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Story Publication logo March 25, 2019

Russia’s War in Ukraine Leads to Historic Split in the Orthodox Church

This local Ukrainian parish is deciding whether or not to continue recognizing the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. Image by Simon Ostrovsky. Ukraine, 2019.

Church parishes throughout Ukraine are voting to no longer recognize Moscow's authority as Russia...

Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.
Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

Hari Sreenivasan: There's a presidential election next week in Ukraine, while a conflict continues with Russia since the annexation of the Crimea region from Ukraine in 2014. But the dispute between the two countries is more than territorial. another issue is religion.

Most of the churches in Ukraine have been under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church for well over 300 years. But now that authority is in dispute.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has our story, which was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Woman: Why are there strangers in our church?

Priest: Putin has nothing to do with this.

Man: Why does our church have to be part of the Moscow Patriarchate?

Simon Ostrovsky: These are tense times in Ukraine. All across the country, disputes like this one are breaking out. Those arguing say that at stake is nothing less than Ukraine's very soul. As with most of the orthodox churches in this county, this village church's leadership sits not in its home country, but in Moscow.

Priest: Have you read the bible? Just a minute.

Simon Ostrovsky: It's something the people here want to try to change.

Woman: Everybody in the church!

Simon Ostrovsky: It puts them at odds not just with their priest but with the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole.

Father Vasyl: Put us on opposing sides. As a priest I swore an oath to the Lord that I would protect my flock from schism. Amen.

Simon Ostrovsky: Until about five years ago, the church's link to moscow bothered few.

Man: You are our community's priest. You should attend. And whatever the community decides, it's up to you.

Simon Ostrovsky: Then, in 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and sparked a brutal war in the country's east. Since the war, Russian Orthodox Priests appearing alongside Russian soldiers has become hard for Ukrainians to swallow. Even harder to take is the traditional prayer said at every mass for the leader of the church, patriarch Kirill. He's a close ally of Vladimir Putin. But in January, at the request of Ukraine's President, another orthodox leader, the Echumenical Patrirach of Constantinople Bartholemew, found an opportunity to officially break with the Russian Orthodox Church and signed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church back into existence. It meant the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church could now appoint and pray for its own leadership as well as give the Ukrainian language a more prominent place in services. More importantly, the Constantinople patriarch's high status gives the church legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary believers, but not one particular believer.

Vladimir Putin: What's happening is a crude interference in church affairs.

Simon Ostrovsky: Russia's church and government have refused to recognize Bartholomew's authority in the matter and Putin's reaction has been to threaten to intervene much like he did in 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers there. Now he says he wants to protect the faith.

Vladimir Putin: We reserve the right to respond and do everything possible to protect human rights, including the freedom of religion.

Simon Ostrovsky: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the head of the new church. According to the State Department it was to underscore America's support for religious freedom and Ukrainian sovereignty. President Putin disagreed, publicly.

Vladimir Putin: The fact that the Secretary of State made a phone call to Kiev about this is totally out of line. It is absolutely unacceptable. Nevertheless this is happening. And this of course is evidence of the fact that this is being done ahead of an election campaign with the goal of furthering the rift between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

Campaign Ad: We are Ukraine. We are the descendants of Kievan Rus. Our land was christened by Vladimir the Great.

Simon Ostrovsky: For Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the issue is a matter of political survival. He faces a hotly contested presidential election at the end of the month.

Campaign Ad: We are taking back our church.

Simon Ostrovsky: He's put the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the center of his campaign for re-election.

Petro Poroshenko: And today a new united and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is born. What kind of church is it? It is a church that doesn't pray for the Russian state and the Russian army because the Russian state and the Russian army are killing Ukrainians!

Simon Ostrovsky: Now the battle for Ukraine's soul is being fought village by village in places like Oleksandrivka where members of the Moscow-aligned clergy are struggling to retain control. Father Arkady is one of several priests that have arrived to support the local priest in his bid to keep the St. Nicholas Church within the Moscow fold. More than just a few village churches are at stake. This is the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery, considered one of the most holy sites in all of Ukraine and Russia. It's also the headquarters of the faction that remains loyal to Moscow.

Simon Ostrovsky: These caves below the Kiev Pechersk Lavra house the remains of around 130 saints, they were first occupied by monks in the 11th century and Orthodox believers of both the Ukrainian and Russian churches consider this to be where their churches began.

Simon Ostrovsky: Archbishop Kliment, one of the Moscow-aligned church's most senior members in Ukraine worries the Ukrainian Government could try to wrest sacred sites like the lavra from the control of the Moscow patriarchate.

Archbishop Kliment: These days they are openly talking about plans that would allow them to make it easier to transfer the Kiev Pechersk Lavra into the other religious jurisdiction. But this would not be a painless process and I don't even want to think about it and I think the Lord won't allow it.

Simon Ostrovsky: According to RISU, a news agency affiliated with the Ukrainian Catholic University, there were about 12,000 active Moscow-affiliated congregations in Ukraine before the split. Now almost 500 have switched allegiances.

Simon Ostrovsky: Back in Oleksandrivka, members of the community have convened a town meeting to decide whether to stay with the Russians or transfer their allegiance to the new Ukrainian Church.

Tetiana Kochmaruk: After I saw my child off to go to the war. I went to church, I prayed for him, I asked God to bring him back to me in one piece. But when the priest said don't pray for the children and the soldiers, let's also pray for His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill, you know how I felt?

Simon Ostrovsky: Outside the building another confrontation is developing. The out-of-town priests loyal to the Moscow church are being denied access to the meeting.

Man 1: I won't say anything I just want to see what it's like.

Man 2: You can come in when the meeting ends.

Viktor Belyushko: He wanted to attend our meeting but he is not a member of our religious community, why did he come? To make a scene? We don't need a scene.

Simon Ostrovsky: This is the moment when the people of Oleksandrivka decide whether their local church stays with the Moscow Patriarchate or goes with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Man: Dear citizens, I invite you to vote. Vote with your heart and soul. Who is against? No one. Abstentions? None. Who is for? Thank you, my dear citizens!

Simon Ostrovsky: The decision to join the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is virtually unanimous. The lesson here appears to be that while Russia may be able to take territory with its military might, at least in this village, the battle for hearts and minds may already be lost.

Woman: We're happy, we're happy, we're happy!


teal halftone illustration of praying hands





two soldiers stand holding guns and wearing fatigues


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