like the Russian Orthodox Church, it was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and ceased to exist in 1930.

In the west of Ukraine, there was a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which arose as the result of the Union of Brest in 1596, but finally took shape by 1700. This church has always been regional and existed in different periods on the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire. Following the Second World War, the Soviet government decided to abolish the Greek Catholic Church and transfer its parishes to the Russian Orthodox Church.


Thus, in the twentieth century, three large Christian churches existed in Ukraine – the Russian Orthodox Church and the liquidated autocephalous and Greek Catholic churches. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all three reasserted themselves. Many church communities in western Ukraine became divided – for example, Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities sprung up in one parish.

The emergence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy and the first schism

In the USSR, Orthodoxy was represented only by the Russian Orthodox Church, so the late Soviet period, there were demands for the emergence of an independent Ukrainian church. On October 27, 1990, Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia signed a tomos [decree] granting the Ukrainian Church independence. This meant complete independence, except for the ability to change dogmas and canons. The newly formed UOC–MP independently chose the Metropolitan of Kiev (the Moscow patriarch only blessed the chosen leader), and the Synod of the UOC-MP received the right to appoint ruling bishops, create and abolish dioceses. However, this was not enough for the Ukrainian church.

The first major schism in the Orthodox Church is tied to the figure of Metropolitan Filaret (Denisenko). In the 1960s, he held the position of Metropolitan of Kiev and Galicia, and, in 1990, became Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine. Filaret was even one of the main candidates for the title of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia but lost the election to Patriarch Alexy. From that moment on, his path gravitated towards division. 

On August 24, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR announced its secession from the USSR and independent Ukraine appeared. Filaret demanded full independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the status of Patriarch of Kiev and All Ukraine, which he hoped to obtain. 


The issue was discussed at the Bishops’ Council in 1992, but the Russian Orthodox Church did not agree with Filaret’s demands. Returning to Kiev, he took an anti-Moscow position and, with the support of some Ukrainian bishops, began establishing a self-proclaimed church – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. Thus, two parallel church structures appeared in Ukraine.

In the late 1980s, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church also declared its right to independence. A number of ROC parishes in western Ukraine declared their withdrawal from Moscow's jurisdiction and full independence. Appealing to one of the Lviv parishes, the autocephalists explicitly stated: “Foreign patriarchs will not put our house in order. We must do it ourselves.”

Some of the bishops and parishes transferred to the UOC–KP created by Filaret, but others refused to obey the self-styled Patriarch of Kiev and wished to keep the former name – the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. By then, there were three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which had remained in hiding for almost half a century, also seized its chance for independence. In western Ukraine, movements advocating the legalization of the Catholic Church appeared. They organized demonstrations, held “open services,” and collected signatures for its legalization.

In December, Mikhail Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II, and just before the meeting, a statement by the Soviet authorities about the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church appeared in the press. Now Greek Catholics could register parishes and engage in public activities. The parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in western Ukraine were under pressure from the UGCC. This led to the seizure of churches by force and the obstruction of religious services. Threats and attacks on the clergy and believers of the Russian Orthodox Church became more frequent.


For example, in the winter of 1989, Greek Catholics besieged the Goshevsky Monastery. The abbot was left with stab wounds, a pogrom was staged in the monastic buildings, and many houses of Orthodox believers from nearby villages were set on fire. In total, from October 1989 to January 1990, 32 cases of violent church seizure were recorded.

By the time Ukraine gained independence, it had four Christian denominations – three Orthodox and a Greek Catholic church. The denominations competed for parishioners, and the Russian Orthodox Church was perceived by many as a fragment of the Soviet Union, so it faced criticism from both Russophobes and anti-Soviets.

The way to Europe and the creation of a “national church”

In religious terms, Ukraine is very different from other post-Soviet countries. Anti-religious persecution affected the Ukrainian SSR much less than other republics. Greek Catholic and Autocephalous Ukrainian churches were banned, but religious life did not stop.

However, there was no denominational unity in the country. Ukraine has many believers, and most are Orthodox Christians, but they are divided by different centers of church power. It is not surprising that Ukrainians often avoid classification and call themselves simply Orthodox.

The gradual distancing from Russia and the spread of Russophobia inevitably affected the religious identity of Ukrainians and created the ground for the emergence of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. Thus, the current position of the church in Ukraine was formed as a result of two historical events – the Maidan of 2014 and the acceptance of Autocephaly in 2018.

In 2014, the ROC-MP took a neutral position and did not support any of the parties – neither the authorities nor the protesters. Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was quite ill and factually incapacitated at that time, the bishops refrained from commenting, and the priests of the ROC- MP did not attend the Maidan or get mixed up in politics. However, other Orthodox churches took a different course of action. 


The self-proclaimed Patriarch of Kiev Filaret openly supported the Maidan and refused to accept a state award from then-president Yanukovych. St. Michael's Cathedral, located near the Maidan, sounded the church bells in alarm and sheltered protesters from law enforcement forces.

In the first days of the Maidan, the Greek Catholic Church organized a prayer service in Lviv for the change of power in Ukraine, and the head of the church, Svyatoslav Shevchuk, called to open the doors of churches to all protesters so that they could rest and “receive spiritual support.” UGCC priests came to Kiev from the western regions to “stay with the people.”

The neutrality of the Russian Orthodox Church provoked criticism from the protesters. After the coup d’état in Kiev, relations with Russia deteriorated even more, and the negativity naturally affected the UOC-MP. Discrediting rumors were widely spread – for example, that Yanukovych was hiding in one of the monasteries in Donetsk Region or that the monks of the Svyatogorsk monastery had founded a hospital for “pro-Russian militants.”

The Maidan of 2014 significantly affected the religious life of Ukraine. In 2013, 27.7% of believers called themselves parishioners of the ROC-MP, 25.9% of the UOC-KP, and 5.7% of the UGCC. Gradually, the popularity of the ROC-MP declined, while that of the UOC-KP and Greek Catholics grew. By 2018, 19.1% of believers considered themselves parishioners of the Moscow Patriarchate, 42.6% of the Kiev Patriarchate, and 9.4% of the Greek Catholic Church. Over a third of Ukrainians retained the Orthodox faith but did not want to be associated with a particular denomination: In 2013, 40.8% of Ukrainians called themselves unaffiliated Orthodox, and in 2018 that number decreased to 34.8%.

The dream of many Ukrainians for the emergence of a national church, completely independent of Moscow, became a reality in 2018. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, contrary to the practices established in Orthodoxy, said that his body could solve the problem of the church schism on its own, that is to say without Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church did not agree with Bartholomew’s arbitrariness and broke off communion with Constantinople.


On December 15, 2018, a council of two non-canonical organizations was held in Kiev: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). From the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, only two Metropolitans  – Simeon Shostatsky and Alexander Drabinko –  participated in the council. Both were defrocked by the Moscow Patriarchate for switching to the new church. In this way, a new national church appeared – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was supposed to unite believers of different faiths. The creation of the church was part of Petro Poroshenko’s political program.

Hardly was the OCU established as a new church schism arose in Ukraine. Filaret, being the head of the UOC-KP, stated that he was not aware of all the details of the creation of a new church organization. Formally, the UOC-KP joined the newly formed OCU, so the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine stopped registering the Kiev Patriarchate. Nevertheless, Filaret does not recognize the decision and claims that the UOC-KP continues to exist.

Thus, the new church reform did not solve the church schism, but only reformatted the existing denominations.

After February 24…

The conflict has exacerbated the problem with the church schism in Ukraine. In the wake of increased anti-Russian sentiment, all churches have more or less taken up a pro-Kiev position. Great difficulties arose for the UOC-MP, which maintained unity with Moscow. At first, representatives of the UOC-MP refrained from commenting and avoided recognizing Russia as an aggressor country. However, as the conflict dragged on, the rhetoric changed.

Three months after the start of the military offensive, the UOC-MP completely severed relations with Moscow and called for dialogue with the OCU. In the summer, representatives of the two churches adopted a declaration on the need for unity in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. However, the restrained position of the UOC (which stopped using the prefix MP – Moscow Patriarchate) led to a weakening of its reputation in the eyes of pro-Ukrainian society: Three months into hostilities, 400 parishes left it, wishing to convert to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

In an attempt to demonstrate unity with the Ukrainian people, the UOC even decided on an obviously anti-Russian initiative. In April, its head, Metropolitan Onufriy, proposed holding a procession to Azovstal, where Neo-Nazi Azov militants were hiding. He wanted to bring home the dead and wounded and help evacuate civilians. 


Other churches did not stay away from the conflict either. The Greek Catholic Church fully supported the current Ukrainian regime, and the head of the church, Svyatoslav Shevchuk, called Ukraine “King David fighting Goliath” – that is, Russia. Filaret, having quarreled with the OCU, continues to insist on the creation of the Kiev Patriarchate and on the transition of the UOC under its jurisdiction.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been accused of loyalty to the Russian Federation for many years. The beginning of the conflict forced the UOC to choose a side and the fate of the only historical church that existed in Ukraine since the Baptism of Rus in 988 depended on this choice. Archpriest Andrey Tkachev believes that the position of the UOC-MP is a matter of survival:

“Out of all the available options, they are forced to choose the least wrong position, that is, the best of the worst. If they were to behave normally, like the church, and not as servants of the Ukrainian regime, it would mean risking their lives, their health, loss of property and many other problems. This explains everything.

“A war does not create a problem – it reveals existing problems. It turned out that in the UOC-MP there are many people who have never been with us, who have clearly declared themselves as anti-Russian, even anti-Orthodox. This is truly sad. But it’s mitigated to a fair degree by the fact that right now, they’re dealing not just with confessing their faith, but with the question of physical survival. This is a dramatic event that requires a lot of patience, and time will put everything in its place.

“The Russian Orthodox Church should refrain from any harsh statements so as not to tease the enemies and should multiply prayers for the victory of Russian weapons. Everything will be decided on the battlefield, by achieving the set goals – the denazification and demilitarization of the current criminal regime. Presently, the Russian Orthodox Church cannot help in any way other than praying to God for our army.”