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Ukraine's Orthodox Church Conflict: A Wartime Struggle For 'Spiritual Independence' And Security

Priest Andriy Dudchenko tries to shine light on icons painted on ammunition boxes by Ukrainian artists Oleksandr Klymenko and Sofia Atlantova.
Priest Andriy Dudchenko tries to shine light on icons painted on ammunition boxes by Ukrainian artists Oleksandr Klymenko and Sofia Atlantova.

KYIV -- Two icons painted on ammunition boxes stand in the very center of the Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral, a modern church that is usually bright inside but was now dark and cold during a blackout prompted by Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

These are works by Ukrainian artists Oleksandr Klymenko and Sofia Atlantova, explains Andriy Dudchenko, a priest in his mid-40s serving in the cathedral, as he tries to cast light on them with a halogen lamp.

According to their creators, the icons are not only witnesses to the war that started in the Donbas back in 2014 -- and escalated dramatically with Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February -- but also symbols of the victory of life over death and part of an effort to fund a new hospital and rehabilitation center.

An exhibition like this could not take place in just any church in Ukraine.

The Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral belongs to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which gained autocephaly -- or ecclesiastical independence -- in 2019, a crucial development in its conflict with the long-dominant Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC).

The Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral
The Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral

Despite their similar names, the churches differ on a fundamental issue: their relationship with and attitude toward Russia.

Quest For 'Spiritual Independence'

Seen by many in Ukraine for years as an arm of the Russian Orthodox Church, the UOC has long been accused of promoting the repressive, controlling ideology of the so-called "Russian world" in Ukraine and lacking a clear stance on the nearly 9-year-old conflict unleashed by Moscow, Anatoliy Babynskiy, an Orthodox Church historian at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, told RFE/RL. It wasn't until recently, though, that the Moscow-loyal church found itself in real trouble.

In mid-November, a video showing worshippers at the Pechersk Lavra -- the 11th-century cave monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site that is the seat of the UOC -- singing a pro-Russian song with the lyrics "Mother Russia is waking up" appeared online. Shortly after that, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) opened a criminal investigation into the incident and conducted raids at the monastery.

The SBU has carried out similar searches at numerous UOC monasteries and other sites since then, conducting what it has called a "counterintelligence" operation aimed at countering pro-Russian propaganda and gathering information. It also posted photos of recovered evidence including rubles, Russian passports, and leaflets with messages from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who is a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and of the war against Ukraine. However, according to Babynskiy, despite some isolated outrageous cases, "serious violations are yet to be proven."

An SBU officer stands in front of the entrance of the Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv on November 22.
An SBU officer stands in front of the entrance of the Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv on November 22.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy -- who has so far stayed away from religious issues as opposed to his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko -- declared that the measures aimed at guaranteeing Ukraine's "spiritual independence" will continue and signed a decree enacting a decision to impose personal sanctions against the vicar of Kyiv's Pechersk Lavra, other leaders of the UOC, and former lawmaker Vadym Novinskiy, known as its most influential supporter in Ukraine.

On December 26, the top cleric at the Pechersk Lavra, Metropolitan Pavlo, published a videotaped appeal in which he said the UOC had been told that its lease on key parts of the complex -- including a cathedral -- would not be renewed and that access would be cut off after December 31.

And on December 27, the Constitutional Court upheld 2018 legislation that could require the UOC to include the words "Russian Orthodox Church" or "Moscow Patriarchate" in its name -- something it does not want to do, arguing that it is a Ukrainian institution and is based in Kyiv.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council has instructed the government to draft a law that would forbid "religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine."

It is not clear whether such a law will be passed and implemented, Babynskiy said. He noted that Ukraine's constitution guarantees religious freedom and said that any effort to enforce the potential legislation would be complicated by the fact that UOC does not constitute a legal entity -- as opposed to the thousands of parishes that make it up.

The UOC has protested the raids and declarations by the authorities, calling accusations against its monks and priests "unproven and unfounded" and warned against "inciting an internal war."

Babynskiy warns of other risks. "The history of the Orthodox Church shows that whenever it presents itself as persecuted it becomes stronger," he said. The UOC's narrative could gain traction internationally, he argues, if the authorities do not manage to explain to Kyiv's Western supporters that "they are dealing with issues of national security, not religious freedom."

Difficult Path

Back at the Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral, Dudchenko -- who spent over two weeks under Russian occupation in his village near Hostomel outside Kyiv at the beginning of the invasion -- said he "cannot comprehend how one can still support the UOC after Patriarch Kirill blessed the war," referring in part to remarks in which the Russian Orthodox Church said that for Russian soldiers, dying in the war in Ukraine "washes away all sins."

A native of the Luhansk region in the Donbas who spoke mostly in Russian before the February invasion, Dudchenko had been a member of the church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate for many years.

Priest Andriy Dudchenko stands in the Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral in Kyiv.
Priest Andriy Dudchenko stands in the Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral in Kyiv.

"I don't know if you can understand it," he said when asked about his past and his path, explaining that he was "baptized and raised in the UOC." For many years, he said, he was confronted with a narrative in which the other Orthodox Christian churches in Ukraine were "schismatic" and had "no grace," making sacraments they offer such as baptism, funerals, and the eucharist "vain."

"These ideas get deeply incorporated into the structure of one's mind," Dudchenko said. He said he was very happy when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine gained autocephaly through a decree by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, as this created a "canonical alternative to the Moscow Patriarchate."

Paradoxically, though, it was not his own decision to leave the UOC a year before that. Instead -- unlike most of the leaders of parishes and houses of worship in the Moscow-linked church -- his supervisors decided to join the OCU during a council aimed to unite existing Orthodox communities in 2018.

Dudchenko supports the measures taken by the government and says they should have taken place in 2014. But he also believes that there are a lot of "pious and patriotically minded priests" in the UOC who don't want to leave it for a variety of "institutional and personal reasons."

Sinking Ship?

As controversies swirled and bad news mounted for the UOC, hundreds of people attended the Sunday Mass in Kyiv's Pechersk Lavra in mid-December, celebrated by its leader, Metropolitan Onufriy, among others.

Metropolitan Onufriy celebrates Sunday Mass in Pechersk Lavra on December 11.
Metropolitan Onufriy celebrates Sunday Mass in Pechersk Lavra on December 11.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the UOC has been seeking -- or struggling -- to adapt to the new situation. On February 24, as Russia bombarded Ukraine and its forces marched on Kyiv and other cities, in the biggest military invasion in Europe since World War II, Onufriy backed the "sovereignty and integrity" of Ukraine and appealed to Putin to "immediately stop this fratricidal war," which he likened to Cain's murder of Abel, his brother, in the Bible.

In May, the UOC publicly broke with the Russian Orthodox Church, adopting changes to its statutes that gave it "complete autonomy and independence."

Babynskiy and numerous critics, however, say that these changes have not altered the canonical status of the church and are thus empty.

But some members of UOC are satisfied with its change of course. Heorhiy Hulyayev, a priest serving at the Pechersk Lavra, says he believes the church took a step in the right direction.

"The war has shown weaknesses of my church that were present before," he said, speaking with RFE/RL during an air alarm in Kyiv that ended with three explosions in the city after 37 out of 40 rockets were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. The 45-year-old priest, who is a biologist by training, argued that although the UOC is "a very conservative, feudal structure, even such entities adapt to new conditions."

Priest Heorhiy Hulyayev stands in front of Kyiv's Pecherska Lavra.
Priest Heorhiy Hulyayev stands in front of Kyiv's Pecherska Lavra.

Hulyayev, who was a priest in Donetsk at the beginning of the war in 2014 and recently lost his father to shelling in the southern city of Kherson, where he is from, said the war "gave him the courage to speak freely." He said he believes that pro-Russian clerics have "created a system of control and exercise complete authority over the UOC, but their grip on power can be broken if sanctions and investigations are just and are supported by evidence."

Why doesn't he leave the UOC?

"You don't jump off a sinking ship with your friends and close ones on it," he said, adding that his church was not the only institution in Ukraine struggling to free itself from "dependence on Moscow."

"This process is like psychotherapy for us, and the Moscow Patriarchate is like an abuser who used us in its geopolitical interests," he said.

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    Aleksander Palikot

    Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.

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