Orthodox religious politics are often Byzantine. Yet the earthly repercussions of the split between the Ukrainian and Russian churches could be severe.

Orthodox religious politics are often Byzantine. Yet the earthly repercussions of the split between the Ukrainian and Russian churches could be severe.

This past weekend marked a new escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine — from a surprising quarter. As much of the Eastern Orthodox world celebrated Christmas, the world head of the Orthodox Church officially recognized the independence of the Ukrainian church from Russia. And Russia is not happy about it.

But while the move is widely seen as a political blow to Moscow, it also created the kind of legal fuzziness that Russian foreign policy has thrived on — an opportunity to claim the moral high ground in an ambiguous situation and to blend propaganda with an entire spectrum of coercive actions — and set in motion possible pretexts for renewed violence.

Amid heavy incense and solemn church music, politics was on full display on Sunday in the ornate St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, seat of the Istanbul patriarchate since the 16th century. There, the new Ukrainian patriarch, and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, received the decree granting independence from Russia to Ukraine’s recently restructured church.

“I want to thank the millions of Ukrainians around the world who responded to my appeal to pray for the church to be established,” Poroshenko, who is seeking re-election in March, said after the elaborate ceremony.

Yet the Russian Orthodox Church, backed by the Kremlin, has already warned of “blood.” Against the backdrop of a recent naval confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, mutual recriminations, and widespread fears of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine, those threats seem far from hollow.

Among other practical issues that are certain to spring up, Russia has numerous church properties in Ukraine that could possibly be expropriated by the Kiev government — a humiliation and a loss that Russia would find hard to swallow.

“A lot will depend upon how the various political actors play the situation, much more than the church leaders,” George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology and an expert in Eastern Orthodoxy at Fordham University, told WhoWhatWhy in an email.  

“Will the Ukrainian president be aggressive? How will local bureaucrats, most of whom are very secular, respond [to] various claims for property in their communities? How will the Russian state act? … Again, it’s very difficult to predict.”

The minutiae of Orthodox religious politics are truly Byzantine. The argument that the Russian church serves Russian government interests more often than not rings true — but there is hardly an Orthodox church that isn’t subordinated to its government.

For many centuries — since even before Orthodoxy and Catholicism officially parted ways in the eleventh century — Orthodox churches have had a tradition of being dominated by their governments and the divergent politics of those governments.

While the Istanbul patriarchate is the nominal leader of the Orthodox world, its legal status is that of “first among equals”: it enjoys little to none of the power that the Vatican has in the Catholic world, for example. It is not allowed to meddle in the affairs of other Orthodox churches, and there is an argument to be made that the Russian Orthodox Church — which has dominated the Ukrainian church for about three centuries — is the one that should decide the issue of Ukrainian independence.

Much of the legal debate has therefore pivoted around the status of the document with which the Ukrainian church was originally subordinated to that in Moscow, back in the 17th century.

The Istanbul patriarchate is already having a hard time selling its decision to other Orthodox churches, and the move threatens to create a “schism” inside the Orthodox world. The churches of Antioch, Serbia, and Bulgaria are some of the largest to date to have opposed or voiced reservations toward the independence of the new Ukrainian patriarchate and the legitimacy of its leader.

Schisms in Eastern Orthodoxy are nothing new: until recently, just in Ukraine there were three separate Orthodox churches, each accusing the others of being illegitimate (and only the one dominated by Russia universally recognized). Yet now, on one side of the split is the most populous church in the Orthodox world, the Russian church (with some 150 million followers), backed by the most powerful military in the Orthodox world. On the other side is what is now the second-most populous Orthodox church, backed by the nominal leader of Eastern Orthodoxy and NATO.

Experts say that, eventually, the wider Orthodox community is likely to accept Ukrainian church independence.

“In twenty or thirty years, I suspect that the majority of the autocephalous leaders will all recognize an autocephalous Ukraine, even if there remains an overlapping jurisdictional dispute in Ukraine, wherein some communities follow Moscow-appointed bishops and some communities follow Kiev-appointed bishops,” Demacopoulos added.

But the earthly politics surrounding the ecclesiastical split are highly explosive. While the church bells were ringing on Sunday in Istanbul, the USS Fort McHenry passed through the Bosphorus strait, which splits the magnificent Turkish city in two. It was the first US warship to enter the Black Sea since Russia seized three Ukrainian ships in November, with a mission to show support for “NATO allies” in the region. With Russia on edge and Ukraine’s military forces on high alert amid rising nationalist sentiments ahead of key presidential and parliamentary elections this year, one can only hope that Christmas prayers for peace, an indelible part of every Orthodox liturgy, are sincere enough and will be heard.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Kirill (Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 3.0) and Epiphanius (President of Ukraine / Wikimedia – CC BY 4.0).


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