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The deepening divisions among the Orthodox in Ukraine

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has been going on for more than two weeks now, could also have concrete consequences on the complex situation of the Orthodox Christian Church in Ukraine, to which millions of people belong and which is going through a situation of schism (i.e. internal separation ) since the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass in 2014.

For centuries, since the seventeenth century, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been led by the Russian one. In the Orthodox Christian religion, unlike what happens in Catholicism, there are about fifteen religious leaders with the same authority: they are called patriarchs and each controls a different Orthodox church, in relationship with the others as in a kind of federation. The only patriarch who stands a little above the others, but only for historical reasons, is the patriarch of Constantinople, the ancient name of Istanbul, which at the moment is called Bartholomew I. The Russian Orthodox Church, that of the Patriarchate of Moscow led by Cyril I, it is instead the one with the greatest number of faithful.

Starting from the invasion of the Crimea and the Donbass, a significant piece of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church chose to break away from the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow, and asked and obtained from Bartholomew I to become autonomous: thus two churches were born in Ukraine, the Orthodox Church of ‘Ukraine, independent, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remained faithful to Patriarch Cyril I of Moscow. At the moment, according to an estimate cited by Christian Science Monitorthe former includes about seven thousand Ukrainian parishes, while 12 thousand have chosen to remain faithful to that of Moscow.

The recent invasion of Russia could bring about new changes. “It is very plausible that some parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, embittered by the invasion, could leave Moscow and join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church”, he wrote on The Conversation Jonathan L. Zecher, Australian Catholic University expert on Orthodox Christianity.

The Moscow Patriarchate has for years been linked to the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin and has in fact supported the decision to invade Ukraine. Patriarch Cyril I and Putin share a certain worldview – including contempt for democratic values ​​and nostalgia for a closer relationship between society and Christianity – and have often supported each other over the years. Putin has showered the Orthodox Church with favors, from tax exemptions to space on public and private televisions. In return, he received personal legitimacy and political support.

The Patriarch of Moscow, Cyril I, during a recent religious celebration (AP Photo / Alexander Zemlianichenko)

In a statement released shortly after the invasion, Cyril I had spoken of the fact that some “forces of evil” were threatening Russia, adhering to the state propaganda initiated by Putin, and in the following days he had claimed without any evidence that in the Donbass some churches had been forced to participate in demonstrations in favor of the LGBT + community. “There is a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that today are offered by those who claim world power “, had said Cirillo Iadhering to a very popular reading on the Russian and European far right that the tolerant and progressive West wants to impose its values ​​on the rest of the world, suppressing the Christian and Catholic tradition.

There are signs that several parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, that is, the one that has remained faithful to Moscow until now, have begun to be increasingly impatient with the explicit link between the Patriarchate of Cyril I and the Putin government.

The council of bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church spoke explicitly of an “invasion” by Russia, and he asked to Cyril I, in vain, to use his friendship with Putin to persuade him to stop. A week after the war began, the Orthodox diocese of Sumy, one of the Ukrainian cities most affected by the fighting, published a statement condemning the Russian invasion and expressing solidarity and concrete help “to our motherland, Ukraine”. The diocese of Sumy also announced that it would stop celebrating the name of Cyril I during his religious services, as required by the Orthodox rite.

It is not clear, however, how many parishes linked to Moscow will decide to separate from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In recent years, the bond of some of them with the Russian church has strengthened, even in the perception of Ukrainians. The Guardian he told for example that in the monastery of Kolomyia, in the southwest of the country, the Ukrainian army found large quantities of military rations and some firearms: the suspicion of the army is that the monastery could accommodate dozens of Russian soldiers, in case of need .

A similar distrust surrounds the Pochayiv monastery, one of the best known in Ukraine, which is located about a hundred kilometers east of Lviv. Since the beginning of the war, the monastery has been closed to tourists outside the hours of religious services, and some men dressed in menacing military clothing follow the few foreign visitors. “I’m afraid there will be an attack,” he told him al Guardian a woman who runs a hostel for pilgrims not far from the monastery.

An even more explicit support from the Patriarch of Moscow and the parishes loyal to him for the invasion of Ukraine could increase the isolation of the Russian Orthodox Church, already very distant from the rest of the Orthodox churches in the world, which have severely condemned the invasion Russian. The patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, used words even harsher than those of Pope Francis to comment on Putin’s decisions.