KYIV -- Two religious processions converging on Kyiv have Ukrainian authorities warning that provocations could spark violence in the capital.
The All-Ukrainian Procession of the Cross for Peace, Love and Prayer for Ukraine includes thousands of believers from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate -- an affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church and a rival of a major Kyiv-based church.
Marching in two groups -- one from the west of the country and another from the east -- they plan to converge on Kyiv's Volodymyrska Hill and then at the Kyiv-Pechersk Monastery on July 27, the eve of the celebration of the 10th-century Baptism of Kievan Rus.
Moscow Patriarchate leaders say they will pray for peace and prosperity in Ukraine. The church's Bishop Clement told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that there will be no provocations, at least from their side.
Ukrainian authorities say they suspect the marches are merely a front for a Moscow-orchestrated plot to stir unrest and prove what Russia has claimed since Euromaidan protests drove a Moscow-aligned president from power in 2014: that the rights of Russians, Russian speakers, and members of the Moscow-based church's flock are at risk here.
Ukrainian parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy dismisses those Russian claims and accuses Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, of planning to use the marches to destabilize Ukraine by fomenting unrest in the streets of Kyiv and creating "an artificial political crisis."
"Together with peaceful believers, [the FSB] are bringing provocateurs with prohibited symbols and symbols of the aggressor country…including athletic youths who have a history of participating in church-related attacks," Parubiy alleged in a recent telecast. He said authorities had gathered intelligence that proved his concerns legitimate, but he did not present evidence of his claims.
Marchers in the processions have been seen wearing orange-and-black St. George ribbons, a symbol of Soviet military valor that has been adopted by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine as a sign of resistance to Kyiv, and carrying flags adorned with images of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The symbols irk many in Ukraine, which has gone to great lengths to step out of the shadow of its giant neighbor and former ruler.
Archbishop Yevstratiy, secretary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, told Ukraine's EspresoTV that he believes the motive for the procession is to show that there is broad support in Ukraine for "Russkiy Mir," or the Russian World -- a term that has been used by President Vladimir Putin and other Russians to describe what they claim as Russia's sphere of cultural, spiritual, and political influence -- at a time when Ukrainian churchgoers are increasingly leaving the Moscow Patriarchate for the Kyiv Patriarchate.
Meanwhile, Vasyl Hrytsak, chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), claimed Russia had orchestrated the processions in hopes that a "Franz Ferdinand moment" would occur, referring to the Austrian archduke whose assassination in 1914 sparked World War I. Then, he said, Moscow could claim Ukraine is violating Orthodox Christian believers' rights, concocting a reason to intervene.
Russia used claims that Russian speakers were under threat to justify its takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its backing of pro-Russia separatists in the country's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Kyiv and NATO say Moscow has sent thousands of troops during a war that has killed more than 9,400 people since April 2014.
Ukrainian activists and veterans of the conflict in eastern Ukraine are collecting signatures supporting a ban on the processions.
But authorities say they plan to allow the processions to continue, and they have tasked police to monitor the marchers while also ensuring their safety.
An Orthodox Schism
Ukraine is home to three major Orthodox Christian churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Only the branch subordinate to Moscow's Patriarch Kirill is recognized globally by the Orthodox Christian community. All were born of the Russian Orthodox Church in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
About 76.7 percent of the total Ukrainian population, around 30 million people, belong to Eastern Orthodox churches, according to a Pew Center study conducted in 2011.
But there has been a shift in recent years among them, with the Kyiv Patriarchate steadily growing, from 12 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2016, a national survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center found in March. Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate dwindled to 15 percent during the same period, the survey said.
A spike began in early 2014, at the height of the Euromaidan protests, when anti-Russia sentiments were high. Since then, amid the ongoing war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists, more believers have left the Moscow Patriarchate for the Kyiv Patriarchate, according to Razumkov Center research.
The Kremlin has used the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of soft power in recent years, especially over the course of the war.
It was Patriarch Kirill who managed to convince pro-Russia separatists to release monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the eastern city of Slovyansk in June 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church has also sent a humanitarian mission to separatist-controlled areas of Eastern Ukraine.
European diplomats told the Reuters news agency in autumn 2014 that they believed the Russian Orthodox Church was acting as a go-between in eastern Ukraine so that Moscow could continue to deny direct involvement in the conflict.
Such suspicions have widened the rift in Ukraine between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kyiv Patriarchate, which were already rivals before the war. Tensions between the two churches flared up last September when a priest from the Kyiv Patriarchate was reportedly stabbed eight times in the neck and head by a priest from the Moscow Patriarchate who allegedly shouted "For Rus! For the Orthodox faith!" during the knife attack.
'Cool Down A Little Bit'
One of the processions began at the Pochayiv Monastery in the western Ternopil region on July 9 and is marching east to Kyiv, while the other started at the Sviatohirsk Monastery in the east, near Slovyansk, and is marching to westward to the capital.
The Sviatohirsk Monastery is situated in what is perhaps Ukraine's most polarized region, less than 100 miles from the pro-Russia separatist stronghold of Donetsk, and long-standing rumors that it serves as a Ukrainian outpost for the FSB are stoking suspicions in Ukraine about the intent of the religious marches.
But some officials, including Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, say the danger posed by the processions is being exaggerated.
"Radical and pro-Ukrainian organizations, cool down a little bit," Avakov said, addressing those who oppose the processions.
"The state has enough strength to stop any such [provocative] situation," he added.