Ukraine's Spiritual Split From Russia Could Trigger a Global Schism
âThis is a victory of good over evil, light over darkness.â Thatâs how Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the announcement Thursday that the Orthodox Churchâs Istanbul-based leader, Patriarch Bartholomew, will grant Ukraineâs Church independence from Russia.
In televised remarks, Ukraineâs president dubbed this a âhistoric event,â which it undoubtedly is: For more than three centuries, Ukraine and Russia have been religiously united within the Russian Orthodox Church. It was a union Poroshenko characterized this summer as a âdirect threat to the national security of Ukraine,â given his view that the Russian Orthodox Church fully supports Kremlin policy; he said then that it was âabsolutely necessary to cut off all the tentacles with which the aggressor country operates inside the body of our state.â
Now, four years after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Ukraine is asserting its territorial independence by demanding its own national Church. For Russia, the crisis is geopolitical as well as spiritual. The stakes are so high that in order to protest Ukraineâs religious autonomy, Russia may respond harshly enough to trigger a deep schism in the Christian world.
At the core of this issue is a fundamental question of both religious and territorial identity, as Russian actions in eastern Ukraine aimed to undermine the countryâs very independence. The Ukrainian Church had sought independence from the Russian one for decades, but it only became âinevitable after the Russian military excursion in eastern Ukraine, no questi on about it,â said Aristotle Papanikolaou, a co-chair of Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University. Ukraine will join several other countries that have their own independent national Churches, among them Serbia, Greece, and Romania.
Read: Ukraine is ground zero for the crisis between Russia and the West.
The Russian Church claims that Ukraine and its backers are the ones pushing the Church to the brink of catastrophe. A top Russian Church official said that by supporting Ukraineâs bid for an independent Church, Istanbul âthreatens the global Orthodox world with a schism.â That schism would have an outsized effect on Russia: Severing ties between the Russian Church and its parishes in Ukraine would strip Moscow of a crucial component of its sphere of influence to its west. George Demacopoulos, the other chair of Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham, told me an independent Ukrainian Church would strip the Russian Church of a third of its jurisdiction, and R ussia would âsymbolically suffer a very big blow because they have been presenting themselves as the leaders of the Orthodox world in the 21st century.â
The Moscow Church âis frequently accused of being a tool of the Kremlin,â Katherine Younger, who directs the Ukraine in European Dialogue program at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, told me. She said she believes thatâs why Poroshenko portrayed the issue of Church independence âas a matter of state securityââ" itâs âa way to weaken a major ideological interference and source of Russian propaganda.â Poroshenkoâs apparent concerns have some basis in fact: The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor in July have tried for years to access private correspondence from top Orthodox Church officials, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. And beginning with the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the Russian Orthodox Churchâ"which is not technically affiliated with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlinâ"has been accused of spreading âmisinformationâ about Ukraine.
Read: Ukraineâs long-smoldering war for independence
There are a few different ways Russia could react to Patriarch Bartholomewâs announcement. It could withhold recognition of Ukraineâs Church, which would be a purely symbolic statement of disapproval. Or, according to Demacopoulos, Russia might take âthe nuclear option of breaking sacramental unity,â which means people who belong to Orthodox Churches aside from the Russian one could not receive communion while in Russia. That might not sound like much to outsiders, Papanikolaou said, but âitâs a pretty severe step.â
The fight over the Church goes back to a single event that took place more than 1,000 years ago. In 988, Vladimir the Great, the prince of an empire known as Kievan Rus (and Putinâs namesake), converted to Christianity in what is now Ukraine. Russia claims that empire as the birthplace of its historical heritage as a nation. But Ukraine does, too, and Ukraine is the country that actually has Kiev in its territory.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. In a speech at the Kremlin, Putin argued that Crimea belongs in Russia, since ethnic Russians form a majority there. His reasoning also extended beyond Crimea: He seemed to declare that Ukraine and Russia (and Belarus, a smaller player in the ongoing geopolitical tensions) have always been joined together as âone peopleâ through the Church. âKievââ"the Ukrainian capital city, in the middle of the country, far from Crimea and Russiaâ"âis the mother of Russian cities,â Putin said. All of this, he explained, stemmed from Prince Vladimirâs âspiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxyâ more than a millennium ago.
If this battle of religious and national autonomy has been raging for so long, why is it reaching its climax right now? Ukraine first sought Church independence in 1921 , after World War I, but the movement has steadily grown since the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine again became a sovereign nation. Now, Younger explained, âthe catalyst is a calculation by Poroshenko,â who can leverage Thursdayâs announcementâ"for which he spent months lobbyingâ"in the lead-up to presidential elections next March. âThe creation of a canonical â¦ Church in Ukraine would be a major win for [Poroshenko],â Younger said. âI get the sense that the administration is casting about for a win.â
A spokesperson for the Moscow Church, Vladimir Legoyda, said last month that Russia âwill break the Eucharistic communionâ with the Churchâs central body in Istanbul if Ukraine receives independence. Despite Russiaâs stern warnings, Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou, the Fordham professors, donât think it will take that severe step. Instead, they believe the other independent Churches will slowly line up to recognize Ukraineâs Church, even though it might take Moscow several generations. âYou have to understand,â Demacopoulos said, âthat this is a 2,000-year-old Church, so thatâs not that much time.â
The Orthodox Church might recover, but Russia-Ukraine tensions will likely deteriorate even further. It boils down to whether Russia can continue to be, as Putin portrays it, the standard-bearer of the Orthodox tradition, even with far fewer adherents and far less territory than it previously enjoyed. Framing himself as âthe political defender of Christiansâ has helped Putin rally national support, Demacopoulos told me. Itâs no surprise that he isnât prepared to relinquish that part of his image.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.Gabby Deutch is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic.Sou rce: Google News Russia | Netizen 24 Russia