Eastern Orthodox Christians distance themselves from Russian-backed churches

A Sunday service takes place in the St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 25, the first Sunday of the Great Lent, also known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is the mother church of the Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, competing for dominance in Ukraine with a Russian-led orthodox church with a center in Moscow.KIEV, Ukraine – Rev. Andriy Lototskiy faced perhaps the toughest decision in his life: he had to choose between his faith and his flock.

Lototskiy had been preaching for 14 years at the Church of St. Volodymyr in the small village of Strilche in western Ukraine. Then in the summer of 2014 – as pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine sought independence from the central government in the capital – his parishioners turned against him and demanded he surrender the keys to his church.

There was nothing wrong with his preaching. It was what he represented.

Lototskiy was a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the largest faith community in the East European country. The problem was, his church owes fealty to the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. His congregants had joined a wave of conversions to an alternative, Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church founded in 1992.

“I came to my church and heard them pray for Kirill,” recalled Maria Satayeva, a 36-year-old German language teacher who also left her Russian-affiliated church in Kiev in 2014. “I couldn’t be there anymore.”

In Ukraine, some 70 percent of population identify as Eastern Orthodox Christians. Among believers, the rest mostly belong to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church or Protestant churches.

The original Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been subordinate to Moscow since the 17th century, when Ukraine was made part of the Russian Empire. The relationship continued after the country broke from the Soviet Union.

But those ties started to cause problems in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and instigated an ongoing armed conflict in the eastern part of the country that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Moscow’s meddling occurred in the wake of President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who fled the country in 2014 after a groundswell of protests against his corrupt rule.

Now many Orthodox parishioners in Ukraine are distancing themselves from Russian-backed church whose hierarchs are a key pillar of support for Putin’s policies.

Leaders of the Moscow-backed church denied that Russia exerted political influence on them. “People go to church for prayers, not politics,” said Archbishop Kliment of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church who is based in Kiev. “Our churches have no connection to the modern Russian state.”

After much careful thinking, Lototskiy decided to stay with his flock and switch allegiance to the Kiev patriarchate. It wasn’t a painless decision. “All my friends turned away from me in the beginning,” he said, referring to other priests from his old church. “They said I betrayed the true church.”

Around 60 parishes have switched to the Kiev-centered church since 2014. The leadership of the Moscow patriarchate says the transfers were illegal. They have never recognized their Kievan rival, which formed amid a revival of Ukrainian nationalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Neither has the preeminent Orthodox Christian leader, the patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.

The absence of the Constantinople patriarch’s recognition is a major reason for parishioners and priests to stay within old Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to Ivan Sydor, a Kiev patriarchate priest. “I’m sure that many priests [in the Moscow-backed church] will move to the Kiev church the day after it gets recognition,” Sydor said.

But the chances to get recognition from the Constantinople patriarchate anytime soon aren’t high.

“Moscow has influence on Constantinople,” said Sydor. “If the Ukrainian church is recognized, Moscow can break away from Constantinople and proclaim itself the new center of Orthodox Christianity.”

The stakes in the rivalry are high. The two churches are vying for the souls of nearly 30 million people, according to recent surveys.

It is hard to estimate which one actually has more parishioners. The Moscow-backed church has 12,300 parishes against the independent church’s 5,100 parishes.

Some 27 percent of all Ukrainians identified with the indigenous church in 2017, while 21 percent chose the Moscow patriarchy, according to a joint survey by four Kiev-based pollsters.

But the absence of results from Crimea and the war-torn territories in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian church is popular, probably distort the polls.

One of the most striking examples of the rivalry came this January when a priest of the Moscow-backed church refused to conduct a burial ceremony for a child who was baptized in the Kiev patriarchate church despite the parents’ begging. The incident sparked a national scandal.

Soon after, a Moscow patriarchate church in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv burned down. Its priest blamed the arson on nationalist protesters who picketed the church shortly before the blaze.

Around the same time, two protesters set a Moscow patriarchate chapel in Kiev on fire. The protesters told Ukrainian media the attack wasn’t about religion but about “Russia stealing Ukraine’s history” since the chapel was standing on the historic site of an ancient church.

Some parishioners are weary of the rivalry between the two churches. The polls show that about 25 percent of Ukrainians refuse to pick one of the churches, identifying as simply Eastern Orthodox.

One of them is Ievgenii Gryban, a Kiev musician. He used to go to a church of the Kiev patriarchate. But he grew sick of the priest talking politics from the pulpit. “He was saying smart things that I agree with, but I don’t think they belonged in a church,” Gryban said.

He switched to a church allied with the Moscow patriarchate. “I don’t think the God cares if the church is of Moscow or Kiev allegiance,” he said.

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