Overview: How Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church Becomes Experimental Weapon of Geopolitical Struggle

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The conflict between the two Orthodox churches in Ukraine, which has aggravated due to the mainstreaming issue of autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, continues to increase. So called “non-canonical religious structures” reinforce confrontation with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) and intend to elect “the leader of the united local church”. Future full-fledged church schism in Ukraine is becoming increasingly obvious every day. Several bishops of the UOC MP can go over to the side of “rebels”. Naturally, this is only to the hands of self-proclaimed churches, which are actively supported by Constantinople, this is how they gain additional weight and legitimacy in the eyes of the parishioners. The Ukrainian autocephaly can become a precedent – a fire of religious wars can spread to other countries – Moldova, Macedonia and Montenegro with a similar conflict of churches. The reformatting of relations in the Orthodox world, which today consists of 15 local churches, is coming up, and with a significantly reduced role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in it. This week, mass media reported that the head of the so-called “non-canonical” church in Ukraine, Filaret Denisenko, previously anathematized, intends to convene a unifying Council of all Orthodox structures in the country. According to the leader of the “schismatics”, besides hierarchs of the self-proclaimed churches, 10 hierarchs of the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate will take part. It may be a small group in the cohort of high dignitaries – there are 85 bishops altogether – but their participation in the suggested unifying Council is a very disturbing signal for the canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Dozens of other priests, who wish to remain in Ukraine, will follow these ten “brave” under the accelerating trend to break the UOC away from the Moscow metropolis. The situation with the Ukrainian autocephaly highlights the lack of unity within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which additionally stimulates self-proclaimed churches to push their agenda. Today, their leaders say that the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaev Lavra should be given to the local church of Ukraine. In response, the vicar of the latter, Metropolitan Vladimir, appealed to Orthodox Christians to help protect the monastery. Regardless of how the issue is resolved, the level of claims by the leaders of “non-canonical” churches already now seems defiant. Moreover, they are ready to back them up with force. So, since the Patriarch of Constantinople raised the topic of Ukrainian autocephaly in September, attacks on parishes of the UOC MP have become more frequent in the country. At the same time, cases of oppression of clergymen and seizures of Orthodox churches became a common phenomenon back after the 2014 revolution of dignity. Since then, the self-proclaimed churches “captured” more than 40 churches. Only this summer, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission recorded six attacks on the parishes of the canonical church. Ukraine’s secular authority on church matters is far from neutral. Official Kyiv actively encourages these processes. The Verkhovna Rada, for example, examine draft legislation that reads that religious organizations governed by the “aggressor country” will be able to appoint metropolitans and bishops only in coordination with public authorities. It is also supposed to give parishioners the right to change jurisdiction of religious communities whose centers operate in Ukraine and abroad as they wish. In other words, redistribution of spheres of influence over the parishes will be legalized in the near future, and obviously the property of the Moscow Patriarchate will be subjected to the “change of jurisdiction”. Whether the representatives of the UOC MP clergy will resist the forced transfer of parishes is an open question. It is not entirely clear how truly the UOC is united, and whether it will be able to count on at least some support from the Third Rome, at least comparable to Kyiv’s efforts to promote autocephaly. With active intervention of the official Ukraine authorities, the canonical church can lose not only most of its property, but also legal status. Following the logic of countering the Russian threat, the Ukrainian authorities can theoretically declare the UOC MP “out of law” under the pretext of fighting religious organizations of the aggressor country. In such a scenario, its entire parish structure will be purposefully marginalized, which is expected to lead to an outflow of parishioners and an avalanche-like reduction of churches, monasteries and parishes. Returning to the precedent of participation of the official Ukrainian clergy in the planned unifying Council, an obvious consequence will be strengthened positions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. If a group of hierarchs who come from the UOC MP recognizes the granted autocephaly, this will be regarded as “a voluntary withdrawal of a part of the parishes from the Russian Orthodox Church”. It is possible that a chain reaction will be provoked, when other hierarchs of the UOC MP will start joining the local church. Such a scenario is a sure way to disintegration of the current system of rules governing relations of the patriarchates. The repetition of the Ukrainian scenario cannot be ruled out in other countries, where there is also a conflict between the churches. For many years now the Patriarchate of Constantinople has been interfering in the relations of the unrecognized Macedonian and local Serbian Orthodox Church. If a precedent is created in Ukraine, Constantinople can grant the Tomos of Autocephaly to the Macedonians. The situation is also difficult in Ukraine’s neighbor – Moldova. For several decades, there has been a “dispute of jurisdictions” between the Metropolis of Bessarabia of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Moldova (autonomous within the ROC). This conflict virtually repeats the situation in Ukraine: most recently the Romanian Patriarchate appointed and ordained its bishops to serve in the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. Over the past few decades in Moldova more than one hundred churches and parishes transferred under the control of Romania. Part of the official clergy passed under the jurisdiction of the self-proclaimed Metropolis of Bessarabia. Is there any doubt that the events in Ukraine will inspire the Romanian Patriarchate to strengthen its activity in Moldova? It is very likely that appearance of autocephaly in Ukraine will not end only with a split in the Orthodox world. It may be followed by patriarchal rivalries for influence on their people, which will only further intensify fragmentation of churches and breaking contacts between them. The matter is not only prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate as such in the Orthodox world, but rather the general logic of geopolitical rivalry, which Europe never managed to get rid of in the 21st century. Anyway, the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church on its canonical territory is facing the most serious challenge in the last half century. Since the church remains one of the main social agents of ideology, it is easy to guess that geopolitical interests in this struggle in the religious field play a decisive role. If successful, the “Ukrainian model” of stealing influence on the religious foundations of entire countries and nations has every reason to become very popular. So, the chain reaction will not take long.