On March 6, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stood to deliver the sermon that traditionally ushers in the beginning of the Orthodox Lent. However, the most notable theme of his sermon had little to do with the annual period of Christian fasting. Instead, the patriarch chose to address a subject at the forefront of everyone’s minds: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

A woman lights a candle at the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. March 12, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A woman lights a candle at the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. March 12, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

A Spiritual Conflict

In his sermon, Patriarch Kirill depicted the war in starkly spiritual terms: “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.” He portrayed the war as a struggle “for eternal salvation” for ethnic Russians.

A trusted advisor of President Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill’s remarks differed significantly from those of other international religious leaders. Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I openly condemned the war in an interview with Turkish media, saying “the whole world is against Russia.” And in front of a crowd at St. Peter’s square in the Vatican, Pope Francis pleaded, “In the name of God, I ask you: stop this massacre,” calling the invasion an act of “unacceptable armed aggression.”

Throughout Ukraine and among the Ukrainian diaspora, leaders from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have stood up to deliver fiery condemnations of Russia’s invasion. It is clear that, in one limited sense, Patriarch Kirill is correct: The conflict in Ukraine is not only a matter of horrible violence, but also a conflict with deeply rooted religious significance.

Religion’s Role in Ukrainian Identity

In President Putin’s long speech preceding the invasion, he alluded to the religious narratives undergirding the battle surrounding Ukrainian national identity. Putin claimed that Ukraine is “an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

Putin’s claim reflects a commonly held interpretation of the history of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. According to this view, Russians and Ukrainians are one people who originate from the same Christian kingdom that came into being in the 10th century. According to the national histories of both countries, Prince Volodymyr I of Kyiv accepted Christianity in 988 and established a devout kingdom that became the predecessor to the modern states of Ukraine and Russia.

This fact is not disputed. But Ukrainians take issue with claims like the one made by Patriarch Kirill in a letter to the World Council of Churches, where he stated that Ukrainians and Russians “come from one Kievan baptismal font … and share common historical fate.”

According to most Ukrainians, both Putin and Kirill’s claims ignore a long history of Ukrainian independence that is fundamental to their national identity.

It also ignores the fact that Ukraine’s religious landscape is far more diverse than is generally appreciated. While nearly 80 percent of Ukrainians profess affiliation with an Orthodox denomination, some 10 percent of the population — particularly in western Ukraine — belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Muslims, mostly of Crimean Tatar heritage, comprise about one percent of Ukraine’s population — along with a historically significant Jewish community numbering around 200,000 and small groups of Protestant Christians.

Ukraine as a Religious Battleground

When Constantinople fell to Ottoman invaders in the 15th century, the Orthodox Church in Moscow asserted itself as the heir apparent for the only remaining “true” Christian church in the world, bringing Orthodox parishes in Ukraine under its complete jurisdiction.

But in the centuries since, Ukraine has become a battleground for Orthodox power struggles that stem from this original claim of Russian authority. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence in Ukraine, some voices began to advocate for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. At the time, those cries went unheard.

Then, in the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv in 2014, the same conversation resurfaced. Patriarch Filaret of Kyiv petitioned the Russian Orthodox Church to grant Ukraine autocephaly — but was denied. In an act of defiance, he chose to found an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine without Moscow’s consent and began to petition parishes around the country to change their allegiance. Moscow responded by excommunicating Filaret and appointing their own Patriarch of Ukraine based in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

By 2018, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had realized the political significance of this rift between the churches. He orchestrated a petition to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, thereby reigniting old the centuries-old struggles between Moscow and Constantinople for supreme authority over world Orthodoxy. Bartholomew approved the request for autocephaly in Ukraine, giving his blessing to the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Invasion Weakens Moscow Patriarchate’s Authority

Even so, the Moscow Patriarchate remains the most common affiliation of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine, with roughly 11,000 parishes compared to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s 7,000. As such, the Moscow Patriarchates has functioned as an important mechanism for exercising Russia’s sharp power in the country in the years leading up to the current invasion.

But the invasion has quickly undermined the position of the Moscow Patriarchate over the course of just a few weeks. Parishes across Ukraine began omitting Patriarch Kirill’s name from the liturgy starting on the day of the invasion. And priests have chosen to fly Ukrainian flags and deliver sermons condemning Russia’s violence in all regions of the country.

Some Russian Orthodox Churches in Europe have announced they are cutting ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. Even Metropolitan Onufry, head of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, appealed to Putin for an “immediate end to the fratricidal war” and accused him of “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” The position of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine today is faltering because of the prolonged Russian violence.

Meanwhile, as the war rages on, civilians have taken up shelter in churches since international law prohibits attacks on religious sites. But Orthodox church buildings and other sites linked to religion are suffering direct damage throughout Ukraine. On March 1, a Russian missile struck Kyiv near the site of the 1941 Babyn Yar massacre where approximately 33,000 Jews were killed by Nazi forces over two days. Then on March 13, a revered 16th century monastery in Donetsk was struck by artillery blasts, leaving it damaged from repeated shelling. The buildings were occupied with refugees and monks at the time of the attacks, some of whom were wounded.

Incidents like these bring into question the future of the Orthodox religion in Ukraine. If Ukraine is ultimately successful at repelling the Russian forces, the future of a Russian patriarchate seems murky. However, if Ukraine falls to Russian occupiers, the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is likely to face similar uncertainty. The role of religious actors in maintaining solidarity across ecumenical lines is therefore crucial to preserving the social fabric of a unified Ukraine — and will be a key factor in peacebuilding if and when the guns have fallen silent.

Aidan Houston is a research assistant with the religion and inclusive societies team at USIP.

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