Zelenskyj sees the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as infiltrated by Russian agents. Apparently he is cracking down on believers with raids. There is also a dispute about Christmas on January 7th, which the majority of churches celebrate like arch-enemy Russia. That should change now.

The Christians of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church pleaded with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to stay in their ancestral churches in the world-famous Cave Monastery in Kyiv. There is enough misery and suffering because of the war, Zelenskyj shouldn’t take away their last hope, said monastery head Pavlo Lebid in a video message. But the doors to the places of worship remain closed shortly before the Orthodox Christmas. Churches in Ukraine and Russia celebrate this two weeks later than Christians in the West – on January 7th.

The church in Ukraine, which is traditionally associated with the Russian Orthodox faith brothers and sisters, renounced the Moscow Patriarchate after the beginning of the war. Nevertheless, the Christians are now accusing the Ukrainian leadership of political persecution. They complain of violent attacks and, above all, humiliating raids by the Ukrainian secret service SBU, which hunts down Russian spies.

Head of state Selenskyj sees the church’s ties to Russia as a threat to the security of the country fighting for its independence. “There is no gold in the world for crosses or anything else that could hide the moral rust of relations with a terrorist state,” he said when he appeared before parliament in Kyiv at the end of the year. The political leadership sees the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country with 12,000 priests, as being infiltrated by Moscow’s agents. She had even asked the clergy to declare Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin the devil.

Above all, however, Kyiv criticizes the Moscow patriarch Kirill as a warmonger. The church leader was last in the hall with generals at an extended military meeting in the Ministry of Defense. Kirill, who is a close confidant of Putin, also sees the invasion as saving Russian Orthodox Christianity from Western influence. Russian Orthodox believers repeatedly celebrated the fact that Putin’s troops conquered churches and other shrines in Ukraine.

The conflict has always had a religious component. When the rental contracts of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for two main places of worship in the UNESCO-protected cave monastery were not renewed, the head Lebid there gave up his reticence and accused Zelenskyj of political interference. The Moscow Patriarchate in the Russian capital also criticized the “violation of religious freedom” and the rights of believers in Ukraine. The power apparatus in Kyiv is driving the monks out of the monastery, illegally occupying places of worship and persecuting believers, they say.

“There hasn’t been anything like this in church life since the days of the godless Soviet rulers,” said church spokesman Vladimir Legojda. He described the new church in Ukraine, which was created with state aid, as a “puppet” that only serves to divide Christians. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February also changed the country’s church culture with its traditions dating back to the times of the Russian Tsarist Empire.

So far, the country’s three major churches have celebrated Christmas according to the old Julian calendar – that is, two weeks after the West. Religion is one of the last ties that still binds the former “brother states”. Today, however, the Ukrainian state supports the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, founded with the help of Zelenskyy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, in order to create a community independent of Russia. Apparently too many priests in eastern Ukraine are cooperating with the Russian occupiers; and for too long the Church had clung to spiritual ties with Moscow.

Before Christmas, a discussion that had been going on for a long time, especially in nationalist circles, broke out again. The churches with the orthodox rite in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are still united by the common church calendar. Christmas is therefore celebrated on January 7th. It is true that under Poroshenko in 2017 December 25 was also made a non-working Christmas holiday. But when do Ukrainians really want to celebrate Christmas?

The leaders of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church met on December 24 at St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv. Metropolitan Epiphany and Archbishop Sviatoslav also discussed reforming the church calendar. Epiphany of the Orthodox Church allowed the 5,000 or so priests to hold Christmas services on December 25th. However, in the end a synod or an archbishops’ conference would have to decide on the final change in the calendar and the holistic reform of the church year, it said. At the same time, the government also wanted to know exactly.

Culture Minister Olexander Tkachenko asked the government app Dija “Which Christmas date do you prefer?” for voting. At the same time, he pointed the way, saying that for Ukraine, keeping the Julian calendar on the date of Christmas is a “heritage of the Russian Empire”. The result was clear: almost 60 percent of the more than 1.5 million participants chose December 25 as the sole Christmas date. Only about 25 percent were for January 7 as the date. The rest either wanted to celebrate Christmas on both days or not at all.

In recent representative surveys, sociologists have also documented a clear trend towards celebrating Christmas like in the West. Nevertheless, all three churches will continue to hold their main services on January 7 this year for the time being. After the expulsion of the previous clergy from the cave monastery at Christmas, the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine will for the first time use the Assumption Cathedral and thus the most important church in Ukraine.