Conflicts & War

Ukraine war opens rifts within Russian, Ukrainian Orthodox churches

By Marcel Gascón

Bucharest, Apr 10 (EFE).- The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I, has endorsed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and justified it in theological terms, a position that is weakening his Church both among the millions of Ukrainians who remained attached to it and in the rest of the Orthodox world.

“The most significant consequence is that numerous parishes and priests in Ukraine have distanced themselves from the ROC,” Thomas Bremer, professor of Ecumenical Studies and Eastern Churches at the German University of Münster, told Efe by phone.

Although most Ukrainians view Russia with increasing hostility, many remain part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a semi-autonomous institution that is ultimately dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate.

The horrors of the Russian invasion that began on February 24 have led the hierarchy of the autonomous Ukrainian church and many of its faithful to openly protest Cyril’s position.

Onufriy, an archbishop who leads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), has positioned himself against his superior Cyril and openly condemned the war.

Numerous Ukrainian priests have publicly called for a break with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The outrage at Cyril’s role could contribute to the consolidation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is independent from Moscow and which was recognized in 2018.

Before the war, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had some 7,000 parishes, while the traditional UOC affiliated with Moscow had about 13,000, according to official data.

“The Moscow Patriarchy has the largest number of parishes; we can hope that, out of national solidarity, these parishes will be transferred to the jurisdiction of the primacy of the OCU,” former Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi told Efe.

The former Romanian foreign minister has a doctorate in Religious Anthropology and Comparative History of Religions from the Sorbonne and is a renowned specialist in the Orthodox world.

Along the same lines, the Romanian sociologist and theologian Ionut Mavrichi told Efe “Patriarch Cyril was the father who had to take care of the Ukrainian children”.

The fact “that he has theologically justified this fratricidal and criminal war opens the door for the new Ukrainian church to legitimize itself in the eyes of those who were reluctant,” he added.

For that change to happen, the UOC will have to ward off the misgivings it arouses among many believers, Bremer says. “Onufriy is perceived as an excellent pastor and a figure removed from politics who has the respect of many priests”.

Cyril’s total alignment with Russian president Vladimir Putin has also caused anger and discomfort within the rest of the Orthodox churches.

However, not all of them have openly condemned the Kremlin’s military offensive in Ukraine.

“Many Churches have distanced themselves from Cyril, have asked him to stop playing ‘devil’s advocate’ and have declared themselves horrified not only by the war itself but also by being in the midst of Lent and against a nation with an Orthodox majority,” Baconschi said.

Just as the invasion of Ukraine has isolated Putin politically and economically, “we can anticipate that the Russian church will also suffer the same fate and will be de facto isolated, at least for a while, from the rest of the Orthodox world.” EFE


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