Ukraine Could Beat Putin in Church Battle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ukraine can't reclaim territory annexed by Russia or held by its proxies – but it's increasingly likely to deprive its larger neighbor of something arguably as valuable: Its power over Ukraine’s Orthodox Christian believers, and with it Moscow’s claim to a central role in eastern Christianity.

Gatherings of top clerics affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople aren’t usually of political interest. Patriarch Bartholomew I, the distant heir of the heads of the Byzantine church, isn’t the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of the Pope. As first among equals, he plays a symbolic rather than an organizational role. 

On Monday, however, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted excitedly about a decision made at such a gathering in Istanbul. The group confirmed Patriarch Bartholomew’s power to recognize the autocephaly of local churches -– that is, the right of their top bishop to report to no higher authority except God.

The only reason the patriarch needs such a confirmation is to allow him to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. If that happens, it will be a tectonic shift.

The Moscow Patriarchate has been in charge of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since the 17th century. When Filaret, the Mitropolitan of Kiev, lost the political struggle for the post of Moscow Patriarch in 1992, he split off part of the Ukrainian church to align with a newly independent Ukraine.

Moscow fought the schism; Filaret was maligned in the Russian media and eventually excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate initially allied itself with Moscow in not recognizing an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the way it extends recognition, for example, to the Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian churches. 

The lack of an official status prevented many orthodox priests from joining Filaret’s splinter church. Organizationally and financially, Ukraine remains extremely important to the Moscow Patriarchate.

In 2013, the year before Russia annexed Crimea, it accounted for about a third of the Patriarchate's 33,489 churches and 30,430 priests. The biggest and most venerated monastery in Kiev, the Monastery of the Caves, belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate. Filaret’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with some 3,500 priests, is smaller and poorer.

The numbers matter politically and ideologically. The Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchies both have imperial heritage, and Moscow would like to be considered leader of the Orthodox world. That ambition is one of the cornerstones of the neo-imperialist ideology promulgated by President Vladimir Putin, himself an ardent Orthodox believer.

Under Putin, the church has drawn closer to the state than at any time since the Revolution of 1917. No wonder the same hacker group accused in the U.S. of hacking the Democratic National Committee has recently shown much interest in Patriarch Bartholomew and his court: Ukrainian autocephaly would deal a powerful blow to Russia’s claim to spiritual leadership among eastern Christians. 

Autocephaly is likely to drive many, if not most, Moscow Patriarchate priests to defect. Once the Ukrainian church gets ecclesiastical recognition, there will be no reason for the priests to remain part of an organization the government there considers as Russia's fifth column.

As for the faithful themselves, the two-thirds of Ukrainians who consider themselves Orthodox Christians have deserted the Moscow-led church in droves. Poroshenko, an active church-goer himself, has switched. One reason for that is that the Kiev church actively backed the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, and its priests were seen in the streets helping the protesters; the Moscow church has been more cautious.

Ukraine Could Beat Putin in Church Battle

Moscow Patriarch Kirill went to Istanbul late last month to meet with Bartholomew. A bishop who was present said that while no final decision was made on Ukrainian autocephaly, the process has now gone too far to reverse it. Russian clerics have warned that granting independence to the Ukrainian church could cause a global schism, but Patriarch Bartholomew recently rejected that rhetoric. “We neither threaten anyone, nor are we threatened by anyone,” he said. “We only fear God.”

A weakened Moscow Patriarchate would only strengthen Bartholomew’s position and his ability to speak on behalf of the Orthodox world. The conservative Russian church has dragged down his efforts to build bridges with the Catholic Church and personally with Pope Francis.

Church affairs shouldn’t be as politicized as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is making them. On the other hand, Putin’s depredations in Ukraine have clearly undermined the church to which he belongs and which he has sought to strengthen both in Russia and globally. He cannot send tanks to repair this damage.

Meanwhile, the path Ukraine ends up taking depends less on territorial gains and losses than on which ideas win out in Ukrainians’ minds. And that makes the diplomatic battle for autocephaly a critical one for Poroshenko.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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