Divided soul: rival Orthodox churches wage shadow war in Ukraine

Bol News  |  May 16, 2022

While the war rages across Ukraine, Mykhaylo Tereshchenko is engaged in a spiritual battle that threatens to split his parish.

The priest is stumped. He is a priest of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church’s Moscow branch, which formally vows loyalty to Russia’s Patriarch Kirill.

Tereshchenko, on the other hand, is a fervent Ukrainian nationalist who has been outraged by President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his country.

“This war has brought nothing good,” Tereshchenko told AFP from his church in Kozelets, around 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Kyiv.

“It has only brought us grief, destruction, and death.”

He sighed, recounting the war’s chaotic early days, when he sheltered people fleeing nearby fighting in the church catacombs, among icons and the tomb of the parish’s founder.

“There are villages nearby where lots of people died and houses were destroyed. This pain is also ours,” the priest said.

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin has put Moscow-backed priests in jeopardy.

In 2019, Russia lost a substantial number of Ukrainian parishes when the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church was established in response to the Kremlin’s land grab of Crimea and support for a separatist insurrection in the Donbas.

The Russian church is expected to lose many more clerics and parishes as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which Patriarch Kirill has loudly endorsed.

Kirill spoke out against the “military of evil” opposing the historic “union” between Russia and Ukraine as waves of Russian forces crossed into Ukraine.

Later, he asked his supporters to join him in fighting Moscow’s “foreign and internal adversaries.”

Western governments have called for sanctions against Kirill, and Pope Francis, Kirill’s old rival in the Vatican, has warned him not to be “Putin’s altar boy.”

Standing behind their leaders in Moscow has become increasingly unsustainable for priests in Ukraine like Tereshchenko.

However, severing ties with the church risks inciting unrest within their own communities.

– ‘Hard to believe’ Patriarch Kirill’s apparent approval of Putin’s invasion has enraged Ukrainians, who have fled their homes in droves and the civilian death toll continues to increase every day.

“It’s hard to believe what the Patriarch has said,” Tereshchenko bristled.

“Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians. We are all Slavs. And yet, he gives his blessings to go and kill his people.”

Hundreds of his fellow Moscow church clerics have signed an online petition demanding that Patriarch Kirill be brought before a religious tribunal.

Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed church, has so far refrained from criticising his employer.

His social media pages, on the other hand, are filled with funerals for slain Ukrainian soldiers and support for Kyiv’s forces.

He had also called for an Easter procession to reclaim captive and wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged Azovstal complex in Mariupol.

Ukrainian priests who have already broken ranks with Moscow believe Kirill’s letter verifies what they’ve been saying about Russia’s religious authority for years, accusing him of blasphemy.

“The behaviour and statements of Kirill the Patriarch are simply terrifying,” said priest Oleksandr Shmuryhin from St Volodymyr’s Cathedral — part of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church — in the Ukrainian capital.

“This is propaganda and theology that serves the war. It’s not Christianity.”

– ‘Follow one mission’ –Now, some in Ukraine want the Moscow church to be banned outright.

In March, the Ukrainian parliament tabled a bill that, if passed, would formally prevent the Russian Orthodox Church from operating in Ukraine and allow for the confiscation of its assets.

The church in Moscow retaliated, claiming that this proved Putin’s “special military operation” was justifiable.

They are sure to lose more priests in Ukraine as a result of their rhetoric.

Some Ukrainians have abandoned the Russian Russian Church.

“All Ukrainians all over the world have to unite now and follow one mission — to help Ukraine in this victory,” said Daria Kolomiec, a 33-year-old Kyiv resident.

But Kirill, who has not been to Ukraine since before Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, still has his defenders in Ukraine, even in the heart of Kyiv.

“Yes, I have my worries,” 34-year-old churchgoer Iryna Gen told AFP, comparing Putin to “Satan” ahead of a service at a Moscow Patriarchate church in Kyiv.

However, she insisted “Kirill has no connection” to the Russian president’s actions.

But for priests like Tereshchenko, the war has forced them to confront difficult questions that have lingered for years and an uncertain future.

“I want us to have our own Ukrainian church — independent from Moscow and any other state (including Ukraine),” said Tereshchenko.

“You can’t do anything with aggression, only with love.”

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