Religion is a major component of cultural identity in Eastern Europe, and central to the designs of Russia on Ukraine.
For decades there has been an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, but it was considered non-canonical and out of communion with the rest of the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church (via its quasi-autonomous “Ukrainian” sub-church) was the only canonical church in Ukraine.
Today that changed.
You hear sometimes that there are 150 million Russian Orthodox, which is goofy as there are only 144 million Russians. Even if the number includes the Orthodox in former states of the Soviet Union (many of which states are Muslim with a Russian minority), still, not everyone is Orthodox. A more realistic study puts the number at 59 million — 41% of the population of Russia. (This number does not include the small Russian populations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the other Turkic, Muslim states.)
It’s still the largest Orthodox Church, but there are 30 million Ukrainians who identify as Orthodox in a population of 44 million. Thus there are ½ as many Ukrainian Orthodox as there are Russian Orthodox. (Ukraine has a more traditional, less Sovietized population than Russia; in Ukraine institutions, including religious institutions, have survived outside the all encompassing party propaganda apparatus of the USSR.) After that, the numbers drop precipitously — 16 million in the Romanian church, 10 million in the Greek church, 8 million in the Bulgarian Church, and 8 million in the Serbian Church. The rest of the churches are minuscule. But the Russians are much less than half of the total Orthodox.
The Orthodox Church started, well, with Christ, and its language (like that of the New Testament) was Greek. There were very early bishops in Caesaria, in the Middle East, no later than 130 (the bishops of Jerusalem were subordinate to them). When Constantine adopted Christianity for the Roman Empire in the 300s, his capital was in Constantinople. In 451 the four “ancient” Patriarchs were established in the Orthodox Church. These were in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. All remain to this day Greek Patriarchs.
However, in 630 Mohammed took Mecca, and now all four ancient Patriarchs are in Muslim lands. The Constantinople Patriarch, “first among equals,” in modern-day Turkey, controls the Greek diaspora, the monastery complex of Mt Athos, a sliver of northern Greece, and Crete. The control of the diaspora, especially in North America, is crucial to this story. For this reason, the Patriarch of Constantinople has 3.5 million members, while Antioch has 1.8 million (many in Syria but also Lebanon), Jerusalem has 500,000 (mainly Palestinians), and Alexandria has 300,000. There is an additional Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Cyprus, dating to 478, with 500,000 members.
The Constantinople Patriarch as “first among equals” is a sort of honorary leader of the Orthodox World, and is therefore also called the Ecumenical Patriarch. This is an analogous but not directly synonymous use of the term, “ecumenical,” as it refers to dialogue among churches.
The rest of the Orthodox are Slavic (with minor exceptions, including the Romanians, the 3.5 million Georgian Orthodox, and the 700,000 Albanian Orthodox). The Slavs are split between Orthodox and Catholic, with Ukrainian Greek Catholics (as opposed to Roman Catholics) being in the middle, and being Orthodox in much of their practice, and in communion with the Pope in Rome.
The Orthodox Slavs are Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Belarusian (controlled by Moscow), and Russian. (Macedonians and Montenegrins now want their own churches, independent from Bulgaria and Serbia respectively, as they have established their own countries after the break-up of Yugoslavia.) The Roman Catholic Slavs are Polish, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, and Slovenian. Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, while Roman Catholic, are not Slavs but Baltic peoples closely related to the Slavs.
In Poland and in Czechia-Moravia/Slovakia (the former Czechoslovakia), there are Orthodox Churches that serve the mostly Ukrainian population in the east of those counties, but these are tiny churches of 500,000 and 100,000 respectively.
Generally in the Slavic and Baltic lands, as in the Muslim lands, religion is taken much more seriously than in traditional Roman Catholic countries like Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria and (the southern half of) Germany, or in Greece. The exception is the Czechs, who like the neighboring Germans are much more secular in outlook and personal belief.
All of the Slavic Orthodox churches (as well as Romania and Albania) were once subject to the jurisdiction of Constantinople. So was Greece, but Greece became its own separate Greek church in 1860. Thus Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cyprus, and Greece itself form the Greek churches.
Until 2019, there were fourteen Orthodox Churches.
Now there is a fifteenth: Ukraine.
I don’t know enough about the Turkey/Russia rivalry in the “Turkestan” states of the former USSR or in Syria, to comment in what role the fact that Constantinople is geographically Istanbul may play. The ethic Tatars of Crimea are Turkic, long allied with the Ottomans, and have been persecuted since the Russians took over the peninsula.
To understand why Constantinople is duking it out with Moscow in Ukraine today, it’s important to bear in mind two things. First, the long-simmering skirmishes between Constantinople and Russia in North America and Europe. Second, the role of the Catholic Church.
But third, and most importantly, it’s vital to see the role of Moscow in Ukraine, and to recall that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was liquidated by the Soviets, its leaders imprisoned and shot, and the same fate befell the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Then, during the Maidan in 2014, when people were being shot and killed by the dozen in the center of Kiev, members of the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches took their side, whereas the Russian church in Ukraine aligned itself with the shooters, then in Kiev, and later in Crimea and Donbas (Eastern Ukraine), where the war has already killed 10,000, displaced hundreds of thousands and takes more lives every week. Priests from the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches stood together aside the protesters on stage and prayed with them to remain strong, even as the government snipers were shooting at the crowds.
This smelting experience of aggression from Moscow was the catalyst that caused many people to resolve that the strong and historic religious ties between the Ukrainian and Russian churches must be broken. Ironically, all of Russia’s (frequently violent and generally repressive) involvement in Ukraine was intended specifically to prevent this break from happening. Russia, it must be admitted, is repressive toward its own citizens and does not allow free political parties or press. Moscow even regulates rap music. Russia includes Ukraine in its policy of “Holy Russia,” which is based on Russian language, Russian culture and Russian religion. The Russians trace their religion to 988, when Volodymyr who lived in Kiev (in Russian, Vladimir), adopted Christianity from Constantinople. In other words, the cradle of Russian Christianity is in Ukraine. In the early centuries, Moscow received its culture and religion from Kiev, until in time, militarily superior, Russia coopted Kiev’s historical role.
Putin’s policy of the “Russian World” is founded on language and religion.
But Kiev was part of the Polish-Lithuanian state for many centuries, and within this political context the Ukrainian language developed separately from Russian. Today Ukrainian is no more similar to Russian than Spanish is to French; in many ways Ukrainian is closer to Slovak than to Russian.
The skirmishes in the West
Ukrainians came to North America in waves, before the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the upheaval of World War II. The Russian Revolution and World War II also led to fractures in tsarist or Soviet domination by Moscow in Ukraine, resulting in the attempted establishment of an independent Orthodox Church on both occasions.
Ukraine itself had been divided between the Russian and Austrian empires – with those Ukrainians living in the far west of Ukraine, in the Austrian Empire (a Roman Catholic empire based in Vienna) maintaining a Greek Catholic identity, whereas those who remained in the Russian Empire were generally Orthodox.
Greek Catholics from the west made up a large portion of the Ukrainians who went to North America. The Canadians encouraged Austrians to immigrate, including Ukrainians, and Ukrainians were the pioneers who were the first Europeans to settle and farm the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. To this day they are the majority in many counties there, dominant landowners, who make up 15% of the population. They are evenly split between Greek Catholics and Orthodox in these areas.
North American Ukrainians had two creeds. For the Greek Catholics, it was no to celibacy. For the Orthodox, it was no to Russia. When Roman Catholics tried to impose celibacy on the Greek Catholics (whose priests like those of the Orthodox are generally married), Greek Catholics became Orthodox. When Orthodox bishops tried to direct Ukrainians to Russian churches, they rebelled and went without bishops. So for many years there were Ukrainian Orthodox churches in both the US and Canada who were without bishops recognized by the “canonical” churches and hence outside the “apostolic succession.”
In North America there are 1.5 million Greek Orthodox, about 400,000 of whom belong to the Greek Orthodox Church here (the rest are not inscribed as members of the church but may attend on holy days), which is subject not to Athens but to Constantinople and is a major financial pillar of the Constantinople Patriarch.
In 1990 the Ukrainian Orthodox of Canada joined the Constantinople Patriarch. In 1996 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA did the same. This ended up having an important impact on events recently in Ukraine, as I will describe in a moment.
The USSR was an officially atheist state and murdered countless bishops and priests. Many hundreds of thousands of Russians left Russia and lived in North America or Europe. The émigrés did not recognize the “puppet” Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and therefore, like the Ukrainians, were non-canonical. Early on in Paris, however, the Russian bishops joined the Constantinople Patriarch. The Russians in North America remained non-canonical until recently, when they re-joined Moscow.
Under Putin Moscow went from persecuting the church to co-opting it, and making religion a central piece in Putin’s “Russian World.” The “Russian World” policy applies to places like eastern Ukraine that are outside the Russian state. It is founded on language and religion.
The newly assertive Putin-backed Moscow Patriarch began to try to reclaim the Russian churches of Europe from Constantinople. After protracted litigation, the Moscow Patriarch reclaimed the iconic tsarist-era Russian church in Nice. The real gem, the tsarist-era Paris church on rue Daru, associated with Turgenev, Tchaikovsky and other luminaries of Russian culture, where Picasso married his first wife with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire as groomsman — still remains with the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was historically the headquarters of the Exarchate — or church within a church — of the Russian church within the Constantinople Church.
The Paris Russian church, through its seminary St Sergius, was a leader in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholics, something the Patriarch of Constantinople also encourages but the Moscow church, especially under Putin, is fiercely hostile toward.
The role of the Catholics
When in 1596, the Ukrainians became Greek Catholic, it wasn’t only in the west. It was in theory all the Ukrainians. The Orthodox Metropolitan (highest ecclesiastical leader) in Kiev became Greek Catholic. Not everyone went along, of course, and many remained Orthodox.
Pope John Paul II called Ukraine the “laboratory of ecumenicalism.”
Pope Francis was mentored as a young person by a Ukrainian Catholic priest in Buenos Aires, and is deeply familiar with the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church, which was under his jurisdiction as Archbishop of Buenos Aires..
Pope Francis and the Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew have been in ecumenical dialogue for years.
Pope Francis has 1.3 billion Catholics and the Patriarch of Constantinople has 3.5 million adherents, so it’s not exactly equal. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but the Ukrainian Greek Catholics (who number 4 million in Ukraine, or more than the Patriarch of Constantinople’s church) are vocal and adamant proponents of an independent, canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine, so — in the words of the Greek Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk — the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine can “speak the truth” together with the Greek Catholic Church, in opposition to corruption, authoritarianism and Russian propaganda.
The Russians have reacted with predicable bile, anger, threats and false statements to the Tomos (charter) for Ukraine to have its own church. But they have also taken the astonishing step of cutting communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Mt Athos, a secluded, mountainous, monastic peninsula in Greece, is a pilgrimage for the Orthodox and is jurisdictionally directly under the Patriarch of Constantinople. Putin and the Russians have adopted it as a sort of hajj, and Putin has not only visited as a pilgrim, but oligarchs close to him have invested tens of millions of dollars in renovating old churches and monasteries there. Now they can no longer go to Athos or pray in the churches there, by the decree of their own church.
The new leader of the newly canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church is Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is young (age 39) and has — by choice — never even been to Moscow. Unlike most Orthodox in Ukraine, his spiritual preparation outside Ukraine was in Greece not Russia.
When he received the Tomos (charter) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Patriarch he thanked three men — Metropolitan Emmanuel of Paris, Archbishop Daniel of Chicago, and Archbishop Ilarion of Edmonton.
Understanding who these men are gives some insight into how the Tomos for Ukraine came about, against Putin’s fervent opposition. These three men can be considered the architects of the Tomos on behalf of Constantinople.
Emmanuel (Adamakis) is the Metropolitan for France, based on rue Georges Bizet in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris. He was born in Crete and attended both the St Sergius Orthodox seminary in Paris known for its ecumenicalism and the Catholic Institute of Paris, a leading Roman Catholic seminary for France. Emmanuel received his masters degree from the Greek seminary (Patriarch of Constantinople) in Brookline, Mass — the Greek seminary for all North America. When the Russians broke communion recently with the Constantinople Patriarch, the Constantinople Church dissolved the Exarchate of the Russian Church in Western Europe. Thus, there is no longer a church within the church (the way the Ukrainians still have in Canada and the US) but the Russian churches in Western Europe report directly to the local Greek bishop, and only through the structure of the Greek church are they connected to each other. The Russians cannot pressure the Exarchate as a whole to join Moscow, as there is no longer an Exarchate. The famous rue Daru church is within Emmanuel’s jurisdiction.
Archbishop Daniel (Zelinsky) was born in Ternopil Region, Ukraine, completed his theology degree in 1993, then studied at the Catholic University in DC before studying at the Ukrainian Orthodox seminary in Bound Brook, New Jersey, which was by then part of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Bishop Ilarion (Rudnyk) was born in 1972 in Lviv, Ukraine. “With the recommendation of Archbishop Vsevolod (Maidanski) of Skopelos and the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Archontonis) of Constantinople, Roman then moved to Greece to continue his theological studies at the theological faculty of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, from which he graduated in 1997 … In early 2005, Archimandrite Ilarion (Rudnyk) was chosen by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to be a bishop … In 2008, at the request of Metropolitan John (Stinka) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, on 21 October, 2008, Bishop Ilarion (Rudnyk) was chosen to be the Bishop of Edmonton and Western Canada.” (From Orthodox Canada website.)
Thus all three men who brought the Tomos to life have deep familiarity with the Russians, and two are born in Ukraine but bishops in the church of the Greek Patriarch.
How many people
In Ukraine, 12.5 million people belong to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Another 10.5 million call themselves Orthodox, without previously aligning with the Ukrainian or Russian church. 5.7 million belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. In total, there are 30 million people in Ukraine who Moscow considers to be rightfully Russian Orthodox. There are additionally 4 million Greek Catholics in Ukraine. There are 200,000 Ukrainian Greek Catholics in North America, and 150,000 Ukrainian Orthodox in North America.
The Russian Orthodox Church has 34,764 parishes. 12,092 of these belong to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (34.78%).
Since the Ukrainian Church was recognized as canonical, however, many parishes have been voting to leave the Russian Church & join the Ukrainian one, led by two Metropolitans (rank similar to archbishop) who left the Russian Church on December 15, 2018.
Thus the Russian Church stands to lose almost a third of its parishes (but not the entire 34.78% as it would would retain the parishes in occupied Crimea and Donbas). In Crimea and Donbas, the Russians have closed, looted and confiscated Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, harassed the Ukrainian priests and employed paramilitary forces to prevent Ukrainians from gathering to worship. Russia does not permit freedom of worship for those who wish to attend the Ukrainian Church, but only Russian Orthodoxy is permitted.
Other than Constantinople, the churches of Georgia, Romania and Greece are thought most likely to recognize Ukraine’s Church in the short-term.
988 Kiev adopts Byzantine (Greek) Christianity
1686 Kiev (Ukraine) Church is transferred to jurisdiction of Moscow with Constantinople’s consent
2019 Kiev (Ukraine) Church granted independence by Constantinople
“War in the name of religion is war against religion,” the Patriarch of Constantinople said.
The cardinal difference between the Constantinople and Moscow churches of this day is the interpretation of religion in the political sphere. The Russian church is close to the Kremlin, which is aggressively waging war on neighboring states.
The Constantinople church is dedicated to fostering understanding and peace among diverse branches of the church.
“How can we pray in a church that not only fails to condemn the Kremlin’s war on our country, but whose priests affirmatively bless the missiles that are being shot at us?” is a regular question Ukrainians ask.
Thus, the debate is not simply a dispute between two churches, but a dispute between two different moral codes.