Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church independent from Russia but not its own government?

While the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has emerged on the world stage as the legitimate and canonical church supported by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, at home the new church faces old rivalries as well as the perception that it is receiving inappropriate support from the government, writes Katherine Younger in IWMpost (Spring/Summer), the publication of the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences. Last January, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was freed from longtime Russian control when Constantinople agreed to give it canonical status. Shortly afterwards, the OCU replaced two churches that had been established parts of the Ukrainian religious landscape but not recognized by the global Orthodox community. Yet the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is still going strong, with nearly twice as many parishes as the OCU. Fewer than five percent of the Moscow Patriarchate churches have opted to join the OCU, and they are usually in the western and central part of Ukraine. More troubling to observers, however, is the way that the new OCU and Ukraine’s government have been referring to new ties between church and state, conflicting with Ukraine’s longtime support for church-state separation going back to its independence.

Younger writes that one of Ukraine’s strengths was widely held to be its view that the church was not linked to the state, as in the Russian case, but to the people. This resulted in greater religious pluralism in Ukraine than in its surrounding countries with state-sponsored churches. But political discourse in Ukraine has taken on a pro-OCU strain, especially evident in the reelection campaign of former president Petro Poroshenko, who spoke of the OCU’s independence being crucial for the Ukrainian state’s own independence and national security. The head of the OCU, Metropolitan Epifanii, echoed such sentiments, saying “Without a unified, nationally independent Orthodox church, we cannot build a strong, powerful, European, independent Ukrainian state.” To add to the church’s potential problems, the OCU’s pursuit of independence (known as “autocephaly”) became associated not only with the state but specifically with Poroshenko’s failed campaign. This has been leading to “popular enthusiasm [about the independence of the OCU] giving way to mistrust and apathy” among the public, according to Younger. She concludes that in order to “consolidate its internationally recognized status as the sole legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the OCU hierarchy will have to figure out a way to overcome this perception” of too close an association between the church and the state.

(IWMpost, Spittelauer Lände 3, 1090 Vienna, Austria,