The Orthodox Churches in Ukraine in the wake of the election campaign

ZOiS Spotlight 21/2019 by Regina Elsner (29 May 2019)

The All Saints Church of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. © Regina Elsner

Securing recognition for an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine was a key issue in Petro Poroshenko’s election campaign. When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presented the tomos of autocephaly – the decree of ecclesial independence – to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in Istanbul on 6 January 2019, this was celebrated by many of the faithful, the President himself and indeed by many non-believers as a historic event in Ukraine’s journey as an independent nation.

But as Poroshenko’s defeat in the April 2019 election showed, this achievement had no impact on voter opinion. The election result made it clear that Ukrainian society would not be manipulated by the politicisation of the faith issue and that the prevailing mood was one of disillusionment with the slow progress of social and economic reforms. In fact, the massive politicisation of the issue over previous months did the new Church no favours at all, for rather than building unity, it precipitated a deep crisis in world Orthodoxy. Recognition of the OCU by the universal Church is likely to take several years and involve difficult negotiations on matters of theology and church politics.

In Ukraine, two permanent Orthodox Church structures will henceforth exist. Soon after the election, the incoming President Volodimir Selenski met with representatives of all the faith communities and made it clear that he had no interest in continuing the politico-religious conflict. Criticised on social media for his failure to attend church for the Orthodox Easter celebrations, he retorted: “Don’t look for me in church – look for God!” For the churches themselves, the end of politicisation has various implications.

UOC: Local harassment subsides

Several representatives of the Department of External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which is affiliated to the Moscow Patriarchate, have confirmed during interviews with the author that while local authorities had been exerting considerable pressure in recent weeks in an effort to persuade as many parishes as possible to join the new Church, this is already noticeably subsiding. Previously, as many as five cases of direct or indirect harassment of local parishes were reported each week, but these are now isolated incidents. In most of the 500 or so localities where parishes have joined the new Church, part of the congregation is still loyal to the UOC, meaning that in practical terms, the total number of UOC parishes has scarcely decreased. Numerous lawsuits relating to illegal “occupations” of churches and parish rooms are being processed, and recent news reports indicate that the local courts are now less zealous in proceeding against the UOC: here too, it seems that the pressure from above is subsiding. The legal process of renaming the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to include a clear reference to its affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church has been halted for now by a first-instance court as it conflicts with the principles of religious freedom. And believers hope that daily life will become a little easier if there is less polarisation and less public discussion of the issue of religious affiliation. Students, for example, had reported that they deliberately kept quiet about which church they belonged to in order to avoid stigmatisation. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of a “persecuted church” that has become entrenched in recent months also blocks any self-critical appraisal of the pastoral and ethical failings that have led to a large-scale loss of trust and confidence within Ukrainian society.

OCU: A focus on internal challenges

With the end of political support and instrumentalisation, the OCU now needs to focus on its own internal development. In fact, the new Church faces immense challenges. First and foremost, it must attempt to integrate highly diverse groups which, for decades, have regarded one another as heretics. These largely emotional misgivings are reinforced by the lack of clarity, under canon law, concerning the validity of the ordination of priests and bishops in the previously unrecognised churches. There are also delays in the registration of new parishes and dioceses, caused not only by administrative issues but also by widespread mistrust among priests and parishes and the reluctance to submit to a structure previously regarded as hostile.

The “Group of Ten Theses for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine” is an initiative group of intellectuals who switched from the UOC to the OCU and are keen to share their proposals on its future agenda. They face a challenge, however: their progressive theological ideas conflict with the institutional limitations of the new Church. There is a sense of disillusionment among group members at the OCU’s entrenched hierarchies, although they recognise that it offers more freedom than the UOC. Conflict may also be brewing over the issue of church leadership, with Metropolitan Epiphanius elected as primate of the Church and Filaret designated “honorary Patriarch”. The latter is attempting to hold on to his leadership role and assert his influence through a show of power. In mid-May, he caused uproar with his call for the statutes of the new Church to be amended to bolster his position of power, contrary to the provisions of the tomos. It is a testament to the maturity of the Ukrainian believers and bishops that they showed their unequivocal solidarity with Metropolitan Epiphanius and rejected Filaret’s demands. An escalation of this power dispute would discredit the OCU in the eyes of the faithful and make it more difficult to secure recognition from the rest of world Orthodoxy.

Overshadowed by the church conflict

The calm after the storm of the election campaign shifts attention to two other issues. Firstly, the churches are at risk of developing the same amnesia about the Eastern Ukrainian territories as society at large. “No one needs us,” says a priest from the “Grey Zone”: as he sees it, neither the old nor the new church structure is a source of genuine support for the people of Eastern Ukraine. But if even the churches have no interest in forging a bond of solidarity with the people of Eastern Ukraine, it will be increasingly difficult to achieve mutual understanding and reconciliation within Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, overshadowed by the conflict within Orthodoxy, numerous Protestant churches, an “All-Ukrainian Council” led by Oleksandr Turchynov and the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches chaired by the numerically small Roman Catholic Church have, in recent months, called for a stronger focus on so-called traditional family values. It is likely that against the backdrop of European integration and the Istanbul Convention – a yet-to-be-ratified Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – no effort will be spared to progress this issue as a “true Ukrainian” counter-strategy not only to the imperialist Russian variant but also to liberal European values. However, there is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in Europe that the concept of “traditional values” is unlikely to promote unity and reconciliation in a pluralist society and more likely to increase the lack of trust towards the churches.


Regina Elsner is a theologian and research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socio-ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.