Faith and Identity In Ukraine

TENT CITY IN KIEV: In January 2014, protesters controlled Independence Square and called for the protection of human rights. (Photo © Alexandco.)
TENT CITY IN KIEV: In January 2014, protesters controlled Independence Square and called for the protection of human rights. (Photo © Alexandco.)

The scenes at Kiev’s Independence Square in November and December 2013 remain vivid in my mind. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision, under Russian pressure, to walk away from a cooperative agreement with the European Union. A tent city quickly arose on the square—which Ukrainians refer to as the Maidan—and other protesters occupied nearby government buildings. But in February 2014, when the security forces tried to clear the square, shots rang out. More than a hundred protesters died, as well as several dozen police officers, before President Yanukovych yielded power and fled the country.

Christian churches played a major role in these events. Bearded priests in liturgical garments opened and closed the day on the square by chanting prayers from the huge stage on which protest leaders rallied support. As the confrontation intensified, priests and monks entered the no man’s land between the protesters and the security forces, held icons and crosses, and prayed for peace. Parishes provided food and medical supplies. Church leaders called for a government that would respect human rights and the rule of law. Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers came together to envision a nation freed from the clutches of political and economic corruption.

The events on the Maidan have led to calls to establish a national Ukrainian church, and much in Ukrainian history and culture suggests that such a church could help unite the country. But Ukrainians differ as to which of their churches should play this role, and any effort to establish a national church might only deepen religious divisions and stoke narrow nationalistic political tendencies.

Moreover, the principal challenge before Ukrainian Christians today is how to work for reconciliation within a wounded nation, while overcoming the deep alienation that now separates Ukrainians and Russians. The way in which the churches relate Ukraine’s need for national identity to the universal horizon of the Christian gospel will determine how well they succeed in this task.

The word Ukraine means borderlands, and many neighboring societies and invading military forces have shaped these borderlands for many centuries, including Greeks, Poles, Germans, Tartars, Jews, and Russians. The religious makeup is equally diverse.

That diversity includes Protestants, who, though only 1 to 2 percent of the population, enjoy a public presence that would be unimaginable in Russia or Belarus. The former mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskyi, attended an evangelical megachurch headed by a charismatic Nigerian pastor. The current head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, is a Baptist. Numerous Protes­tant training institutes have sprung up, such as the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and REALIS in Kiev. And Protestants have taken the lead in rebuilding homes in areas devastated by the war with the separatists.

However, the country’s religious life is dominated by four distinct Christian entities, and each could and does make a case for being the national church of Ukraine: the Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patri­archate, and a much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

At the Union of Brest in 1596, Orthodox bishops in areas dominated by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the pope in Rome while retaining their Byzantine Orthodox forms of worship. Their churches became the Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic Church. In the 17th century, the remainder of the Orthodox Church in what is now Ukraine came under the influence and then the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate after having related to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.

After the 1917 October Revolution, nationalists saw an opportunity for Ukrainian independence. A group broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church to form the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, a move supported by the Bolsheviks, who welcomed any measure to weaken religion, whether by external persecution or internal division. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, however, never attained canonical church status, nor did it attract the majority of Ukrainian Orthodox believers.

At the end of World War II, Stalin, with the cooperation of the Russian Orthodox Church (itself under firm control of the state), brutally liquidated the Greek Catholic Church in parts of Poland that the Soviet Union had annexed to Ukraine. Parishes were forced to become Russian Orthodox or be closed. Church leaders were arrested; most died in prison camps or were exiled. What remained of Greek Catholic Church life went underground. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church experienced a similar fate.

Only in the late 1980s did these two churches reemerge. But an unsettled legal situation resulted in vicious battles over property rights, especially between Greek Catholics and Russian Orthodox in western Ukraine. Matters grew even more complex with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state.

In 1992, another group broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church to form the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate. Like the Ukrainian Auto­cephalous Orthodox Church, it does not have the official recognition of other Orthodox bodies.

Two wings formed within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate. One group sought even greater independence from Moscow while the other supported unity. The Greek Catholics were also pulled in different directions; some were more oriented to Latin practices, while others called for recovering the church’s historic Orthodox, Slavonic roots, while remaining loyal to Rome.

Today, these churches have different regional strengths. The Greek Catholic Church is prominent in the west of the country, while the Autocephalous Church is concentrated in and around Kiev. The Kyivan Patriarchate is strong in both the center and the west. Moscow Patriarchate parishes are distributed more evenly, but dominate in the east and south.

Rates of affiliation are harder to measure. The Greek Catholic Church is estimated to attract 8 to 10 percent of the population, while the different Orthodox churches represent more than 50 percent. The Moscow Patriarchate has the most parishes and almost all of the country’s Orthodox monasteries, but some surveys suggest that the Kyivan Patriarchate now exceeds it in the number of adherents. Nevertheless, many Ukrainians would be unable to say clearly what distinguishes one of these churches from another. People as easily drop into one parish as another to light candles or venerate icons.

In recent years, Ukrainian churches have put aside much of their divisive history and joined the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. There, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have worked effectively on issues of common social concern. The churches have become remarkably united around two sets of issues: cautious economic integration of Ukraine with the West and a conservative moral agenda, such as restricting abortion, rejecting same-sex marriage, and advocating religious education in public schools. Prior to the protests of 2013, leaders of the Greek Catholic Church enjoyed warm relations with Vladimir (Sabodan), the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate, who skillfully held the different factions of his own church together.

At the national level, relations between Russia and Ukraine have been highly charged since the departure of Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea to Russia, and the violent battles with Russian-supported eastern separatists. Many Russians regarded Ukraine as a “little Russia” whose language is nothing more than a village dialect of Russian. Even such prominent “democratic” figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Gorbachev viewed the dissolution of the Soviet Union as—in Vladimir Putin’s words—“a geopolitical tragedy,” because Ukraine (and Belarus) split off from Russia.

Russians and Ukrainians fought side by side in World War II; their cultures have common Slavic and Orthodox roots; their countries share a border of nearly 1,500 miles; and familial bonds run deep. By some estimates, a third of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, while a quarter of Russians have relatives in Ukraine. Many Russians saw the Maidan revolution as anti-Russian and led by ultranationalist Ukrainians. Most Ukrainians see it differently. However close their nation is culturally and historically to Russia, Ukrainians have a distinct language and national identity that their bigger, sometimes overbearing neighbor has too often been unwilling to acknowledge. Even most Russian-speaking Ukrainians have supported national independence. In contrast to Russian-speakers in Crimea, eastern Ukrainians, even those who support the separatists, do not aspire to union with Russia.

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SOURCE: The Christian Century
John Burgess

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