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Ukraine: Divided Orthodox Church Losing Believers

A new survey on religion in Ukraine reveals that Orthodoxy is still the country's dominant belief. But it also suggests that the divided faith, riven by squabbles over politics and property, may be alienating many believers who are turning to other religions. Correspondent Lily Hyde reports.

Kyiv, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A spate of church-building since independence seems to indicate a spiritual rebirth in Ukraine. The newly rebuilt Uspensky (Assumption) cathedral in the capital Kyiv stands on its original ruins like a phoenix risen from the ashes. But controversy surrounds the reconstructed church's future. Ukraine's divided Orthodox churches are at loggerheads over who should use it, and the building has come to symbolize the increasing identification of Orthodoxy with political and national divisions.

A recent poll by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies found two-thirds of Ukrainians consider themselves Orthodox. But the study shows that Protestant and other religions are fast growing to rival Ukraine's traditional faith, even outstripping Orthodox communities in some regions.

One major reason for the growing popularity of other confessions, the study suggests, may be conflicts within the Ukrainian Orthodox church, which divided in 1992. The then Metropolitan, Filaret, split off from the original church, which is led by the Moscow Patriarch, and declared himself head of a Kyiv Patriarchate.

A third church, the tiny Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, renewed its activities in Ukraine in 1990. Neither the Kyiv Patriarchate nor the Autocephalous church is officially recognized by either the Russian or Greek Orthodox church.

All three Ukrainian Orthodox churches hold identical beliefs, and the conflicts among are the result of political, not spiritual considerations. According to the survey, most believers are not interested in the schism. More than two-thirds of those who said they were Orthodox could not or would not specify to which branch they belonged.

But adherence to the Kyiv or Moscow patriarchate increasingly is becoming attached to idea of support for the independent Ukrainian state or for closer relations with Russia.

Kyiv Patriarch Filaret tells our correspondent:

"The Kyiv Patriarchate and the [Ukrainian] Autocephalous Church support Ukrainian statehood, that is, they hold the position of the Ukrainian state. We have a common platform: Ukrainian statehood. Their position is based on state principles, from political interests, and ours from church interests -- but we stand with the government, for Ukrainian statehood. Whereas, the Moscow Patriarchate, not all, but a significant part, takes the position of union with Russia."

For its part, the Moscow Patriarchate says the question of patriotism has nothing to do with which church people attend, and that the breach with the other Orthodox churches is a problem of ecclesiastical rules that can only be resolved by the break-away churches returning to the Moscow Patriarchate. Kyiv Metropolitan vicar of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metrofan, says:

"We can't talk about union, but only about a return of those who left, a return to the fold. And the only way they can do that is through repentance. This isn't just a whim of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or a whim of Moscow, it is clearly stated in church rules. If we're true believers, we should not negate church rules, but should carry them out. We are for a single church in Ukraine, and [that church] should be independent. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is practically autocephalous at present. We have our own synod, we decide our internal questions without Moscow. Practically our church has independence, which needs to be legalized."

Division of church property is also a cause of strife. Although the Moscow Patriarchate remains the dominant church, with over 8,000 parishes to the Kyiv Patriarchate's 2,500, it is steadily losing church buildings and even whole parishes to its rival and to the Greek Catholic church in western Ukraine.

Still, the Moscow branch holds part of the country's most important monastery, Pechersky Lavra. It was given to them by verbal agreement with former president Leonid Kravchuk, while the upper part, which contains the Uspensky cathedral, remains a state museum.

The Uspensky cathedral, destroyed during the war, has been rebuilt by the Kyiv city council and by government and private donations. The Moscow Patriarchate claims it as its cathedral church. But because of the cathedral's prominent historical and architectural value, whichever church gains control of the building would appear to be the dominant church of Ukraine.

When President Leonid Kuchma allowed the Moscow patriarch to bless the Uspensky Cathedral on Ukrainian Independence day, August 24, it provoked demonstrations from nationalist groups. The group responsible for planning and raising funds to rebuild the cathedral is the Honchara foundation. Its executive director, Valentina Irshenko, says the fund wanted to rebuild the church as a symbol of the rebirth of Ukrainian culture and not of religion. She told RFE/RL:

"As long as this conflict between confessions continues, the Uspensky cathedral will remain a state possession. After a united and single orthodox church is recognized, we will decide whether to hand it over to the church or keep it under control of the state as a museum. That will be decided when the church finds a common language. I can guarantee that, until then, neither confession will get this cathedral." Few expect that to be soon. President Kuchma has spoken out in support of church unification, and the Patriarch of Constantinople has also said he would like to see an independent Ukrainian church. But the Russian church has refused even to consider the idea.

So, while the outer building is finished, the interior of the Uspensky cathedral is still awaiting completion. It remains a beautiful shell without an owner, less a symbol perhaps of Ukrainian cultural rebirth than of its modern-day crisis of national identity. And Ukrainian believers continue to turn to alternative churches.