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Op-Ed: Ukraine Celebrates Establishment of Independent Orthodox Church

By Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly

Background: In January, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church formally split from the Russian Church that it had been tied to since 1686. Late last year, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the leading authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, approved Ukraine’s bid to create its own independent church. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church severed diplomatic ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, marking the biggest schism in Christianity in 1,000 years. Ukraine’s push to grant the church “autocephaly,” or independence, is widely seen as an effort to limit Russian influence in the country. “It forces Ukrainian clerics to pick sides between the Moscow-backed Ukrainian churches and the new church as fighting persists in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels,” wrote Ayse Wieting and Zeynep Bilginsoy in a Jan. 5 AP article. That fighting has claimed at least 10,000 lives. Meanwhile, Russia still maintains control of the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to power in 2014 and is running for re-election in the upcoming March 31 election, supported the move to splinter from the Russian Orthodox Church. Below, Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly argues that autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church is long overdue, particularly in light of Moscow’s efforts to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs.

On Jan. 6, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew granted autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, restoring its rightful and necessary independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. To enable this right, each of Ukraine’s three different Orthodox Churches represented by archbishops, clergy and congregation assembled for a Unification Council meeting on Dec. 15, 2018. The Council elected 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius as new head of the now officially united Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Christianity was brought to the Ukrainian capital by Kyivan Rus Prince Volodymyr in 988 A.D., 149 years before the acknowledged founding date of Moscow and over six centuries before the recognition of Moscow as a Patriarchate in 1593. Incontrovertibly, Kyiv is the birthplace of Christianity in Eastern Europe. Kyiv remained the focal point of Orthodoxy in the region for centuries thereafter, through the fragmentation of the Kyivan Rus, a loose federation of East Slavic and Finnicpeoples in Europe. It was not until 1686 that Moscow seized spiritual jurisdiction over Kyiv during a dire period in Ukrainian history known as “The Ruin.”

Through centuries of foreign rule, Ukrainian Orthodoxy remained spiritually strong and vibrant. Today, its community is the second largest in the world and Kyiv a rightful focal point of Orthodoxy in the region. Unfortunately, just as Kyiv was pressured by Moscow to abandon its church independence in 1686, the Kremlin seeks to force the allegiance of Ukraine to Russia by whatever means necessary.

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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signs the “Tomos of Autocephaly” decree granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence at a ceremony on Jan. 5 held at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul.Photo: Embassy of Ukraine

Ukraine’s aspiration for religious independence has deep roots in history and is critical to the survival of a democratic Ukrainian state. This long-overdue realignment is necessary for modern-day Ukrainian society to flourish: Russia’s war against Ukraine extends to the pulpit, where the Kremlin overtly exerts political influence over Ukraine by using clergy in their outreach to the hearts and minds of believers.

Driven by the will of the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko supported a process based on principles of openness, restraint and tolerance that led to today’s granting of a Tomos of Autocephaly. In an approach that has earned international praise, the elected leader of Ukraine’s independent church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, made it unequivocally clear that the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church will embrace all of the Orthodox faithful. “I would like to call all our brothers, archbishops, all faithful to the newly established united Ukrainian Orthodox Church — its doors are open for all.”

Government and religious leaders around the world welcomed the formation of the church and applaud the process that its faithful and Ukrainian leaders followed to form it. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Metropolitan Epiphanius to express U.S. support for Ukraine and its newly independent Orthodox Church, he underscored that it is critically important for the faithful in each country to enjoy the freedom to worship unhindered by outside interference.

The Ukrainian people agree wholeheartedly. Ukraine will, without reservation, protect the religious freedoms of all its citizens and visitors.

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Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly argues that, “While Ukrainians long for peace and freedom from oppression, the cold hard reality on the ground in Ukraine is that Russia remains intent on aggression toward Ukraine and subjugation of the Ukrainian people. For the Kremlin, an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is intolerable.”Photo: Embassy of Ukraine

Since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 through to the formation of the unified church, 54 local religious communities changed their jurisdiction from the Moscow Patriarchate to the then-officially unrecognized Kyiv Patriarchate. Since the establishment of the independent Ukraine Orthodox Church on Dec. 15, 2018, an additional 86 religious communities from both the east and west of the country have joined the new church.

Today, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is comprised of 7,000 parishes. These numbers will grow because the process of parishes breaking from the Moscow Patriarchate is driven at the grassroots level and will continue. A recently captured video showing public support for the announcement of a decision by the Metropolitan of the Svyato-Preobrazhenskyi Cathedral in Vinnytsya to join the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church exemplifies this trend.

While Ukrainians long for peace and freedom from oppression, the cold hard reality on the ground in Ukraine is that Russia remains intent on aggression toward Ukraine and subjugation of the Ukrainian people. For the Kremlin, an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is intolerable.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko celebrates the formal split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Russian Orthodox Church.Photo: Embassy of Ukraine

In this vein, Ukrainian law enforcement and security authorities recently uncovered Russian efforts to distribute printed materials inciting religious hostility. In connection with a formal investigation, Ukrainian authorities lawfully seized from the premises of Moscow Patriarchate clergy within Ukraine a playbook for subversion in the form of brochures titled “UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH: Relations with the Government. Position on Ukraine’s Anti-terrorist Operation and Church dissent. Q&A”. These materials contain propaganda of religious intolerance. To counteract this campaign and instigations toward violence, Ukrainian authorities have enacted programs to educate people about malign operations in Ukraine organized by the Kremlin.

Russia’s failure to respect religious freedom is well understood and denounced by the international community. For example, on Nov. 28, 2018, the U.S. State Department designated Russia on a special watch list for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Now in its fifth year, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken more than 10,000 lives. In this conflict, Russia has waged war on all fronts, including through disinformation and inciting intolerance. Ukraine, like all nations, has a right to defend itself. Ukrainian leaders also have an obligation to protect the basic freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, including the freedom of religion, universally recognized as a fundamental right by Western countries.

By granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has both officially restored the historical alignment of the Orthodox faith in the region and strengthened the liberal world order.

Valeriy Chaly is Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States.




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