On an overcast day in April, staff members at the municipal museum in this eastern Ukrainian town noticed strange goings-on next door at a cultural center run by the Ukrainian arm of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Groups of burly men nobody recognized entered the building, known as Villa Maria, carrying big canvas bags and wooden boxes. “We didn’t know who they were or what they were doing,” recalled Valery Stupko, a museum employee.
The next morning, he said, heavily armed masked men emerged from the same church cultural center and made their way on foot through back alleys to Slovyansk’s main police station. Within minutes, they had seized the police station and helped ignite what became a brush fire of assaults by pro-Russian rebels on Ukrainian security and government buildings across the east of the country.
The Russian Orthodox Church, like the Kremlin, has strenuously denied any role in stirring up or aiding separatist turmoil in Ukraine. But as Slovyansk and other towns seized by pro-Russian rebels have fallen over the summer to a since-stalled Ukrainian government offensive in the east, evidence has begun to accumulate of close ties between the church, or at least individual Orthodox priests, and the pro-Russian cause.
“They were working hand in hand,” said Victor Butko, the pro-Ukrainian editor of a small newspaper here shut down by the rebels during their nearly three-month occupation of the town. He said priests at an Orthodox church in the center of town often blessed the rebel fighters and let them store ammunition on church grounds.
Since they began their drive to grab chunks of territory back in April, pro-Russian insurgents have repeatedly shifted their political agenda, undecided over whether they want eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia, an independent country or an autonomous region of Ukraine in a loose federal state.
Throughout, however, leaders have declared themselves bearers of the banner of “Holy Rus,” both a theological concept akin to the Kingdom of Heaven and a reference to a state in the Middle Ages that comprised the territory of modern Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.
Embracing Orthodox Christianity as a force to unite these now divided Slavic lands and also their own fractured movement, the rebels, fortified recently by an influx of weapons and soldiers from Russia, used their period in power here purging Slovyansk of rival Christian denominations.
They seized the Good News Church, a large evangelical complex, moving in Russian icons and replacing Protestant services with Orthodox ones. They parked tanks in the center’s gardens and, blessed by Russian Orthodox priests chanting prayers, began lobbing shells at Ukrainian forces outside town. When the rebels fled, they needed two big trucks to haul all their weaponry.
Petr Dudnik, the Good News Church pastor, said he did not know who exactly was behind the takeover but said it fit into a long campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church to portray competing denominations, particularly evangelicals, as a heretical fifth column inspired and financed by the United States.
The Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, traces its origins to the earliest Christian church established by the Apostles and, shaped by the different histories and cultures of its main strongholds in the eastern Mediterranean and Slavic lands, comprises a wide range of divergent views and political attachments. But unlike the Rome-based Catholic Church, from which it split in the schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church is divided into autonomous branches, with the Moscow patriarchate a particularly conservative and, in territory it judges bound to Russia by history, language and faith, assertive force.
“We cannot ignore the fact that the conflict in the Ukraine has unambiguous religious overtones” Patriarch Kirill I, the Moscow-based head of the Russian church and its Ukrainian affiliate, wrote in a recent appeal to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, the Orthodox faith’s most senior cleric. Accusing rival churches, including a breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox church, of persecuting believers who obey the Moscow patriarchate, he cast efforts by the Ukrainian military to confront Russian-backed rebels as a religious war intended to “overpower the canonical Orthodox Church.”
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