For worshipers in Ukraine attending mass in one of the 12,000 parishes of the Orthodox Church under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, the sermons they hear raise questions. Why would the local priest be preaching “pacifist gospels at a time when the defensive strategy of the country rested on mobilizing civilians to fight?”

The messaging has raised suspicions for some, especially as Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, took the early stance that the country is “called to stop this evil in Eastern Ukraine. Because if we Ukrainians won’t stop this, it will spread into other territories.”

Tensions between the two branches of the Orthodox Church have reached a breaking point, and lay worshipers are caught in the middle of the political (and physical) battle.

An independent church

Before 2019, Ukraine had three separate Orthodox churches all making claims to their primacy: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Only the Moscow-based church was recognized as legitimate in the global Orthodox community.

Ukrainians had been advocating for the self-governance of their churches since the nation gained independence in 1991. In 2018, the Ukrainian president at that time, Petro Poroshenko, again called for the independence of the church, saying “I believe it is absolutely necessary to cut off all tentacles with which the aggressor country operates inside our state organism.” He faulted the Russian church for its unconditional support of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

In January 2019, tensions grew as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the church in Istanbul and believers worldwide, issued a document that completed the process of unification between the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches and recognized their independent legitimacy. The historic action removed Ukraine from the Russian jurisdiction; a power they had been under since 1686.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the lead-up to this decision, warned that the separation could “turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed.”

Patriarch Kirill, of Moscow

The head of Russia’s Orthodoxy was born in November 1946 in a Leningrad apartment to a family of priests and academics. Kirill had been an officer for the KGB around the same time as Putin. He never apologized for his ties with the agency and remained close to the security administrations that were a product of the Soviet secret police. According to Politico, “There is the ‘open secret’ that the Kremlin operates out of the church to send agents abroad.”

His finances have been purposely opaque, though his relationship with the Kremlin has damaged his reputation in the past. A gaffe with a $30,000 watch being poorly photoshopped from an image of an interview, and a 2020 investigation both shed some light on his financial position.

He rose through the church ranks quickly during the 1970s, and cultivated a significant amount of influence through a “weekly Orthodox television program on the main state television channel,” which he began appearing on in 1994. In January 2009, he was elected as patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.

While the Kremlin is likely responsible for Kirill’s wealth (his net worth is estimated in the billions), the patriarch is responsible for a “significant part of the nationalist ideology at the heart of the Kremlin’s expansionist designs,” per The New York Times.

Many Ukrainian churches “voted to cut the church’s ties with Moscow in response to Patriarch Kirill’s blatant support for the war.” Metropolitan Epiphanius said, “he bears responsibility as much as Putin for all the war crimes that the Russian army commits in Ukraine.”

This month, the Ukrainian city of Lviv symbolically voted to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in its jurisdiction, and an April poll from Reuters “showed that 51% of surveyed Ukrainians wanted their government to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with support considerably higher in the country’s west.”

Abroad, Canada and the U.K. levied sanctions on Kirill, while the EU’s sanctions were dropped after opposition from Hungary. The U.S. remains undecided about the complex implications of sanctioning a religious leader.

Growing mistrust of priests

Those on the ground are feeling the harmful effects of this tension, and it serves as a reflection of the complex relationship Ukraine and Russia have. Priests, with churches blocks apart, face incoming Russian troops with very different attitudes. Some remain loyal to Moscow, despite being shelled by occupying forces.

“Ukrainian political and religious analysts say the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine was deeply infiltrated by Moscow and is regarded by many as a tool of Russian foreign policy,” according to The New York Times.

Some are directly targeting those religious buildings whose loyalties lie with Kiev. Metropolitan Epiphanius said he “found small (GPS) devices on the grounds of the cathedral and monastery to direct artillery” three days in a row. Others, pretending to be priests, have infiltrated religious communities.

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The sentiment is so widespread, that when “an angry crowd threw a Russian preacher out of his church in western Ukraine, the police did not intervene.” Activists threw green paint on a priest in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The act of renouncing ties to Moscow deeply affects smaller communities. When one village congregation presented their priest with a petition to change loyalties, Moscow church officials removed all their property from the building, and the supervising priest “got on his knees and cursed (their) village.” A resident claimed he said “he hoped not a single person (there) stayed alive.”

In Russia, priests are being arrested for sermons condemning the war. As more priests are being accused of acting as informants to Russian forces, over 200 across the country are “under heavy surveillance as potential collaborators” by the Security Services of Ukraine, according to a New York Times source.

Speaking on the churches current challenges, Metropolitan Epiphanius said, “Every day, Ukrainians are gradually coming to understand which church is truly Ukrainian and which church is Russian. The more destruction, unfortunately, the more understanding comes to those who believed in the ideology of one Russian people. This war, it empowers the unity of the Orthodox people in Ukraine.”

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