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Orthodox Church of Saint Michael in Kyiv (Photo: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH)
Image: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH

Churches in Ukraine

Oliver Hinz / re
June 16, 2014

Churches have responded to Ukraine's crisis with prayers for peace and calls for reconciliation. The Ukrainian revolution showed a rare sign of unity among the country's religious groups.


The mass demonstrations on Kyiv's Independence Square improved the standing of Ukraine's churches among the population. From December to February clerics from various denominations spoke at the Maidan to encourage anti-government demonstrators. They also prayed hourly with the protesters - even on the nights when police intended to clear the square.

But now it seems that even the newly emboldened churches are powerless to stop the escalation of the violence in eastern Ukraine. They are not confident in their ability to act as mediators between the Russian-backed insurgents and the government in Kyiv.

The only institution with a positive image

Statistics suggest Ukraine is one of the most religious states in Europe. Over the past few months its main churches grown considerably in importance, said Andriy Bychenko, a sociologist at the Razumkov Centre, a Kyiv-based NGO.

Bohdan Dzjurakh
Bishop Dzyurakh says that today pro-Russian activists are agitating against the Greek Catholic ChurchImage: O. Hinz

In light of the crisis, more and more people have turned to religion, because they "don't see another way." About three-quarters of the population regard themselves as religious, according to one opinion poll, 10 percent more than a year ago.

The church is the only institution in the country with a positive image, Bychenko said. Nearly two-thirds of the Ukrainians trust it. Just as many think the church plays an important role in society. The Razumkov Centre study did not differentiate between the denominations. Many people in Ukraine now hope that the church brings peace to the country.

Diverse religious landscape

Yet in hardly any other country in the world is the religious landscape as fractious as in Ukraine. Around 70 percent of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians. But there are two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches - one is subject to Moscow and the other has its power base in Kyiv.

The two churches have no theological disagreement, but for the past two decades they have fought for influence in the country. The Moscow Patriarchate has successfully prevented the Kyiv Patriarchate - and the smaller, national-mined Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church - from having their canonical status recognized by the broader Orthodox communion.

Meanwhile, the Greek Catholic Church, which also follows Byzantine rites but is in full communion with Roman Catholicism, is the largest denomination parts of western Ukraine, but has only a small following elsewhere.

Throughout history, the ruling powers - Russia, Poland-Lithuania and Austria-Hungary - tried to project their power in Ukraine by altering church structures. "The political conquest of the country has always been accompanied by the destruction of church life," Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, secretary of the episcopal synod of the Greek Catholic Church, said in an interview with DW. Today pro-Russian separatists often single out the Greek Catholic Church and the Kyiv Patriarchy for vitriol.

Fires burning on Maidan and protesters waving flags (Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/REUTERS)
The churches offered peace prayers during the protests on MaidanImage: Reuters

Frictions over several centuries

In the early 1990s there were scuffles as the rival denominations claimed church buildings. But this has a long history. Divisions between the churches in the 16th and 20th centuries, most for political reasons, still awaken emotions today.

In 988 Saint Volodymyr declared Christianity the religion of Kievan Rus', the embryonic Ukrainian state that Russia and Belarus also regard as their wellspring. As Byzantine-rite Christians, Ukrainians broke with Rome in the Great Schism of 1054. But centuries later, when Ukraine belonged to the Catholic-dominated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, many Orthodox bishops returned to communion with the Pope in Rome, beginning with the Union of Brest in 1596. This was the origin of the Greek Catholic Church.

In 1946, Ukraine's Soviet rulers banned the Greek Catholic Church and handed its property over to the Russian Orthodox Church. This inevitably caused conflict when the ban was lifted in 1989. The Greek Catholic Church shaped the national consciousness in western Ukraine since the 19th century and in 1991 it played an important role in the founding of the independent Ukrainian state.

Two men in black stand in front of a cross and a statue of Mary (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/REUTERS)
For many Ukrainians the churches are the only institutions in the country with an positive imageImage: Reuters

The Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchy came into being in 1992. The reason for its founding was the refusal of the Moscow Patriarchate to award the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly - autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Special calculation?

But since the Ukrainian revolution, the usually Kremlin-close Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has been distancing himself from President Vladimir Putin, perhaps out of fear of losing Ukrainian believers. He stayed away from Putin's jubilant speech following the annexation of Crimea. And he has not transferred the Crimean diocese to the Russian church, leaving it under Ukrainian control.

"The loss of the Ukrainian church would be disastrous for the Moscow Patriarchy. Kyiv is the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy," Andriy Mykhaleyko, a church historian, said. About 30 percent of Russian Orthodox parishes are on Ukrainian soil. The Moscow-loyal Orthodox Church appears "as pro-Ukrainian as never before," he said.

The country's religious leaders already advocated Ukrainian approach to the EU in September 2013. In a joint message, the heads of all major denominations wrote that the country should become "an independent state in a circle of free European peoples."

United in protest

All Ukraine's churches offered support to the anti-government Euromaidan movement during the winter. They spoke out in favor of human rights and civil liberties and against corruption. There were prayer tents on the Maidan, the center of the protests, and they held services on the central stage used by the protest movement.

Ralf Haska (Photo: Liliya Grischko/DW)
Ralf Haska compares the churches' actions with the events of 1989 in East GermanyImage: DW/K. Grischko

"There were parallels to 1989 in East Germany," said Ralf Haska, pastor of the German Evangelical Lutheran parish of St. Catherine in Kyiv. "The churches here gave a forum to the protesters and also supported their justified protest."

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