Russian talk point: Ukraine church split blamed on the US

Russia tried to justify its aggression on Ukraine by complaining about NATO's eastward expansion.

Russian talk point: Ukraine church split blamed on the US

However, Russia also claimed foreign actors had infringed on its religious rights in Ukraine. It even claimed the United States was responsible for inciting an Eastern Orthodox schism in Ukraine.

Moscow Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church stated that both the West as well as a rival patriarch were seeking to weaken Russia, and make the brotherly peoples (Russians and Ukrainians) enemies.

Experts say that while religion is not the only factor in war, it should be considered.

The Rev. said that although it cannot be called a religious war, it does have a religious dimension. Cyril Hovorun is an Orthodox priest from Ukraine who is also a professor at University College Stockholm of ecclesiology and international relations.

Kirill's comments were in response to a letter from the World Council of Churches acting head, who asked him to "raise your voice" and to mediate with authorities in order to end the war in Ukraine.

Kirill said that the war was not the fault of Russian authorities. Kirill claimed that the seeds of conflict were planted by both foreign and political threats to the country's borders.

He mentioned the ecumenical patriarch from Constantinople who, in 2019, officially recognized the independence the Orthodox Church in Ukraine -- a country over which the Moscow Patriarchate has jurisdiction. Although based in Turkey the ecumenical patriarch is considered "first among equals", Orthodox patriarchs are not able to extend his authority beyond his territory.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, accused the U.S. "directly" of the Orthodox crisis and "financed Patriarch Bartholomew from Constantinople in order to pursue a policy that divides, even in Ukraine."

Although he didn't provide evidence of the alleged manipulation, U.S. officials supported Ukrainians' right of religious self-determination.

While the majority of Russians or Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, there is more to the debate than just numbers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a long-standing supporter of Patriarch Kirill. Both promoted the idea of a "Russian World", forged over a millennium in shared Orthodox Christian culture in Russia and Ukraine.

Ukrainians claim that they are a distinct people but they are related to Russians. In the lead-up to war, Putin dismissed modern Ukraine as an illegal Soviet invention. Putin claimed that Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who remained loyal and steadfast to Moscow were at risk.

Kirill's March 6th wartime sermon was set against the backdrop of this Russian-world idea. He said that there was a "metaphysical struggle" in Ukraine. It was a battle against a foreign liberal institution, he claimed, that requires countries to hold "gay parades", as the price for admission to a world of excessive consumption and freedom.

Catherine Wanner, a Pennsylvania State University professor in history, anthropology, and religious studies, said that it is not important whether such claims made by Russian leaders are credible or not in the eyes the world. Her research focuses on the region. "The audience is their people, the Russian people."

The origins of the dispute over the church are in Orthodoxy's arrival in the region a thousand years ago.

The Ecumenical patriarchate was the first governing body for the Kyiv-area Orthodox in the early centuries. In 1686, Constantinople's church was under Ottoman control and the ecumenical patriarch gave the power to ordain the metropolitan (or top bishop) of Kyiv to the now independent patriarch of Moscow.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, it was a permanent transfer. It was temporary, according to the EcumenicalPatriarchate.

Hovorun stated that modern church history contradicts Russian claims that the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine was a U.S. initiative.

Hovorun stated that the idea of an independent Ukrainian church was almost 100 years old in Ukraine.

The independent-minded Ukrainian Orthodox formed during Ukraine's brief independence period in 1920s and again in the 1990s after the post-Soviet independence. Both of the main breakaway churches were merged and gained long-sought legitimacy in 2019, when EcumenicalPatriarch Bartholomew recognised the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Moscow protested fiercely against the move.

Wanner stated that "Kirill and all others could refer to the Ukrainian churches as being schismatic" until this step was taken. "That was when the rivalry between the Moscow Patriarchate (and the Ecumenical patriarchate) came to an end."

Hovorun acknowledged that politics played a part in the establishment of the new church, but it was "a response to the politicization by the Kremlin of the Russian church."

Russia took Crimea in 2014. The Russian President Petro Poroshenko supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. State Department issued statements of congratulations for the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This, along with ongoing relations with EcumenicalPatriarch Bartholomew who has met with high-ranking U.S. dignitaries has fuelled Russian claims of a U.S. involvement in the schism.

Sam Brownback, at that time the U.S. State Department's Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, stated that the U.S. supported Ukrainian self-determination.

He said that he had heard from Ukrainian officials and church members, "We did have them come in and tell us we wanted to start our own church." "We said, "That's fine by us, we believe that you have the right to organize your church as you wish." But, this is a church decision and not one made by the United States government. We don't tell College of Cardinals which pope to choose."

Wanner stated that Poroshenko's signature achievement was the establishment of a church. She said, "Having said all that, he was decisively reelected out of office and in came Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a secular Jew who pledged not to interfere in religious affairs."

Many Ukrainian Orthodox Orthodox also remained loyal to the Moscow patriarchate. This loyalty is now waning, as many clergy have stopped praying for Kirill during public worship to protest his inability to condemn the Russian invasion.

Kirill's statements were denounced by a top representative of Patriarch Bartholomew, the United States.

"Unfortunately, peace calls from Patriarch Kirill sound hollow when he blesses an invasion of a sovereign country in the name of an imperialistic notion of the 'Russian World' which is long dead," Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America stated in a statement.

He said that Bartholomew had "given a way forward for the Ukrainian Orthodox that was based on freedom, and that we pray that when peace reigns in their country, they will be free to choose their own route forward."


 

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