The Guardian view on Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine: breaking with Moscow – The Guardian

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Vladimir Putin’s revanchist ambition to reconstitute ‘Holy Rus’ by force has destroyed ancient ties and religious bonds
Speaking last month at the beginning of Lent, Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox church, sermonised on the subject of Russia’s frontline role in fighting for “God’s truth”. The church, he emphasised, must play its part in the battle against the secularising forces of the liberal west in order to preserve “Holy Rus and our people, living by God’s law”.
Patriarch Kirill has deservedly become a religious pariah in the global Orthodox church as a result of his cheerleading for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. That support shows no sign of waning, no matter the cost in lives and human misery as Mr Putin’s forces dig in. But recent events indicate that the patriarch’s cherished struggle on behalf of “Holy Rus”, defined as a spiritually unified territory including Ukraine and Belarus, has already been lost.
Amid evidence of pro-Putin sympathies in parts of the Ukrainian Orthodox church (UOC) – which is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate – and instances of outright disloyalty to Kyiv on the part of some clergy, a bill has been submitted to the Ukrainian parliament which would see it closed down altogether. Across Ukraine, churches and monasteries associated with the UOC are being transferred to the smaller independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. At the 11th-century Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, one of the most revered sites in Orthodox Christianity, Moscow-affiliated priests and monks have been served with an eviction notice. And while around three-quarters of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox, in a recent poll only 4% formally identified with the UOC. Far more believers now identify with the independent church, which was granted autocephalous status by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholemew I, in 2019.
For Mr Putin, this is yet another painful case of unintended consequences. Just as Nato has expanded its geographical reach, following an invasion intended to challenge its regional influence, Mr Putin’s revanchist ambitions have also achieved an inverse outcome to that desired in the sphere of religion. Mr Putin – and Patriarch Kirill – hoped that a Moscow-defined version of conservative Christianity could serve as the spiritual cornerstone of a forcibly reconstituted “Russian world”, incorporating Kyiv. Instead, having formerly been an instrument of Russian soft power and influence in Ukraine, and a tangible expression of a common religious history going back a thousand years, the UOC is now a hugely diminished and discredited presence.
Amid a bitter backlash against pro-Russian “agents in cassocks” – several high-profile priests have been charged with treason – it would be understandable if Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, decided to back an outright ban of the UOC. That might, however, be both unnecessary and unwise. The majority of the church’s priests and members have loyally supported Ukraine’s cause, and there is evidence that many are already voting with their feet and moving to the independent church. A ban would also carry the danger of creating a martyr narrative to be exploited by the Kremlin, and raise questions in relation to religious freedom of expression.
Mr Putin’s folly has made the prospect of a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church, free from any affiliation with Moscow, far more likely. Inter-church dialogue towards that goal would be the best response to a perceived enemy within, and the best counter to Patriarch Kirill’s insidious vision of an imperial church taking orders from the Kremlin.
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Written by: Christianity Today

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