“Religion is a weapon and a victim of the conflict in Ukraine”

This Interview with ICLRS Visiting Fellow Dmytro Vovk, Director of the Center for Rule of Law and Religion Studies at Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv, Ukraine , is reproduced here with the permission of IVERIS (Institute de Veille et d’Études des Relations Internationales et Stratiques) and interviewer Bruno Husquinet .  Dr. Vovk is the co-editor with Elizabeth Clark of  Religion during Russian-Ukrainian Conflict (Routledge 2019).  He was a member of the Inaugural Class of the ICLRS Young Scholars Fellowship on Religion and the Rule of Law, which took place in summer 2018 in Oxford. 

The Autocephaly granted to the Ukrainian Church created headlines in the international media about an aspect of the situation in Ukraine that had remained a concern for specialists. Not surprisingly there are two divergent narratives on events. On the one hand, Moscow is outraged by the decision and reads this step as a politically motivated act to tear Ukraine apart from Moscow. On the other hand, most Western chancelleries welcomed the creation of a new Orthodox church independent from Moscow, who stands accused of playing a negative role in Ukraine. On February 3, 2019 Epiphany was enthroned as the first patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a title that few Orthodox Churches recognize for the moment. IVERIS has discussed the theopolitical situation with Ukrainian specialist Dmytro Vovk to shed further light onto a complex matter that has not finished shaking the world of soft religious politics.

IVERIS: Dear Professor Vovk, before the Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence from Moscow to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there were three orthodox churches in Ukraine.  Could you tell us what is happening with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the self-declared autocephalous Ukrainian Church (UAOC)? Have they blended their clergy and parishes?

Dmytro Vovk: We need to consider the situation from two perspectives, the canon law and the secular law. Although I am not specialised in canon law, I understand that canonically there are no UOC-KP and UAOC anymore. At the Unifying Council (Sobor) these churches were dissolved and their clerics (along with some clerics of the UOC-MP) established the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Legally the situation is different. The Kyiv Metropolis of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), that is the ruling center of the new church, was registered at the end of January. So, communities of UOC-KP and UAOC have not dissolved or re-registered as communities of OCU yet; neither are they blended de facto. Over the last two months, around 150 communities of UOC-MP decided to switch church jurisdiction and join the newly created OCU, but in fact, as I understand, they have joined the UOC-KP, that is now under control of a relevant ruling bishop of UOC-KP.

The situation should be regularized soon. Nevertheless, shall clarity emerge within secular law, it does not mean that on the ground everything will be solved. Let’s imagine that leaders of the new church decide to blend parishes of UOC-KP, UOC-MP and UAOC located in the same village into one unique parish. Such a decision could create serious power struggles in these new parishes between the priests belonging to the three churches. We can imagine that some parishes will nominally transfer to the new church, but will continue to exist separately.

IVERIS: In 1594, the Ukrainian Uniat Church was created when Rome and Moscow were competing for influence in central Europe. The Uniat Church followed the Orthodox rites but was attached to the catholic pope; hence it is called the Greek-Roman Church. During the meeting between the Pope Francis and Russian Patriarchate Kirill in 2016 in Cuba, uniatism has been denounced. Can you tell us what is the reaction of the Ukrainian Greek-Roman Church to the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

DV: Let me first make a point on the wording. In Ukraine, the word “uniat” is used only by radical pro-Russian milieu within the UOC-MP as a derogative reference to the Greek-Roman Church. The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Svyatoslav Shevchuk warmly welcomed the establishment of the OCU and initiated cooperation between OCU and UGCC “in the name of common good, heritage, a single European, independent, united [Ukrainian] state”. Interestingly, the support of the Orthodox autocephaly among Greek-Catholic Ukrainians is, according to some sociological surveys, even higher than among some circles in the UOC-KP. To me, this support is predominantly an expression of patriotism amongst Greek Catholics who see in the autocephaly a defeat of Russia. Nowadays, relations between UGCC and UOC-KP are much better than they were in the 1990s, when the churches fought over parishes. So, I don’t think that the new OCU will conflict with the influential UGGC as they share a common enemy in the UOC-MP. It is worth mentioning that UGCC is the predominant church in two regions of Ukraine. Some of Ukrainian top-level politicians, such as the former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk and the speaker of the Parliament Andriy Parubiy, are members of the Greek-Catholic Church. So the church has strong political sponsors and enjoys political weight. In 2017, President Poroshenko praised the former head of UGCC Liubomyr Guzar during his New Year speech to the nation. In a high symbolic gesture, he held this speech in front of St Michael Monastery, which belongs to the UOC-KP.

Having said that, it does not mean that the entire community of Ukrainian orthodox and Ukrainian Greek-Catholics do not breed grudges against each other. A small fraction from the UOC-KP still hold that the Greco-Catholics invaded the Orthodox territory and some Greco-Romans have not forget that some Greco-Catholics temples were forcibly taken by the Soviet authorities and turned into Orthodox churches. Furthermore, the UGCC insists on its status of national church rooted in the Kiev tradition. Such statement certainly sounds ambiguous in the Ukrainian Orthodox milieu, which also claims the title of national church.

To conclude, the relation between the OCU / UOC-KP and the UGCC is not exactly what you would call a true love. Yet, it is unlikely that they would confront each other unless the OCU becomes the dominant church in Ukraine. For the moment, as this scenario is off the table, the OCU and the UGCC need to cohabit.

IVERIS: The new Metropolit of Kiev and all Ukraine, Epiphany was a former bishop of UOC-KP. Could you tell us how he was chosen and what is his authority today?

DV: Although he was not much known to the public before the last months of 2018, Epiphany is the right-hand man of Filaret, the head of UOC-KP. Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew was against the nomination of Filaret, as some bishops would have been reluctant to join the new church headed by such divisive personality as Filaret. The nomination of Epiphany was thus the logical choice. He is very young, turning 40 in February 3, on the day of his enthronement. He has received a good education and thanks to Filaret, he has rapidly risen to the top of the church hierarchy as the influential rector of the Kyiv spiritual academy.

Filaret probably wishes to remain indirectly in charge. One observer rightfully called Filaret “the shadow primate”. For example, he is still called Patriarch within the UOC-KP, he still makes official statements and takes decisions as the real head of the church. Although Epiphany is not acting fully independently for the moment, he will naturally gain distance from 90-years-old Filaret. Amongst supporters of the autocephaly, many think that, as Schiller writes, “Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen”, Filaret has done his job by bringing autocephaly to the church and he should retire.

Interestingly, some UOC-KP clerics and lay people voted against Epiphany, favoring archbishop Mikhail of Lutsk as the head of the new OCU. President Poroshenko supported yet another candidate, namely UOC-MP Simeon of Vinnitsa as the head of the new church. Eventually, President Poroshenko had to facilitate dialogue between the various groups within the UOC-KP competing for the positions of the head of the new church. Consequently, Mikhail was forced to withdraw his candidature if favor of Epiphany.

IVERIS: So far, only the Constantinople patriarchate has recognised the new Ukrainian church. Is it right to say that the dependence of Kiev has shifted from Moscow to Constantinople? So far, no other Orthodox Church has clearly positioned itself on granting the Tomos to the Ukrainian church. How would you describe the current dynamics in the Orthodox world in relation to what is happening between Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow?

DV: The intricacies of inter-Orthodox relations and the canon law are difficult to read. According to well-established specialist Cyril Hovorun, the OCU is an independent church and Constantinople is its mother church, as per the Tomos.

It would be erroneous to say that dependence has shifted from Moscow to Constantinople. According to the statute of the ROC, the UOC-MP enjoys wide autonomy as a self-ruling church. But in fact, the UOC-MP very much listens to the ROC due to personal ties. Some leaders of the UOC-MP, such as Metropolitan Onufry and the very influential metropolitan Antony of Borispil, identify themselves with the ROC. Consequently, Moscow patriarch Kirill can exert influence over UOC-MP through these individuals. It will be much more difficult for Constantinople to influence the newly established OCU in the same way, particularly because there is no such strong linkages between the Orthodox milieu in Ukraine and in Constantinople.

I think that the autocephaly for the OCU is an episode, a new stage in the conflict between Constantinople and Moscow. This conflict has intensified since the 19th century. The autocephaly is part of Bartholomew’s response to the continual attempts of the ROC to undermine his authority as the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The situation around the Crete Council in 2016 that Moscow refused to attend was a major blow in the relation. I agree with Vasilios Makridies that this stage of the conflict “has just started and, given the pros and cons of both sides, it will be a long one with an open outcome. Whether one of the two sides wins, or a compromise will eventually be reached, remains to be seen

Nonetheless, Constantinople does not want to upset Moscow more than necessary and definitely does not want to give other Orthodox churches any reason not to recognize the new Ukrainian church. I believe that Bartholomew asked Epiphany to make mention of Kirill as the head of ROC (among other heads of autocephalous churches) during his masses. Epiphany had previously refused to do so as he considered the ROC as a tool of the Russian state in the conflict in Ukraine.

As to the recognition of the new Ukrainian church by other autocephalic Orthodox churches, I think it is too early to say. I know that Constantinople, the OCU and the Ukrainian state are actively lobbying to get this recognition, whilst Moscow is counteracting them. My feeling is that at least part of the Orthodox world will recognize the new church.

IVERIS: It is undeniable that there is a strong political will behind granting the Ukrainian Church independence. You have mentioned in a previous speech, that a strong Ukrainian church can be a counter-power, especially with regards to social values, family and education. On the other hand, it is has a strong uniting power. How do you see the future relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers in Ukraine today?

DV: In my speech at the International Center for Law and Religious Studies (ICLRS) Symposium I elaborated on the ethical and political choices made by major Ukrainian churches, particularly UOC KP and UGCC. The Ukrainian government uses major churches, except for the UOC MP, as a vector to promote its European integration policy and its views of the conflict with Russia. A popular meme in Ukraine calls the “Atheists of Kiev Patriarchate”, the non-religious people who highly support the autocephaly as a tool to counteract and defeat Moscow.

Let’s have a look at the situation and the ambivalence that Ukrainian churches feel towards European integration. They support European integration as a way to move away from Moscow and to rejoin an abstract “European home”. Yet, Ukrainian churches do not fully rejoice at the idea of complying with all human rights standards and accepting limitation of the state’s sovereignty on some matters. I am referring to an existential fear that churches express towards a European illness that they refer to as “liberal or aggressive secularism”. Churches dread being driven towards a more diverse, pluralistic and tolerant society in Ukraine. To illustrate my words, I would like to revert to the speech that Patriarch Filaret delivered in May 2018 at the European Parliament. He declared that Ukraine is part of Europe, emphasizing that the genuine foundation and real values of Europe are Christianity and democracy. According to Filaret, loosing this foundation and therefore denying the Christian morale values could undermine the European home. There is nothing new about this position. Almost all Orthodox Churches in the Eastern Europe share this ambivalent attitude when it comes to the European integration of their countries. The Ukrainian churches, however, are different in the sense that they actively promote European integration as a political geopolitical choice in the context of the conflict with Russia. Consequently, as Ukraine moves further towards European integration, churches will express their skepticism and wariness louder, being at odds with Ukrainian authorities. Socially, Ukrainians overwhelmingly express negative attitude towards LGBTQ issues and some aspects of gender equality for example. Thus the problem is not that OCU (or UGCC) considers that Western EU has made moral compromises. The problem is that the churches reflect the opinion of the majority of Ukrainians.

Approximately 75% of Ukrainians identify themselves as Orthodox but 90% of them are not “churchified” (воцерковленные), a neologism meaning that they do not attend church and do not live a pastoral life. Such factual reality limits the influence of the church to the church-goers only. Moreover, in Ukraine today, political views are associated to an Orthodox church: if you are a Ukrainian patriot, you will probably adhere to the UOC-KP or the OCU. If you are more pro-Russian or anti-Western, you will prefer UOC-MP.

Currently, the newly established OCU greatly depends on the state and will avoid any conflict. The OCU will try to enter into a special partnership with the state as in other Orthodox Post-Soviet countries, namely Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Russia, but it faces several serious challenges. Firstly, the UOC-MP remains the largest church in the Eastern and Southern Ukraine and, as such, the local authorities in these regions will continue to favor UOC MP over the OCU. Furthermore, should President Poroshenko lose the presidential elections in March 2019, it is not guaranteed that the OCU will benefit from the same presidential support as it does now. In a nutshell, I don’t expect any serious dispute between the OCU and secular authorities in the near future. Equally, I don’t think we will have the same model as in other Orthodox Post-Soviet countries, because the UOC-MP remains strong and because there are influential minorities, such as the Greek-Catholics and Protestants. Finally, to have a type of state-church relationship as in Russia, you need a political regime like in Russia. And that’s not the case in Ukraine.

The relations between the state and the UOC-MP will likely get tenser. On 20 December 2018, the Parliament approved a law forcing the UOC-MP to change its name to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Personally, I do doubt that the state can impose restrictions on the church’s name and the UOC-MP could challenge the decision at the European Court of Human Rights. Even if the Ukrainian authorities perceive the UOC-MP as a politically-biased institution and would like it to identify itself with Russia, the UOC-MP is not a political party or a lobby. Authorities cannot impose the same restrictions on a church as it does on a political institution. In yet another attempt to diminish the influence of the UOC MP, the Parliament last January approved a few amendments to the Law on Religious Organizations to ease the transfer of UOC-MP communities to OCU. In his speeches and on social media, President Poroshenko encourage UOC-MP communities to join the new church, calling UOC MP as “a non-Ukrainian church” and celebrating OCU as “the church without Putin”. In these highly spirited times, the Ukrainian society, including mainstream intellectuals, media and academics considers the OCU as a friend whilst the UOC-MP is seen as a foe.

IVERIS: The self-declared republics of Luhansk and Donetsk are predominantly Russian-speaking and most people follow the Moscow patriarchate. Some accounts of repression against protestant in the Donbass raised again the question of religion as an identifier and therefore a source of confrontation in the ongoing conflict. What positive role could religious leaders play to contribute to the resolution of the conflict?

DV: I am fairly pessimistic on this issue. The UOC-MP has gained a de facto status of official religion in DPR/LPR, whilst other religions, be they “non-traditional” such as the Hare Krishnas or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or associated with Ukraine, such as Greek Catholics and the UOC-KP, are oppressed if not directly prohibited. The self-proclaimed republics follow Russia’s religious policy. There are numerous reports about persecutions of priests and believers, violence against them and even murders, confiscation of properties etc.

In my opinion, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not religious. Undoubtedly, Russia makes use of religion in this conflict. For example, Russia claims that Crimea is the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity, when in fact it is the cradle of Christianity in the broader Slavic world. According to Russia’s Russky mir project (Russian world), Moscow draws into its sphere of influence Russian speakers and believers associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. There were several militant groups in Donbas – for example the Russian Orthodox Army – who have come to Ukraine to protect Russian Orthodox Christianity and are been accused of various acts of violence against civilians.

To me, the conflict is more political and geopolitical, than religious: Russia wants to keep its control over Ukraine and prevent the country from joining the EU and most certainly NATO. President Putin wants to maintain satellite regimes in the whole post-Soviet area. In my view, there is no religious agenda and no religious causes for this war. Religion is a weapon and a victim of the conflict. Religious affairs are not discussed during the peace negotiations and I don’t think that religious actors can impact positively on the conflict. It is clear that the ROC lost a lot in this conflict. Since 2010 Patriarch Kirill has regularly visited Ukraine, but since 2014 he is de facto a persona non grata and his church became a symbol of Russian aggression. Before the war, the leaders of the UOC-MP garnered wide spread respect from Ukrainians, especially the previous head of UOC MP Volodymyr Sabodan. Now, the UOC-MP has lost most of its popularity in the Ukrainian society.

The main churches are too weak to push for a peace agenda: the UOC-MP has no credibility as it is perceived as the arm of the Kremlin, and the UOC-KP, the OCU along with the UGCC would never trade their independence for peace in Donbas.

IVERIS: You have mentioned that President Poroshenko might lose the elections. In two months, Ukrainians will elect a new president. What is your concluding remark on the importance of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church in this pre-electoral period?

DV: Undoubtedly, Ukraine promotes autocephaly as part of its national security policy –   President Poroshenko and his team have understood this clearly. The Ukrainian state needs the support of OCU and UGCC to advocate the Ukrainian narrative of the conflict to the outside world. Whoever wins the presidential elections will have to maintain good relations with OCU, because the very premise of the autocephaly is generally popular in the Ukrainian society.

In the unlikely scenario where the next president is pro-Russian president, the church-state relation would change, but this scenario can be ruled out.

I expect the relations between the state and the UOC-MP not to improve as long as the conflict with Russia goes on. For President Poroshenko, the autocephaly was almost a personal project that he strived to achieve. If President Poroshenko is re-elected for a second term, the state will most likely pursue its policy until the Orthodox church of Ukraine (OCU) takes over the UOC-MP. The cases of the state-owned Ukrainian Orthodox monasteries of Kyiv Pechersk and Pochayv Lavras are eloquent. According to Patriarch Filaret, these highly historical and spiritual monasteries must be transferred from the UOC-MP to OCU. If Poroshenko leaves his office, the new president might get less involved in religious matters and take a step back in this religious conflict, however, it will not improve the relations with the UOC-MP anytime soon. The other possible winner of the race for presidency, Yulia Timoshenko, also expresses her support to the informal OCU Patriarch Filaret. According to the last survey around 43 % of Ukrainian Orthodox Christian associate themselves with the newly established OCU against 15% with the UOC-MP. It is a good reason for most top-politicians to maintain good relations with OCU.

IVERIS: thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts and we will continue to follow the situation.