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Church divided

Roman Goncharenko / sgbDecember 14, 2013

Protests in Ukraine have highlighted the division between the country's two main Orthodox churches. One has an independent streak and is protecting demonstrators from police. The other is subordinate to Moscow.

Protesters in front of St. Michael's Monastery in Kyiv
Image: DW/R. Goncharenko

The colors of St. Michael's Monastery in Kyiv are those of the Ukrainian flag: light blue walls and golden domes. And, as people enter the building, they carry the blue and yellow flags in a steady stream.

"We have come to pray for students battered by the police," said Olena, a student from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. She and her four friends traveled for three days to Kyiv to demonstrate for closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union - and against President Viktor Yanukovych, who recently put a stop to this process, triggering the mass protests.

Priests against politicians

In the early hours of November 30, dramatic scenes played out before the monastery gates. A few hundred meters downhill, on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), special police forces violently cleared a camp set up by opponents of the government. Hundreds of students were brutally beaten and chased into the surrounding streets. They found refuge at the monastery. Priests blocked the path of the baton-wielding police officers and did not let them through.

Yuri Kurzilov
Yuri Kurzilov joined the demonstration after seeing images of police brutalityImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

"There were moving scenes when, the next morning, priests quietly conducted their services so they wouldn't wake the students sleeping on the floor," Yuri Kurzilov said. The 32-year-old designer traveled to Kyiv from the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv to support the protesters. "When I saw young students covered in blood, I decided, 'This government must resign,'" he said. "And when I saw how the priests helped protesters, I thought, 'The church is on the side of the people - and vice versa.'"

Symbol of the protest movement

Today Yuri is standing together with half a dozen men in the square in front of St. Michael's Monastery. He wears a green camouflage jacket and has a helmet on his head. "This is how I protect myself from the police," he said. Here, a kind of sentry post has been improvised: a ten-meter-wide barricade of scrap wood and snow. "We watch to see if the police are coming, and then warn the people on the Maidan," Yuri said.

Group of students in front of the monastery
These students from Lviv are taking part in the Maidan protestImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

In recent days, the monastery has become one of the symbols of the protest movement. Early Wednesday morning (12.11.2013) the bells of the monastery rang out to warn protesters on the Maidan that police were again approaching.

The monastery's opposition role does not appear to be a coincidence. It was destroyed during the Soviet era and rebuilt in the 1990s. It belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. That church was founded after the independence of Ukraine and considers itself independent. But the Russian Orthodox Church has blocked it from gaining recognition as a part of the global Orthodoxy. The move was political, said Kyiv Patriarchate spokesman Archbishop Yevstratiy. "Russia wants to use the church to retain its influence over Ukraine."

Grigori Kovalenko
'Not under orders from Moscow': Kovalenko of the Russian-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox ChurchImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

Moscow's schism

Most believers in Ukraine belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It has its headquarters in the famous Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery on the steep right bank of the Dniper River. This church is subordinate to the Russian Patriarch.

The two-decade-long division in Ukrainian Orthodoxy is reflected in the attitude toward the current events. Where the Kyiv Patriarchate granted demonstrators protection from the police, its priests praying alongside hundreds of thousands of protesters on the Maidan, the Moscow-oriented Patriarchate is behaving differently.

Ukraine Demonstrationen 13.12.2013
Archbishop Yevstratiy of the Kyiv Patriarchate says Moscow uses its church as an instrument of powerImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

"Our priests may indeed go to the demonstrations, but only as citizens, and not as churchmen," spokesman Grigori Kovalenko told DW. He denied, however, that this was due to instructions from Russia. "There is no influence on us from Moscow," he said.

Joint call for peaceful protests

A few days ago, the two churches distributed a joint declaration. In it, they reaffirmed the right of citizens to take part in demonstrations, warned both sides against violence and called on them to pray. Previously, the Moscow-affiliated church had issued a separate statement addressed to the government and the president that warned of a division of the country.

Few expect the current protests to help bridge divisions between the churches in Ukraine. Or at least, that was the view of a group of students from Lviv who had come to St. Michael's Monastery to pray. "Russia will never recognize an independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy," said a man named Andriy.

Archbishop Yevstratiy of the Kyiv Patriarchate is more optimistic. If government opponents gain the upper hand, that would bring his church "several steps" closer to recognition by Moscow.