By Kadri Liik, Momchil Metodiev, Nicu Popescu*
An average Westerner may well have overlooked the potentially seismic geopolitical event of 6 January 2019. On that snowy Sunday – Epiphany in western Christianity; Christmas Eve in Ukraine – the 39-year-old Metropolitan of Kiev, Epiphanius, received tomos from the Constantinople Patriarchate. This document bestowed autocephalous (self-governing) status on what was now the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The event was historic not just for Ukraine, but for Russia and the whole Orthodox world too. For Ukrainians, autocephaly was a sign of their country moving towards greater independence from Russia, now in matters clerical as well as earthly. For a country still stuck in a slow-moving war with Russia, this was no small matter.
Nor was it a small matter for Russia. Just under one-third of the Russian Orthodox Church’s 36,000 parishes are to be found in Ukraine, and their status is now in question. The Russian Orthodox Church is set to lose territory, believers, and a huge amount of symbolic power. And it has not taken it well: “it is impossible for us to separate Kiev from our country, as this is where our history began. The Russian Orthodox Church preserves the national consciousness of both Russians and Ukrainians”, said Kirill (Gundyaev), Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’. Vladimir Putin echoed this, arguing that autocephaly’s main objective is to “divide the people of Russia and Ukraine, to sow national and religious divisions”.
What will the impact be of these events on Russia’s influence in the Orthodox world – and beyond, including the West – given the Russian Orthodox Church’s ostensible role as an important soft power arm of Russian foreign policy? And how might the church conflict play out in Russian-Ukrainian relations – especially now that Ukraine has a new president?
To answer these questions, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a series of interviews in Kiev, Istanbul, and Moscow with key protagonists in the recent autocephaly drama and with observers of Orthodox church affairs. The All-Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople; Honorary Patriarch Filaret of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine; senior representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church; and multiple experts have shared their on-the-ground insights into this historic event.
*Τhis article is part of a research for ECFR. Romfea.news will republish extracts from the paper in the following days