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New Fissures Appear in Ukrainian Christian Faiths

Worsening relations with Russia over the Donbas conflict are driving a wedge between the two main Orthodox branches.

5 March 2018

The sniping between Ukraine’s Moscow-backed and local Orthodox churches saw protests and counter-protests last month at the site of an ancient Kyiv church.


At the same time, a local church that split from Orthodoxy more than four centuries ago is seeking a higher profile within the Catholic world.


Inter-Orthodox tensions came to the fore a month ago over a Moscow Patriarchate chapel in Kyiv. Demonstrators gathered to support two architects who are charged with trying to set the chapel on fire in late January, The Kyiv Post reported.



The Orthodox split dates to the early 1990s when some believers in newly independent Ukraine broke away from Moscow to form the locally-run Kyiv Patriarchate. Although the wider Orthodox community has never recognized it, the Kyiv Patriarchate now counts a larger flock than the established Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), pollsters say.


The Moscow-backed church built the chapel in 2006, near the foundations of a historic medieval church on the grounds of the National Museum of Ukrainian History, leading to accusations the construction was illegal.


Opponents of the chapel gathered more than 10,000 signatures last year. In February, UOC-MP faithful sent several thousand counter-0petitions to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine wrote.


The Kyiv Patriarchate is not merely unrecognized, it may be planning to unite with the country’s Greek Catholics, a leading Russian Orthodox figure has claimed. Metropolitan Ilarion, the church’s director of external relations, also accused Ukrainian authorities of trying to forcibly merge the Moscow and Kyiv patriarchates, TASS reports.


Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which about 8 percent of Ukrainians belong, is raising the volume on its decades-long drive to become a Roman Catholic patriarchate.


Suppressed under communism, it is an autonomous church with its own specific rites, but subject to the governance of the Pope. In a speech last month, its leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, requested that Rome raise the church to a patriarchy, like several other Eastern Catholic denominations.


Patriarchate status would allow the Ukrainian church to select its own leader, or patriarch, without prior papal approval, the Catholic News Agency reports.


The Vatican worries that raising the church to a patriarchy could exacerbate interfaith relations in Ukraine.



  • A Razumkov Center poll in 2017 found that 38 percent of Orthodox believers in Ukraine belong to the Kyiv Patriarchate and just 17 percent to the UOC-MP. A third described themselves as “simply Orthodox,” the Religious Information Service of Ukraine reported. Only 7.7 percent of respondents said Ukrainian Orthodoxy should remain an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church.


  • The current Roman Catholic patriarchates originated as early churches in the Middle East and Egypt. As a “major archiepiscopal church,” whose leader must be approved by the Pope, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine is ranked with a handful of denominations with around 10 million adherents worldwide.


  • The Greek Catholic church formed in the 16th century when many Orthodox bishops in Eastern Europe switched allegiance to Rome at a time when Catholic Poland was a leading European power.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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