KYIV — President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has triggered many unintended consequences — from prodding Sweden and Finland to join NATO to turning Russia into a pariah state. And now to the list can be added the wrecking of the Moscow-tied Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), once a useful Kremlin tool of influence.
The Ukrainian authorities are considering banning the church — and draft legislation has already been prepared by opposition parties to do just that. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to make an announcement soon about the future of the church, whether there will be an outright ban or an option for the church to form a new one shorn of any ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill, a vociferous supporter of the invasion.
But even without the ban the UOC is in rapid decline, with more priests and worshippers poised to defect to the rival, independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Since the invasion more than 200 parishes have switched allegiance; many others are planning to defect but are facing obstacles from UOC authorities, which are trying to block them, including at the Church of Archangel Michael in the village of Zadubrivka in southwest Ukraine.
There can even be violence. On Sunday night, Iov Pochaivsky church in the village of Milieve in Chernivtsy Oblast, ruled by the UOC, was set on fire, as was a shop. A man has been arrested, local police said.
“One of the most beautiful churches of the Vyzhnytsky district was set on fire this night — professionally, with no chance of rescue,” the Chernivtsi-Bukovyna Diocese of the UOC wrote on Facebook.
Last week the community of St George’s Cathedral in Lviv voted to leave the UOC. In March, hundreds of the church’s priests were ordered to leave the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, an 11th-century Orthodox monastic complex and one of the most revered sites of Orthodox Christianity. Control of the Lavra’s Dormition Cathedral was transferred fully to the independent church in time to conduct last weekend’s Easter services.
And despite predictions of trouble and protests, Easter at the Lavra passed peacefully and without clashes.
Many UOC Lavra regulars just carried on as normal and worshipped, as they and their families have always done, at the Dormition Cathedral, razed by the Red Army as it retreated in 1941 and rebuilt in the 1990s.
Outside the cathedral, they lined up and accepted the blessings of OCU priests as they sprinkled holy water on baskets full of homemade Easter bread and other foods. And they worshipped inside, standing under golden chandeliers, breathing in sweet incense, murmuring prayers and taking part in the elaborate Orthodox ritual with stern saints looking down from gold-bordered icons.
Among the clerics was 29-year-old Father Stefan. “Many of the old-timers visited the church today because they were thinking first of Ukraine, and not the Moscow Patriarch, who they see as supporting Russia’s invasion,” he said.
“Of course, it is a difficult transition for many, I would say about half of them are struggling to adjust. But they understand that it’s very important for the soul of our country. They have sons, daughters and friends on the front lines, and they understand that the church must be with the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian army,” he added.
“So, half the people come and are not struggling, and the others are still thinking about the transition,” he said. But he’s sure religious faith and national identity will blend. According to one poll, only 4 percent of Ukrainians now formally identify with the Moscow-tied church.
The expulsion from the Lavra of Moscow-tied monks — they’re appealing the decision before the courts — is part of a wider crackdown on the UOC because of suspicions that its leadership and some of its priests are disloyal to Ukraine and have acted as fifth columnists in support of Russia’s invasion. Technically their 10-year-old agreement on the use of the state-owned Lavra had expired, but the government refused to renew the tenancy, claiming there had been rental violations.
Ukrainian Orthodoxy splintered in 2018 into two competing churches in the face of furious Kremlin opposition. OCU was granted ecclesiastical independence by the Patriarchate of Constantinople a year later. In a sign of the political fault lines underpinning the feud, OCU churches had offered support to the Maidan protesters of 2014, who toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s satrap in Ukraine. This left the UOC still loyal to Moscow. Russia’s patriarch broke with Constantinople, considered the top Orthodox authority, over his recognizing the newcomer.
In the past, Zelenskyy’s government has been hesitant to move against Moscow’s church in Ukraine, not wanting to cross any lines on the freedom of religious expression, or fall foul of the European Union or international norms on protecting worship. It has wanted to avoid offending the church’s adherents, acutely aware that within the ranks of its priests and worshippers are plenty of patriotic Ukrainians, some fighting on the front lines against the Russians.
But evidence that the church’s leaders have acted to varying degrees as cheerleaders for the enemy prompted a change of heart amid public clamor for action.
More than 50 priests, at the latest count, are being investigated for collaborating with Russian forces. One of the most notorious is Father Mykola Yevtushenko, who is alleged to have collaborated with the Russians during their savage 33-day occupation of Bucha, offering benedictions to the occupying soldiers and urging his parishioners to welcome the invading forces. Aside from trying to stamp an ecclesiastical imprimatur on the invasion, he also pointed out locals most likely to resist the occupation of Bucha, the suburban town just northwest of Kyiv that has become a byword for war crimes.
In November and September, police raids on UOC buildings turned up pro-Russian literature and Russian passports. Earlier this month the church’s top religious leader, Metropolitan Pavel, was placed under house arrest ahead of hearings to establish whether he has been stoking religious divisions and glorifying the Russian invasion. Pavel says the actions against him and the Lavra expulsion are politically driven.
The Kremlin has sought to weaponize the moves against the UOC for propaganda purposes. In midweek, Western media, including POLITICO, and human rights organizations came under an assault of thousands upon thousands of spambot emails claiming to come from ordinary Russian citizens expressing deep concern about Ukraine “provoking interreligious war.” The spambot messages from fake accounts complained the Ukrainian president is throwing monks onto the streets in violation of international norms and the freedom of religious belief.
That isn’t how most Ukrainians see it.
A poll conducted in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 78 percent of Ukrainians believe the government should indeed intervene in the activities of the UOC; 54 percent think the church should be banned outright and 24 percent prefer a softer option of state control and supervision. Just 12 percent think UOC should be left alone.
Opposition lawmaker Mykola Knyazhytsky, from Lviv, says leaving the church untouched isn’t an option. He’s sponsored legislation that would ban the UOC but gives the option to form a new church clearly separated from the Russian Orthodox Church or join the independent rival. “This church was created by Russia,” he said.
“Some of the priests are just spies in cassocks and people just don’t want to tolerate it anymore” he added. “The church is teeming with priests who are pro-Russian and while not all of them are agents, they’re ready to assist and to perform some tasks for Russia.”
Veronika Melkozerova contributed reporting.