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What Comes Next As Ukrainian Orthodox Church Pushes For Independence From Moscow?

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, conducts a service at the St. Volodymyr Cathedral in Kyiv on October 11.

The striving of many Ukrainian Orthodox believers to gain independence for their national church from the Russian Orthodox Church has been simmering since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in many ways, the decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to recognize the independence, or autocephaly, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church marks just the beginning of a process that could take many more years to unfold.

Rather than settling the contentious matter, the one-page document issued on October 11 raises new questions and creates the potential for even greater conflict.

Prospects For Unity

Currently there are three Orthodox churches in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC+MP), which recognizes the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church; and two breakaway churches -- the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC+KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).

The Moscow-loyal church controls some 12,000 parishes, while the Kyiv Patriarchate boasts about 5,000 and the UAOC nearly 1,000. According to a poll released in mid-September, of those polled who named themselves as Orthodox, 45.2 percent claimed allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarchate, while only 16.9 percent to the Moscow Patriarchate; 2.1 percent were for the UAOC and 33.9 percent were "just Orthodox," without a specific congregation.

Following the October 11 decision, Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret said an inclusive process aimed at unifying Orthodox believers in Ukraine would be launched to form a united, local autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

"We've waited patiently for a long time, and we can wait a bit more," Filaret said in Kyiv on October 11. "But the unification will only be voluntary. Those who want it will take part in the Unification Council. Those who don't want it, won't be a part of the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church."

'We Don't Want Confrontation': Ukraine's Patriarch Filaret On Split With Russian Orthodox Church
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The Kyiv Patriarchate called on leaders of the other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches to join the process and contribute to the planning of the Unification Council.

Given the Moscow Patriarchate's uncompromising opposition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate's decision -- one spokesman for the Russian church called it "catastrophic," while another described it as an "attempt to distort history for political reasons" -- it is unlikely that representatives of the Moscow-loyal Ukrainian church would participate in any unification process. A spokesman for the Moscow-loyal church told the Russian state TASS news agency on October 12 that it would not participate in any council organized by the Kyiv Patriarchate, which it said "is not a legitimate church organization."

And if a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church is eventually given a "Tomos," or document of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a large number of individual churches in Ukraine could still continue to pledge loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. Politicians in Ukraine have already drafted legislation that would rename the Moscow-loyal church as "the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine," a move that the church itself opposes and the Kyiv Patriarchate supports.

At the same time, even if the Moscow-loyal Ukrainian church refuses to join an autocephalous Ukrainian church, individual parishes would likely attempt to switch. More than 70 Moscow-loyal parishes have already joined the Kyiv Patriarchate since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke out in 2014.

A spokesman for the Kyiv Patriarchate told Current Time TV, which is a joint project of RFE/RL and VOA, "If it takes half a year or a year or three years or five, it doesn't matter."

Politics And Religion

On October 12, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reasserted Moscow's intention to "protect the interests" not only of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine but of Orthodox believers as well, adding that it would do so only through "political and diplomatic" means.

Peskov also said that "Russia's secular authorities cannot intervene in inter-church dialogue." "They have never done so, and they never will," Peskov said.

This is disingenuous, many Ukrainians say, arguing that the Russian Orthodox Church has been integrally intertwined with the Russian government for centuries.

Many priests of the Moscow-loyal Orthodox Church in Ukraine have refused to hold funerals for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a war that the International Criminal Court ruled in 2016 was "an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation." Moscow-loyal priests have also justified Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

"This is an issue of our independence," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on October 11. "This is an issue of national security. This is an issue of our statehood. This is an issue of global geopolitics. This is the collapse of Moscow's centuries-old claims for global domination as the Third Rome."

"The independence of our church is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian policies that we've been consistently pursuing over the last four years," he added.

Poroshenko Hails Independence Of Ukrainian Orthodox Church
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National Security

Poroshenko's assertion that the seemingly religious issue is a matter of "national security" touches on the perception in Ukraine that the Moscow-loyal church has been part of a hybrid war waged by Russia against Ukraine since 2014.

According to Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, hybrid war is characterized by "long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy...throughout the entire depth of his territory."

It aims "to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state." Its tools are "the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures -- applied in coordination with the protest potential of the [local] population."

Ukrainian lawmaker Dmytro Tymchuk said in June, when the issue of a Tomos for a Ukrainian church seemed nearly settled, that "in the administration of the Russian president,... it was decided to activate preparations for carrying out further destructive actions."

"Using this opportunity, the Russian special services...and the fifth column in Ukraine plan to activate centrifugal forces and to generate and inflame internal conflict situation in this process," Tymchuk told Current Time.

Who Gets The Monasteries?

Besides the spiritual and patriotic, there is also a decidedly earthly dimension to the issue: Who will get the property?

The October 11 statement from the Ecumenical Patriarchate specifically ended with an appeal to "all involved parties that they avoid the appropriation of churches, monasteries, and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation."

Attention has immediately been focused on Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Pochayiv Lavra, two ancient monasteries that are prominent Orthodox shrines. Kyiv Patriarch Filaret has said "they are Ukrainian shrines and they cannot belong to a Russian church."

Both monasteries are legally the property of the Ukrainian government. However, pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych turned them over to the Moscow-loyal Ukrainian church under a free, 50-year lease. Legal experts say the government could revisit those agreements.

WATCH: In one Ukrainian village, a schism has already been playing out with a fight over the only local church.

Sue Thy Neighbor: Ukrainian Village Divided Over Church
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Property issues will come to the fore across the country. Under Ukrainian law, property belongs to individual parishes and they have the right to choose whom to follow and take the property with them.

"Losing property is never taken calmly," Moscow-based religious scholar Andrei Desnitsky told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "Imagine a village church.... If a new [national church] is created, some people will say, 'Let's switch,' and others will say, 'No, we are staying [with the Moscow church].' It is obvious that the side that loses this dispute -- either in court or by force -- will say that the other side 'seized' the property."

"When a divorce is started and both sides are accusing one another, it is impossible to share property in a peaceful way," he added. "Most likely there will be many cases that will be called 'property seizures.'"

Violence Ahead?

Although the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian government have said this process can be carried out gradually and peacefully, there are genuine concerns that there could be violence.

"One of the points of [the October 11 decision] calls for the peaceful resolution of all problems...," Ukrainian religious scholar and lawmaker Viktor Yelenskyy said. "This, of course, is not in the plans of the Moscow Patriarchate. They are constantly talking about clashes and blood and so on. In this way, they reveal the scenario of their future actions. We know they are very talented at stirring up interethnic...and inter-church disputes."

Moscow Metropolitan Ilarion, head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, said on October 11, "Of course, Orthodox believers will defend their holy places, and there could be bloodshed."

Ivan Varchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL that law enforcement had already been speaking to officials in the Moscow-loyal church to warn them about the serious penalties for incitement to violence.

Russia's Kuban Cossack community wrote an open letter to the Ecumenical Council declaring its "unanimous support" for the Moscow patriarch and its readiness "to step up to the defense of the unity and integrity of our Fatherland and our Mother-Church."

Asked whether there could be violence in Ukraine over the autocephaly issue, Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin was unequivocal.

"I think not only could there be, but there will be," he said. "But it will be done so that it can't be proven that it was initiated by Moscow. They will support any extremist force -- it doesn't matter if they are far right or far left."

Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko agreed.

"Provocations will come from various Ukrainian organizations, but they will be prodded by the Russian secret services," he said.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian services and Current Time TV