The Ukrainian president has asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant autocephaly to his country’s eastern Churches, i.e. the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Greek Catholic Church. Religious properties are part of the historical and practical dispute. For the Moscow Patriarchate, issues of jurisdiction must be settled by the Churches in question without interference by heads of state.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Recently, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for a political project involving the Orthodox Church. Addressing himself to the Patriarch of Constantinople unsolicited by Ukrainian Church officials, he asked for the autocephaly of the Church in Ukraine, to include the Kyiv and the Moscow patriarchates. Poroshenko's demand has made a deep impression; in practice, the head of the Ukrainian state wants the Church to separate herself from the Russian state.
On several occasions, the president has said that the Ukraine must have its own Church. In a speech before the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), he told the members that he had written a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In it, he suggests that “every citizen of Ukraine, and only he, can choose his faith and Church. The Ukrainian state is separate from the Church, but it cannot remain passive vis-à-vis other states and the agencies of other states that use ecclesiastical institutions dependent upon them to achieve their geopolitical goals."
The Churches in Ukraine
The country’s main religious entity, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, is de facto autonomous in terms of jurisdiction, although it is an integral part of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The primate of Kyiv, the metropolitan Onufriy, was picked by the synod of Ukrainian bishops, and was confirmed by Russian patriarch. He is a member of the Orthodox Synod of Moscow, where all other episcopal nominations are decided. In terms of the number of parishes, churches and priests, the Church has always been a very large segment of the patriarchate, almost as big as the Church in Russia, although the latter has greatly expanded in recent years.
There is also another Church, that of the Kyivan Patriarchate, established in 1992 following a break from Moscow after the fall of the communist regime. It is led by the aging Filaret, who almost became the head of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1990. Its membership is hard to measure because of its haphazard administration. One estimate puts the “Muscovites” at around eight million Ukrainians, with the Kyivans ranging between 3 and 6 million. Years of conflict have muddle the numbers. It should be noted that in Russia-annexed Crimea, local churches still come under Onufriy’s jurisdiction.
Soon after independence, Filaret's Church received the immediate backing of Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, who had taken an anti-Russian position at that time. The Church herself has remained this political-religious model to follow as evinced by President Poroshenko’s stance.
There are other Orthodox groups that depend directly from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, heirs to the underground Church from Soviet times, as well as a large Greek Catholic community of about 3 million members.
The Greek Catholic Church, whose history is intertwined with that of Orthodox Churches since the Union of Brest in 1596, is a western-oriented response to the forced proclamation of the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1589, which introduced the non-traditional principle of national patriarchates. Amid bans, schisms, annexations and re-annexations, synods and political interference, the dioceses and parishes of the Greek Catholic Church (mostly in Galicia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) have always been the object of controversy.
The Greek Catholics and Moscow
For years, the Russians have accused the Greek Catholics of being the main inspiration for anti-Moscow sentiment in Ukraine, including the Maidan Square uprising of 2013-2014, which led to the country’s ongoing "hybrid" war. However, despite their early support for Ukrainian independence, the Greek Catholics (also called Uniates) have never been politically aligned with anyone despite allegations that they back some of Ukraine’s most radical nationalist movements. They do not even side with Poroshenko’s position since his appeals are for a "National Church" that would include all of the Churches that follow the eastern tradition. The million or so who follow the Latin tradition are mostly of Polish origin, and western-oriented, and would like to see the western regions turn towards the European Union.
Behind exhortations and disputes, there are almost always practical and material as well spiritual and political issues to contend with. Hundreds of buildings and properties are claimed by the various parties. In such a context, the Patriarch of Constantinople is not likely to want to wade into the never-ending controversy. Nor does the Pope of Rome, who takes a minimalist position towards Greek Catholic churches, giving the Major Archbishop of Kyiv, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and local prelates wide autonomy, even if that means getting their complaints about it. Indeed, after the 2016 meeting in Havana between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Shevchuk complained that the Holy Father had not defended Greek Catholics in front of the Russians.
So far, the Patriarchate of Moscow has not really reacted to Poroshenko’s centralising demands, which often mirror attitudes expressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin vis-à-vis Church-State relations in Russia. In a measured statement, a patriarchate spokesman said that the issue of ecclesiastical jurisdiction must be resolved among the Churches in question without any interference by heads of state. In reality, the whole story of Russia and Ukraine (and others) shows exactly the opposite. How this might evolve in the future remains uncertain.