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Russian Patriarch's Visit Creates Storm In Ukraine

An Orthodox priest blesses demonstrators protesting against Patriarch Kirill's visit to Ukraine.
An Orthodox priest blesses demonstrators protesting against Patriarch Kirill's visit to Ukraine.

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By Claire Bigg
Some see him as their spiritual father. Others say he is merely doing the bidding of his Kremlin masters.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, is in Ukraine on a ten-day visit that has once again underscored the country's deeply ambivalent feelings toward Russia's main religious authority.

The Russian Orthodox Church retains formal authority over Ukraine's Orthodox Christians, but is losing growing numbers of faithful to Ukrainian splinter churches.

Kirill's arrival in Kyiv on July 27 unleashed passionate reactions.

Scuffles and heated arguments erupted as the patriarch prepared to hold a liturgy at one of Kyiv's churches on July 28.

One demonstrator condemned what he said was "the ongoing expansion of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church on Ukraine's Orthodox territory."

Nearby, a worshipper voiced her anger at the protesters' attempt to disrupt the prayers.

"I came here to pray, but these bastards are preventing me from doing so with their screams," she complained. "They are trying to discredit the Orthodox people, and this disgraceful behavior will be punished at the first occasion."

Disputed Motives

Kirill is on his first visit to Ukraine since being enthroned as patriarch in February following the death of his predecessor, Aleksy II.

The patriarch, aware of the deepening political tensions between the two ex-Soviet nations, has insisted that his 10-day tour of Ukraine is spiritual, not political.

But protester Oles Shevchenko, for one, is not convinced. Shevchenko, one of 5,000 demonstrators who marched against Kirill’s visit in Kyiv, believes the patriarch is in Ukraine to promote the Kremlin's agenda.

Ukrainian priests file past a picture of President Yushchenko as they protest Kirill's visit.
"This visit has nothing to do with religion. It is fully in line with the imperial policy of Kremlin," he said. "He has a KGB attitude. When he arrived, he said that 'everything here is ours, that for us there are no political borders.'"

Despite Kirill's assurances that his sole aim is to unite fractious Orthodox Christians, his latest statements have added fuel to the political, religious, and economic disputes pitting Ukraine against Russia.

Speaking on Ukrainian television on July 28, Kirill said Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people and called on them not to sacrifice their values in the pursuit of closer ties with Europe -- a veiled jab at Ukrainian efforts to move away from Russia's orbit and join NATO.

Such comments are likely to anger many in Ukraine, who claim the Moscow Patriarchate is bent on undermining Ukraine’s independence from its former imperial master.

"The Moscow patriarchate is a church of Russian people, and we have a different state. Ukrainians are not Russians, and Ukraine is not Russia," Bishop Yevstrat Zorya, a spokesman for the Kyiv Patriarchate, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

During his three-day visit in Kyiv, Kirill also condemned attempts to "falsify" history, echoing earlier Kremlin criticism of Ukraine's campaign to have the Holodomor, a Stalin-era famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, recognized internationally as genocide.

The patriarch's itinerary, too, is raising eyebrows. He is currently visiting the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine before heading to the Crimean Peninsula, home to a majority Russian-speaking population and a mounting separatist movement.

Competing Churches

But what makes Kirill's visit most controversial is his claim to spiritual authority on Ukrainian territory -- an issue that has strong political overtones due to the Moscow Patriarchate's coziness with the Kremlin.

Orthodox Christianity, born from the 1054 Great Schism with Rome, is the dominant faith in Ukraine.

But the country's Orthodox Christians are split between parishes loyal to the powerful Moscow Patriarchate and an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church that broke off from Moscow in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow continues to consider the Kyiv Patriarchate schismatic.

Advocates of an independent Ukrainian church contend that while the Russian-backed church controls the majority of parishes in Ukraine, the country has more Orthodox faithful than Russia and deserves its own, separate church.

Ukraine's Western-leaning president, Viktor Yushchenko, has long urged Russia to formally grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, which many Ukrainians regard as a key element of their nation's post-Soviet national identity.

He has sought the support of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the word's 250 million Orthodox believers, but has not received a clear response.

Yushchenko's renewed call for an independent Church during talks with Kirill Monday met with an icy rebuff.

"This Church already exists, Mr. President. It is the local Church of Ukraine, and if it did not exist, Ukraine would not exist today," Kirill hit back. "There is no imperialism here, no domination over others. There is only a clear Orthodox doctrine: the patriarch is everyone's father, regardless of the color of passports in people's pockets or the state in which they live."

The patriarch went on to describe Kyiv as the "southern capital of Russian Orthodoxy," and dismissed Ukraine's breakaway churches as "wounds" on the body of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some Ukrainians, weary of the ongoing feuding between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, have welcomed Kirill's message of unity.

Former deputy Inna Bohoslovska, now a candidate in the 2010 presidential election, said she was inspired by the religious service held by Kirill in Kyiv on July 27.

"If at least a few thousand people felt the way I did during the service, I'm sure this will be the biggest positive effect of this visit," she said. "The speculations and fights that surround Orthodoxy in Ukraine are a disgrace for our country."

Despite his strong following in Ukraine, Kirill will have trouble dispelling doubts about the motives behind his Ukrainian pilgrimage.

His visit comes as a resurgent Russia seeks to boost its influence on the international scene, including in the religious sphere. Russian political leaders have staunchly backed the Moscow Patriarchate's campaign to bring its foreign offshoots into the fold.

These efforts saw the formal reunification in 2007 of the Moscow church with its main dissident branch, the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, whose founders fled Bolshevik rule almost a century ago.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian Services contributed to this report.
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by: elmer
August 01, 2009 15:19
What is incredibly ironic is that in Russia, Kirill's own country, church attendance, as reported in the April 2009 National Geographic, is only between 1 to 10 percent.<br /><br />http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op_ed/46190<br /><br />And while Kirill called on people to practice &quot;Christian asceticism&quot; and to avoid consumerism - he sports a watch worth well over $36,000.<br /><br />http://vip.glavred.info/?/articles/2009/07/28/181000-0<br /><br />He is just a hypocrite strutting around and waving his arms for the Kremlin and its imperial ambitions. He makes many political statements. He's not serving God - he's serving the Kremlin.

by: John
August 02, 2009 10:17
This is a very anti orthodox piece. The sentence &quot;Born from the 1054 Great Schism with Rome&quot; implies that Orthodoxy is an off shoot from Catholicism which any one with any understanding of history would know is false.

by: Michael Averko
August 03, 2009 05:50
This article favors the view that the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) is an overbearing entity encroaching upon the territory of another country. <br /><br />This article noticeably downplays the pro-Moscow Patriarchate (MP) mood in Ukraine, while comparatively stressing the opposite view.<br /> <br />It suggests that the anti-MP group aren't as &quot;political,&quot; unlike those taking the opposing view.<br /> <br />Despite attempts to change its status by people like the current Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko (whose popularity rating is in single digits), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) remains the largest of Orthodox Christian denomination in Ukraine - years after the Soviet breakup. Ukraine's most popular politician (according to the most recent polling) Viktor Yanukovych supports the UOC-MP. <br /> <br />

by: mykry from: US
August 03, 2009 20:35
It was the Russian Orthodox Church that helped destroy the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It's time for Ukraine to be independent, not just politically but religously, from Moscow.

by: Michael Averko
August 04, 2009 21:01
If that were true mykry, the MP influence would've been gone awhile back. Instead, it remains the largest denomination in Ukraine.<br /><br />As polls indicate, the pro-ROC-MP Putin would win the Ukrainian presidency against any Ukrainian politician or other world leader.<br /><br />Much attention was focussed on the opposition to Kirill in Ukraine. Meantime, the support for him was quite noticeable there.<br /><br />Without repeating myself, I refer back to my prior comments at this thread.

by: Wolodymyr from: USA
August 07, 2009 20:05
Constant memory of my mothers tears and her curses on all Moskow rulers for what miseries they imposed to our families and all Ukrainian people.They cause us to flee our home land for search of freedom.It appears that Moskow Russia is again on its course to its black deeds. Wake up Russian people -- Be a good neighbor.Have respect for others then you will be respected.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />

by: elmer
August 08, 2009 16:01
Kirill is playing a political game, because government and religion are intertwined in Russia. Kirill seeks to expand his influence,meaning Russian influence, including Russian political influence,through the ROC.<br /><br />Quote from a commenter on Dr. Taras Kuzio's blog - the commenter knows what he's talking about:<br /><br />1. in the USSR two thirds of the ROC was in Ukraine.<br />2. the majority of these ROC parishes were in Western-Central Ukraine (some were former UCC parishes)<br />3. Ukraine, with a third of Russia’s population, has more Orthodox parishes than Russia, making Ukraine home to the world’s largest Orthodox Church<br />4. Opinion polls from the early 1990s always show the Kyiv Patriarch to have 3-4 times more believers than the UOC-MP (ROC).<br />5. Many people, particularly rural and old, do not understand the difference as the ROC in Ukraine is called since 1990 the UKRAINIAN OC.<br />6. Post orange revolution surveys showed that more Orthodox believers voted for Yushchenko than they did for Yanukovych.<br />7. The reason for this is that a majority of UOC (ROC) parishes are in the more religious Western-Central (orange) Ukraine. Trans-Carpathia, which is usually depicted as Greek-Catholic, is an oblast where the largest Church is the UOC (ROC).<br />8. The UOC is a mix of different orientations ranging from local patriotic Ukrainian (West) to Russian chauvinist (Odesa, Crimea) and everything in between. <br /><br />In conclusion, the UOC should be re-registered as the ROC which would lose it countless believers<br />

by: Wladek
August 08, 2009 16:33
Hey what is going on there? I posted a comment the other day but it seems that some at the staff did not like or simple did not want to post? Was not offensive, was the truth...... looks like this has nothing of free Europe here.....I will try again today....let's how free and democratic is this site....

by: Wladek
August 08, 2009 16:41
This is all non sense, do we serve Kiril or God? God is the head of the Church and not Kiril or any other. No man can say that he is the head of the church. You all better read the Bible and check what the Bible is saying, people are forgetting the essence of being Christians, the main message of Christianity is to accept Jesus as the only and sufficient savior and not serve the Russian or Ukrainian Church, leave the church separated from state, hey...helloooo, wake up people praise the Lord....Slava Issussu Hristu<br /><br />

by: Michael Averko
August 10, 2009 04:22
Wladek<br /><br />I hope your observation goes for others like Filaret and the late JPII.<br /><br />Your point brings up a trend I've seen with others - the idea of believing in an Almighty without such a formally structured religious basis, in one way or the other. It seems that over time, many become a bit perturbed with the back and forth claims and counter-claims among the more religious of believers.<br /><br />On another matter not directly related to your comments are the ignorantly placed comments that downplay the historically and culturally close ties between many in Ukraine and Russia for a period longer than Communism. Good and bad can be found in both former Soviet republics. Yet, there're the simplistic ultra-nationalists out there who suggest differently. <br /><br />
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