Two golden-domed Orthodox Christian churches stand side-by-side on the main street in the small town of Kalynivka outside Kiev – one is loyal to Ukraine’s local subsidiary of the Russian church, the largest confession among the 300m Orthodox Christians worldwide, but the church next door is on the verge of gaining recognition from the spiritual leader of the Orthodox faith — and creating a geopolitical schism in the process, Financial Times reports.
The dispute over giving the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, or the right to be a fully fledged church, has moved the conflict between Ukraine and Russia into the spiritual realm.
Although both churches trace their history to the conversion of the medieval state of Rus in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the smouldering war in eastern Ukraine are threatening to sever one of the last ties between the two countries.
“Five years ago I’d probably never have thought about it,” said Anatoly Bilyk, 57, sipping coffee as he looked at the two churches in Kalynivka. “But after Russia attacked our country and stole territory from us . . . I think we need our own church now to finish building our nation.”
Since the war began in 2014, dozens of churches in Ukraine have switched allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, a splinter denomination formed after the fall of the USSR.
The Kiev church, one of two breakaway groups, has in past years grown larger in membership then its Russian counterpart and was placed this month on the path to full recognition when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader, appointed two bishops as delegates.
Bartholomew is expected to give the Kiev Patriarchate a Tomos, or ordinance, granting it autocephaly at a synod next month.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which had kept a low profile during the conflict, suspended diplomatic ties with Constantinople in response; Kirill, the Russian patriarch, said this month he would stop mentioning Bartholomew in his prayers.
The Russian church is still by far the largest and most powerful group within Orthodoxy: Moscow is frequently referred to the “Third Rome” in a sign of its pre-eminence since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The Ukrainian church argues, however, that Moscow was unfairly granted ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Kiev in 1686 after Russia absorbed Ukraine.
Bartholomew’s support can be seen as a canny ploy to expand his influence outside Turkey, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, and undermine the Russian church’s authority, said Roman Lunkin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
“Ukraine will have several Orthodox jurisdictions for the foreseeable future,” Mr Lunkin said. “It’s a political tragedy for the Russian church.”
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, has strongly backed the call for autocephaly, which he says is “a guarantee of our spiritual independence from Moscow.” The push is crucial to Mr Poroshenko’s efforts to retain power in elections next March, where massive public disillusionment with politics has him and rivals polling in the 10 per cent range.
Billboards touting the initiative are plastered across Ukraine in a hope to boost Mr Poroshenko’s flagging poll numbers.
“The Third Rome concept, as Moscow’s longest-standing claim of global hegemony, is collapsing like a house of cards,” Mr Poroshenko said earlier this month.
The dispute underlines difficulties Patriarch Kirill has had in maintaining the Russian church’s authority while Mr Putin’s aggressive actions abroad have made him a pariah. The patriarch endorsed Mr Putin’s re-election in 2012 and more recently denounced young people who protested against the president.
But the church kept a decidedly low profile as politicians flooded state TV to rant during the Ukraine conflict.
In 2014, Mr Putin said that Crimea — where Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler of Rus, was baptised in 988AD — was “Russia’s Temple Mount”, an idea that Patriarch Kirill has not embraced.
The move had little grounding in Orthodox canon but provided a justification for the annexation by presenting Mr Putin as the protector of all Russian-speaking people, Mr Lunkin said.
“Kirill is a total hostage to this situation. It’s smashed the idea of the ‘Russian world’ as we knew it,” Mr Lunkin said. “The Russian world is now a Putin thing.”
The Moscow patriarchate’s influence in Ukraine is receding elsewhere, too. Filaret, the patriarch of the Ukrainian church, has predicted that many domestic churches now under the Russian Orthodox Church, including the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the country’s holiest monastery, would switch allegiance once Constantinople grants it autocephaly.
“If we used to be brother nations, it ended when brother attacked brother,” said Iryna, 36, a displaced person from Donetsk visiting the monastery.