Vladimir Putin’s war to reverse Ukraine’s independence includes religion. For centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church bolstered Moscow’s rule by wielding ecclesiastical authority over Ukrainian churches. Since early 2019, Ukraine has had a self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has sharpened tensions between it and the rival branch historically linked to Moscow. Any conciliation between them could shrink areas for conflict — and the Kremlin’s ability to stir chaos — in a postwar Ukraine. It would bolster Ukraine’s future stability and reinforce a decline in Russia’s historically massive influence across the Orthodox Christian world. But can Ukrainians make that happen?

Metropolitan Epiphanius, primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, leads Christmas rites in Kyiv. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened conflicts within the Ukrainian and the global Orthodox Christian communities. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
Metropolitan Epiphanius, primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, leads Christmas rites in Kyiv. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened conflicts within the Ukrainian and the global Orthodox Christian communities. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

Orthodoxy’s Challenges: Ukrainian and Global

A war marked by the evidence of Russian forces’ extreme brutalities has caught Ukraine’s churches in a tense division inflamed by extreme emotions. In local confrontations, communities have seized a number of churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the branch with historical ties to Russia. As the Russian church and its primate, Patriarch Kirill, openly backed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a stream of parishes and priests left the UOC; finally, in May 2022, the UOC leadership declared its own independence from Moscow’s authority.

The Orthodox Christian world is riven by a similar divide over Russia’s invasion. The Russian Orthodox Church, with 100 million adherents, nearly 40 percent of world Orthodoxy, has long been the wealthiest and most powerful of the 15 co-equal churches that through the 20th century formed the Orthodox communion. But the issue of Ukraine has split global Orthodoxy. Last year, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, declared that the Russian church “cooperated in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children.” Kirill’s leadership had sought “to theologically legitimize criminal behavior,” Bartholomew said. As ecumenical patriarch and archbishop of Constantinople, the ancient seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, Bartholomew wields authority as a “first among equals” — alongside Kirill and other church primates within the Orthodox communion.

The Greek, Romanian and Georgian church hierarchies have joined Bartholomew and Ukrainians in criticizing Russia’s assault. But the Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox churches, and those of Jerusalem and Antioch (based in Syria) abstained from citing Russia as the aggressor in the war.

In the 22 months since the UOC announced its break with Moscow, some of its clerics have been accused of continued support for Russia and its invasion. Ukrainian authorities seized computers in UOC facilities containing anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Such concerns led President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s parliament to propose restrictions on church institutions that authorities judge loyal to Moscow. U.N. human rights monitors last year noted the risks of overreach — that such laws could be used to undermine religious freedoms. While U.N. investigators, alongside others, have documented massive military attacks on civilians and Russian war crimes, they also note specific concerns around religion: Russian forces’ mistreatments of Ukrainian clerics and Ukrainian police failures to protect UOC members from assaults on their churches.

Roots of a Religious Conflict

A scan of Ukraine’s religious landscape reveals that about three-quarters of Ukrainians affiliate with Orthodox Christianity, alongside a historically important Greek Catholic minority (around 10%), and smaller groups of Protestant Christians, Muslims and Jews. Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 gave rise to calls for a fully independent — or, in Orthodox parlance, autocephalous (“self-heading”) — Ukrainian church. While Russia, the historically Moscow-linked UOC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (which serves as the custodian of global Orthodox harmony), rejected that campaign, it established the church question as an avatar of Ukrainian sovereignty.

In 2014 Russian forces seized Crimea and southeastern Ukraine, beginning the current war, and the UOC reacted ambivalently. In 2018, President Petro Poroshenko adopted the creation of an autocephalous church in Ukraine as a flagship issue in his campaign to decisively align Kyiv with the West. The Ecumenical Patriarchate soon issued a decree establishing an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). While that move buoyed national spirits, it saddled Ukraine with multiple rivalrous claimants to Orthodox legitimacy.

These developments jolted the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church broke ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate — and other autocephalous churches divided along geocultural and geopolitical lines: Slavic churches mostly followed Moscow; the Greek churches recognized the new Ukrainian church. A few churches hedged their bets, doing neither.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago triggered a crisis for the UOC, with its historic ties to Moscow. It criticized the invasion. Its primate, Metropolitan Onufriy, invoked the biblical story of Cain and Abel, seeming to accuse Putin (without naming him) of committing fratricide by pitting brothers against each other on the battlefield. When the UOC’s governing council announced, under public pressure, its break with the Moscow Patriarchate, many in Ukraine — including the government — remained suspicious. Many UOC senior clergy had studied in, and continued to maintain, close connections to Russia. Ukrainians’ fears over the church’s clergy included Soviet-era memories of clerics who had served as informants for the KGB.

Ukraine’s Current Dilemma

In December 2022, President Zelenskyy announced that security services had found evidence of UOC clergy and institutions circulating anti-Ukrainian propaganda and providing material support to Russian forces. Zelenskyy announced measures to ensure Ukraine’s “spiritual independence,” including steps toward a law to prohibit activities of Ukrainian religious organizations tied to religious groups in nations committing aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin quickly declared Zelenskyy’s government “satanists” who were banning Christianity to curry favor with a secular, godless Europe. Tensions escalated last year when Ukrainian authorities moved to expel the UOC from its long custodianship of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, an 11th-century monastery revered as one of the earliest sites of Christian Orthodoxy in the Slavic world.

Relations between the two main Orthodox groups in Ukraine hit rock bottom. The new, independent church continued to portray the historically Russia-linked group as little more than an extension of Russia’s security apparatus, while the older church rejected the new one as a canonically illegitimate schism. The newer OCU held only a fraction of the parishes, property and clergy of the older church, but felt confident that it enjoyed significantly more popular support. Poised to gain everything, its leaders had little incentive to reach out to their rivals. Even the country’s main interfaith body, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, usually a model of cooperation and consensus, reflected the tensions. While formally maintaining its seat on the council, the older UOC seemed conspicuously absent from its public activities.

Recent developments have heightened awareness and attention to the church crisis. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, growing numbers of local parishes have transferred their affiliation from the UOC to the newer OCU. A few stories and videos have emerged of irregular or forced transfers, some involving scuffles or even violence committed against members of the older church while police looked on.

In October, Ukraine’s parliament approved a first reading of the law prohibiting religious organizations linked to nations committing aggression against Ukraine. While Ukraine’s Western supporters accepted the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government’s concerns regarding UOC ties to Russia, some international human rights bodies worried that the draft law may violate global norms of Freedom of Religion or Belief. Peacebuilders warned that the law could exacerbate divisions in Ukrainian society and threaten longer term social cohesion.

While international, domestic and technical pressures seemed to slowing the draft law’s momentum in late 2023, an even more hardline version of the bill surfaced this month and now awaits its second reading. Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to make political hay from the law: Putin concluded his recent interview with Tucker Carlson by claiming that Zelenskyy’s government is trying to dismantle the UOC and thus “separate the souls” of Ukrainians from what he views as their natural place in the “Russian world.”

Seeking Peace in Ukraine and Orthodoxy

Ukrainians face an excruciating task — to balance their legitimate and acute national security concerns with their need, also acute, to sustain respect for human rights, including religious freedom. A vital step is to dial down the temperatures of the political climate around Ukraine’s Orthodox crisis to create space for the two churches to begin exploring constructive coexistence. Recent hopeful signs suggest that some OCU and UOC leaders are open to seeking possibilities for a shared future despite the hardline positions and rhetoric of their leaderships. It remains unclear whether such an effort could build momentum toward unity. Also, advocates of reconciliation within the two churches likely have in mind a cautious, incremental process over years. But the environment of an active war demands resolution today. This difference between “church time” and “political time” complicates any dialogue effort.

Still, achieving this task would advance peace in Ukraine, Europe and the world. For Ukraine, a process of de-confliction and unification would strengthen the religious foundations for post-war stability and democracy. It would reduce the scope for divisive accusations of collaboration with Russia directed against those who may have had their religious roots in the formerly Moscow-guided UOC. It would reduce opportunities for Russia’s government to generate conflict or violence in Ukraine. Perhaps most importantly, it would pave the way for Ukraine’s religious sector to play a significant role in national recovery, as well as to begin healing broader divisions within global Orthodoxy.

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