Accessibility links

Analysis: 'Orange Revolution' Highlights Ukraine's Religious Divide

  • Brian Whitmore --> As Pope John Paul II greeted thousands of Catholic faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square a week after Ukraine's disputed 21 November presidential election, he noticed some in the crowd were waving orange banners in support of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

As he looked out from the window of his Vatican study at the crowd below, the pontiff acknowledged the Ukrainians and although he didn't mention the country's postelection turmoil specifically, made it fairly clear which side the Holy See was on.

"My thoughts go to the Ukrainian pilgrims present in this square," the pope said on 28 November. "I assure you of my prayer for peace in your country."

It was the second time in four days that John Paul made a point of singling out Ukraine. On 24 November, he promised a group of Ukrainians, who were among thousands in the Vatican's Paul VI auditorium for a papal audience, that he was "praying in a special way for your beloved homeland."

Throughout the election campaign, the pro-Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also made its preference clear.

In demonstrations in Kyiv in November, the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods of Ukraine warned of "the expansion of Catholics and sects in Ukraine" should the West-leaning Yushchenko win the presidency. Leaflets distributed in Orthodox parishes called Yushchenko a "partisan of the schismatics and an enemy of Orthodoxy," according to media reports. And opposition leaders and human rights groups allege that some clergy in heavily Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine told parishioners to vote for "God's candidate," the pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, or be denied the sacraments.

The standoff over Ukraine's election has been characterized variously as a struggle for democracy, a Cold War-style showdown between Moscow and the West, and a cultural conflict between the country's Russian and Ukrainian speakers.
"Obviously, each religious community is trying to gain its own advantage from the result of this election." - Corley

Although Yushchenko and Yanukovych are both Orthodox Christians, the "Orange Revolution" has also highlighted Ukraine's enduring, centuries-old religious schisms that continue to play an important role in the multiconfessional nation of 48 million people.

This is true despite the fact that Ukraine's churches are prohibited from campaigning for either candidate.

"Ukraine, of all the former Soviet republics, is the one that probably has the most religious splits," Felix Corley, a specialist on religious issues in the former Soviet Union, told the BBC World Service. "The religious picture is very fractured [and] this is being reflected in the political arena as well," Corley added.

Clashing World Visions

Approximately 6 million Ukrainian citizens, about 12-13 percent of the population, are Catholic. These include 5 million Greek Catholics (also known as Uniates, a term that today is viewed by some as having negative connotations) -- a church under Vatican authority but which uses Eastern Orthodox rites in its religious services -- as well as 1 million Roman Catholics.

But despite their small numbers, the Catholic denominations have provided bedrock support for the pro-Yushchenko opposition.

"The ecclesiastical authorities are not supposed to take a stand in this crisis," the Reverend Oleksandr Hoursky, a Roman Catholic priest, told the "International Herald Tribune," before proceeding to do exactly that.

"The church supports good against evil, the protection of human rights, and the end of any injustices, corruption, the state abuse of power," Hoursky said. "Personally, I hope Yushchenko becomes president."

Greek Catholics are slightly less inhibited. On Kyiv's Independence Square, young Greek Catholic priests and nuns consistently drew warm cheers when they walked past orange-clad demonstrators, according to press reports.

"At the root of the crisis remains an immoral regime that has deprived Ukrainian people of their legitimate rights and dignity," Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the head of the Greek Catholic Church, said on 6 December, a day before he met with Pope John Paul in the Vatican. Husar called the electoral standoff "the product of two clashing world visions as well as the selfish protection of personal interest on behalf of those who are currently in government."

And those clashing world visions go back nearly five centuries, reflecting the struggle for influence in Ukraine between Russia and the West.

The Uniate Church was established in 1596 when Metropolitan Mikhail Rohoza of Kyiv and other Orthodox bishops signed the Union of Brest, pledging allegiance to the Vatican but retaining Eastern rites and religious practices. The move was an attempt to move closer politically, religiously, and culturally to the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, which ruled the western part of Ukraine at the time. But not everybody in the Orthodox Church hierarchy agreed with the union with Rome, and some formed a rival church hierarchy, which by 1686 was formally under the authority of the Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate.

As the Russian Empire expanded its power into the eastern part of Ukraine throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the incursions were marked by repression against the Uniates and forced conversions to Orthodoxy, as Moscow used the church as an instrument to "Russify" the Ukrainians. Under Catherine the Great, for example, Russia forced over 2,300 Uniate churches to become Orthodox, according to historical accounts.

The western section of Ukraine, however, remained part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Uniate Church became a bulwark of Ukrainian cultural and religious identity. When western Ukraine came under Austro-Hungarian rule in the late 18th century, the Uniates officially became known as Greek Catholics and the church gained equal status with Roman Catholics.

When Stalin annexed the region in 1945, Soviet authorities banned the church and confiscated its properties, and the Greek Catholics went underground for more than four decades. As part of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, the Soviet government legalized the church in 1989, allowing them to officially register their parishes; and in 1991, the church's exiled leader, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky returned to Ukraine from Rome.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence in 1991, the Greek Catholics reemerged as a political and religious force in western Ukraine. Violence occasionally flared when Uniates attempted to reclaim their properties from the Orthodox Church.

The conflict between Ukraine's Catholics and pro-Moscow Orthodox Christians was clear during John Paul's landmark visit to the country in June 2001. In the run-up to the trip, thousands of Orthodox faithful marched in protest denouncing the pope as the harbinger of "the anti-Christ." Leaflets also appeared in parishes warning of a Vatican plot to encircle and subvert the Orthodox Church, an "invasion of foreigners," and the "profanation of the land of our forefathers.

Orthodox Divisions

While Ukraine's Catholic denominations have been united in their support for Yushchenko, its Orthodox Churches -- which claim the lion's share of the nation's believers -- are deeply divided.

The pro-Moscow branch of the church, officially called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), has tacitly supported Yanukovych. The UOC-MP is the largest Orthodox denomination in Ukraine constituting approximately 26.5 percent of the population, according to the "CIA World Factbook." With the church under the centralized authority of Moscow, UOC-MP leaders fear they will lose influence should Yushchenko become president, according to some analysts.

Prior to the election, the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods of Ukraine, a group affiliated with the UOC-MP, warned that if the opposition leader won, it could spell the beginnings of "persecutions against Orthodoxy." The group also harshly criticized pro-Yushchenko demonstrators after the disputed second round of the election.

"Supporters of [Viktor] Yushchenko, who lost the election, are, by using techniques of manipulation of consciousness and methods of psychological influence, imposing massive psychosis on the youth," the group said in a statement released on 27 November.

In contrast, the two Orthodox denominations that are independent from Moscow support Yushchenko. These are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which split from the Moscow ecclesiastical authorities in 1991 and constitutes 20 percent of the population according to the "CIA World Factbook," as well as the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).

"We today are witnesses to the process of the rebirth of the Ukrainian nation," Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, said on 27 November, referring to the pro-opposition demonstrations.

And as Ukraine heads for a decisive rerun of its presidential election, analysts say the nation's fractured religious communities are scrambling to benefit from the new balance of power in society.

"Obviously, each religious community is trying to gain its own advantage from the result of this election," Corley told BBC World Service.

"The supporters of Yanukovych in the Moscow Patriarchy hope it will cement their power; it's the largest single denomination and the most powerful one," Corley added. "The opposition supporters of Yushchenko believe -- and he has actually said so -- that he will be a president for believers of all faiths, although he himself is Orthodox."

(Ed. This is an updated and slightly revised version of the article of the same title that was published on 21 December 2004)

[For similar stories, visit RFE/RL's new "Religion And Tolerance" webpage, which highlights examples of religious tolerance in our broadcast region.]

[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the political crisis in Ukraine, click here.]