Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church

Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church

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Cyril Hovorun, acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University, and Adrian Karatnycky, nonresident senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, discuss Russia, Ukraine, and the geopolitical implications of the current Orthodox Church crisis, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


Cyril Hovorun

Acting Director, Huffington Ecumenical Institute, Loyola Marymount University

Adrian Karatnycky

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available out our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have with us Adrian Karatnycky and Cyril Hovorun for a discussion on Russia, Ukraine, and the geopolitical implications of the current Orthodox Church crisis.

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He is on academic leave from Sankt Ignatius Theological Academy in Sweden and the Stockholm School of Theology. He has chaired the department of external relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and worked on the modernization of theological education in the Russian Orthodox Church as part of the educational committee of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Adrian Karatnycky is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He is a founder and co-director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. From 1993 to 2004, he was president and executive director of Freedom House, where he directed its benchmark survey, Freedom in the World, and was co-editor of the annual Nations in Transit study of reform in the post-Communist world.

Thank you both for being with us today.

Mr. Karatnycky, let’s begin with you to get a political overview of the current conflict involving Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church. And then we will turn it over to Professor Hovorun to talk about the autocephaly process and what it means for Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church.

KARATNYCKY: So we’re here to discuss why events that occurred at 1654 and 1686 resonate with great importance in 2018. That should not be a surprise for a country such as Ukraine, which is a relatively newly formed country that is dealing with the impact of events that attached it significantly to the Russian empire for a number of centuries. The events around the creation of a national Orthodox church in Ukraine, freed from its links to Moscow, is a central issue that can undermine Vladimir Putin’s project of in-gathering the old empire and of perpetuating the view that Ukrainians are a branch of the Russian nation.

So the events around the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine have their currency and gathered dynamism—and Ukraine’s search for independence from the Moscow Patriarchate gathered dynamism as a consequence of the fact that Ukraine is in the fifth year of an invasion and occupation of its territories by Russia. Of course, as most of you know, seven percent of Ukrainian territory is now under Russian control. Approximately four and a half million citizens are in areas that are either Russian controlled, Russian occupied, or Russian annexed. And nearly two and a half million people have been displaced, 1.8 million internally in Ukraine. The balance have fled and acquired refugee status primarily in Russia.

There are eleven thousand dead on the Ukrainian side of the conflict, both civilian and military. And the work continues at lower levels of intensity. As a result of this conflict and mayhem over the last four or five years, there has been great impact on the worldview of many Ukrainian citizens. And their views of Russia, NATO, and the EU have shifted dramatically to a point where today the vast majority of Ukrainians favor EU integration, while only a smattering of support remains for being part of the Russia-Eurasian economic and political space. And a plurality of the public supports Ukraine’s joining NATO, but by a two-to-one margin compared to those who are opposed.

Domestically, President Poroshenko has been implementing policies of more intensive Ukrainianization in radio, television, and education, and more recently in the print media. Russian television has been banned from Ukrainian airwaves as a result of the conflict because of the proliferation of Russian themes on the war. Russian social media has been excluded from the Ukrainian market. So all of these things are the backdrop around which the events concerning the declaration of a tomos and a movement toward a national Ukrainian Orthodox Church, that would be separated after a centuries-long links with the Moscow patriarchate. And we’ll hear more about that from my colleague, Dr. Hovorun.

President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian legislature, the Rada, were crucial actors in the move towards a canonically legitimate national Orthodox church. One of the president’s key advisors, Rostyslav Pavleko, was charged with a long-term effort to lead out to the leaders of the world’s Orthodox churches and their home governments to build support for the process that was occurring and the dialogue that was ongoing with the Constantinople patriarch. And so that it was in fact a parliamentary resolution which was cited by the patriarch as one of the triggers for action by Constantinople. But the work towards this has been ongoing for the three decades since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991.

Before I turn it over to Dr. Hovorun, just a few basic facts on polling data that show religious affiliation. Ukraine has a community with a very large proportion of believers in its midst. Some polls show that non-believers represent less than ten percent of the population. Forty-six percent of those who express an affiliation identify with the Ukrainian Kyiv Patriarchate. Thirteen percent, in some polls up to twenty percent, with the Moscow Patriarchate. Six percent with the Uniate Church. Twenty-two percent say they belong to no confession. And a lot of Orthodox—again, if you ask Orthodox Christians which, again, represent probably about seventy-five to eighty percent of the population of all Orthodox Christians, again fifty-six percent identify with the Kyiv Patriarchate, sixteen percent with Moscow, nineteen percent say we’re simply Orthodox.

But in terms of churches and religious communities, there is a predominance in the churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. They have twelve thousand religious communities, compared to six thousand from the ones that are independent of Moscow and were, until recently, regarded as non-canonical and not in communion with the rest of world Orthodoxy. So that’s a little bit of the background. The restoration of canonicity to the Orthodox Church and the removal by the patriarch of—its leaders, is a substantial setback both for President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which, together with the imperial project, the projection of Russian power and raw materials-fed economic growth, have been the pillars of Putin’s declining popularity, which is about forty percent now from a high of sixty or sixty-five percent in its recent apex.

It can be said that all these pillars are under stress. All these pillars of Putin’s popularity. The Russian Church is weakened by Constantinople’s actions. The imperial project is being undermined by a real, legitimate process of Ukrainian national consolidation as a result of the reaction to Russia’s war. The projection of Russian power externally is showing its limits. And economic growth has been stalled by demographic problems, by sanctions, and by the revolution in oil and gas extraction.

So that’s the broad context. And I will turn it over for the nitty-gritty to Dr. Hovorun.

HOVORUN: All right.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Adrian. Go ahead.

HOVORUN: Yes. Thank you. Thank you, again, for your introduction. You already touched on some points—the religious points of this story. Indeed, there is an ongoing story about the Ukrainian church. There is—well, there are many news, and publications on the issue. Well, the issue has to do with the structure of the eastern Christianity. Unlike the structure of the western Christianity, which is either very monarchial, the papal system of the Catholic Church, or the Protestant churches, which are essentially congregations—congregational systems, the eastern—the eastern Christianity is different in its structure.

It is structured around the so-called autocephalous churches, or self-headed independent churches. And autocephaly is one of the keywords of the vocabulary in the eastern Christianity, together with other keywords such as tomos, such as patriarchate. And those keywords actually come up from time to time quite often in the narratives about the current situation in Ukraine. In my very short presentation I’d like to say a few words about each of those keywords, because they will lead us to further discussion.

So autocephaly, as I mentioned, is the basic structure of the eastern Christianity. The eastern church has—the eastern church has fifteen autocephalous churches—self-headed independent churches, which are in communion with one another. They’re very similar to, say, a British commonwealth, where the nations are united—the nations that belong to the commonwealth are united to one another, but they are independent and politically and in many other—and in other senses. So the Orthodox churches are the—they are like a commonwealth of independent churches.

The first among those churches is the is the Ecumenical Patriarchate that has right to entertain appeals to make judgements regarding the behavior of other churches sometimes, even though this right is limited. It’s not the same as the right of the pope of Rome, for instance. And it also has right to create new independent churches. The Ecumenical Patriarchate or the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which are the same. They are synonymous terms. He can grant independence to a church by issuing a tomos. A tomos is a document, literally. The word tomos means a document. And the entire story in Ukraine nowadays is around tomos, about a document which is—which has been promised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And this document will create a new independent church in Ukraine.

This church is going to be—to be a patriarchate, apparently. So it was promised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So there will be a patriarch recognized by the rest of the Orthodox Church. So far in Ukraine, there are three major churches. One church is a part of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is called Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Another church is already a patriarchate, the so-called patriarchate of Kyiv, but it is not recognized by any other church. It is illegitimate, as it were. And in the church—in the church language it is called uncanonical. There is a third tiny church which is called Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is independent, but it doesn’t have the status of patriarchate.

So the plan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is to consolidate those churches in Ukraine, those Christians—Orthodox Christians in Ukraine who want to belong to an independent church—independent from Moscow, primarily. And those Christians should establish a new church, meaning that the existing noncanonical churches, the Kyiv Patriarchate and the autocephalous church would cease to exist. And then need to form a new church. This church will co-exist in parallel with the Moscow Patriarchate. So the Moscow Patriarchate will not go nowhere. Those people in Ukraine who will want to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate will be able to do so. And that’s the religious plurality which is an intrinsic feature of the Ukrainian society will be preserved.

It will be a situation different from many other Orthodox Churches, where there is a monopoly of one single Orthodox Church across the entire nation. Like, for instance, in Romania, in Greece, or in Bulgaria, or Serbia where there was only one church that effectively covers the entire nation. In Ukraine, the situation will be different, so that there will be two recognized canonical Orthodox Churches, one belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate and another one will be independent. Still, this scheme is in the process of making because the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as a preliminary step towards establishing an independent church, reestablished its own infrastructure, its own administrative unit in Ukraine.

I should say maybe a few words to explain this, about how the church was established in Ukraine in the first place. Ukraine was baptized in 988, in the tenth century by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And the Ecumenical Patriarchate established its first church exactly on the territory of modern Ukraine then. And it existed until the end of the seventeenth century, when it was passed to Moscow as a concession, to be managed by the Moscow Church, by a decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate dated 1686.

Now, the Ecumenical Patriarchate claimed back its right, its kind of power, control over the Ukrainian Church back from Moscow, and effectively reestablished its own structure in Ukraine by its decision taken by the synod of the church by October 11 of this year, so very recently. And on the basis of this structure of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it wants to create an independent church. So now we have a structure which belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And the Ecumenical Patriarchate will run this structure independence, autocephaly, and this church will become the independent Ukrainian Church. And again, I want to repeat, it will exist in parallel with the Moscow Patriarchate.

I should also say that that decision on October 11 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate was very important from the ecclesial perspective, because it ended the schism that existed in Ukraine. I mentioned that the two uncanonical, non-recognized Ukrainian churches—the Kyiv Patriarch and the Autocephalous Church—they embraced millions of faithful, and they were regarded outside the communion with the rest of the Orthodox Churches. They were regarded as schismatic. And that was a very bad situation from the ecclesial perspective, because those people were regarded outside the church, per se. So the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate ended the situation, the schism, and reunited those millions with the global Orthodoxy, as it were, and ended the schism.

Of course, Moscow was unhappy about this decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Moscow was given many chances to heal this schism itself, but not a single chance was used by Moscow, unfortunately. And Moscow effectively was interested to preserve the status quo of the schism in Ukraine, in order to manipulate the schism of their political ends. And after Constantinople ended the schism, there is no anymore an instrument how to manipulate the schism. Moscow, by its own decision on the 15th of October ceased communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and declared a schism with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, it seems that it is not a real schism. It is not really a division between the two churches. This division at least has not affected the global Orthodox community.

Most churches have confirmed, and we wait the rest of the churches to confirm, that they will continue their relations, their Eucharistic communion, with both Moscow and Constantinople, meaning that the schism will not happen between Moscow and Constantinople. I would present it as a unilateral crack from Moscow. Moscow decided to stop communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It doesn’t allow its bishops and priests to—you know, to come celebrate the liturgy with the bishops and priests of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But this decision will not be enforced, will not be supported by the rest of the churches. Therefore, it’s not as severe as many people have presented. Still, it is a problem in the relations between the two churches.

But there have been other rifts like that, and they were eventually recovered. Like in 1996, when Constantinople recognized an independent Estonian Church, for instance. Moscow then ceased communion for half a year, and then resumed the communion. So I would hope that their communion will be resumed soon as well. That is my brief kind of introduction to the ecclesial situation in Ukraine.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you both. Let’s open it up to questions and comments from the group.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from José Casanova with Georgetown University.

CASANOVA: Yes. Thank you very much for both introductions. It seems to me the most difficult question facing the Ukraine Orthodox Church is, of course, how to organize a synod to basically organize a process and the election of the leader of the church. And the question is to which extent the existing Patriarch Filaret remains a problem, precisely because his popularity is rather low. Even we’ve seen the faithful of the Kyiv Patriarchate, only fifty percent really view him as the leader of the new church. And most people simply don’t know yet who could be the leader. All the others simply do not appear as positive solutions. So what do you think is going to happen at this level?

HOVORUN: Thank you for this question. This is a completely legitimate and one of the most burning cases pertaining to this story. In this, next step, which is expected from Ukraine—now the ball is on the Ukrainian side—is to organize a council which would establish a new ecclesial structure. And this structure will be recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as an independent church. So this council needs to be gathered, to be convened by the Ukrainian churches. And here, they appear to disagree on how to proceed with that. And it seems that the Kyiv Patriarchate, which will play the major role in organizing this council will want to have some sort of monopoly on the process. And certainly Filaret, who has been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the former metropolitan of Kyiv, he wants to be elected as the patriarch of the new church.

I would say that the bishops will elect the patriarch. Unfortunately, there will be no participation of laity priests in this council. So the bishops, the majority of the bishops, probably in contrast to the laity of the Kyiv Patriarchate, will support Filaret. Therefore, he will have certainly most votes for himself. At the same time, this will frighten out the rest of the bishops, many other bishops from other jurisdictions, primarily from the Moscow Patriarchate, to join the process. And I’ve heard personal kind of reflections and impressions from the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate that they would probably like to join the new church, but they don’t like, you know, the figure of Patriarch Filaret as the primate.

Therefore, there are now very intensive discussions in Ukraine whether Filaret should proceed or should not. My understanding is probably I will reveal a not-well-kept secret at this moment that there was a letter, I think, from Phanar, from the residence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to the Kyiv Patriarchate with some encouragement to Filaret not to proceed to the elections. I don’t know to what extent he will follow this line. I know that there are some reservations in the Ukrainian state, even though the Ukrainian state wants to keep distance from the process of organizing the council because they don’t want to be accused of, you know, interference, intervention to the church matters. But I think they’re cautious. And they also try to facilitate, as it were, the council and to remove unnecessary impediments.

So this is a pending issue. It is a burning issue. It is quite possible that the council will be postponed for a while, meaning that in this case the structure of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine will continue to exist. So formally it does exist in Ukraine, the structure the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And it will continue until the council will be convened. Now, the plans are that the council will be convened maybe in a couple of weeks or so in November. This is if the negotiations between the churches, the existing churches, will be successful. If not, then it will be convened later on, which will have the entire presidential campaign, because I believe for the president it’s important that the council happens sooner rather than later. And this whole process can be postponed.

KARATNYCKY: Can I just add a couple things? One is on the age of Patriarch Filaret. He will be 90 in January of this year, but he is in exceptionally good and robust health, globe-trotting, et cetera, et cetera. Nevertheless, there is a question of his—of his age looming. So this is, you know, not a permanent problem, nor could it be, given the human condition, a permanent problem. As to the politics of it, clearly President Poroshenko, who is running currently second in most polls to Yulia Tymoshenko, the insurgent populist challenger—a close second I would add—is concentrating his politics around, I would say, soft nationalism, which means that he is the person who has helped bring together the national Orthodox church. That he is the person who has strengthened the military and the army. And that he is the person who has strengthened and made more robust the Ukrainian language. All these themes are looming large in his electoral campaign messaging as the election campaign nears. They already are part of billboards all through the country, are strewn with the words, “faith,” “army”—or, “church,” “army,” and “language,” which are—which are a harbinger of how he intends to run his election campaign.

And I agree that the—that the government will retain a distance. Nevertheless, since the government and emissaries of the government played a—I think a fairly important role, the pressure both from the Phanar, from Constantinople, and from Kyiv for the Ukrainians to get their act together and to create an entity which can legitimately then receive the autocephaly will be fairly substantial.

FASKIANOS: All right. Wonderful. Thank you. Let’s move to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Nancy Kuenstner with Saddle Shoe Partners.

KUENSTNER: Hi. This is Nancy Kuenstner. Not an expert on the topic, but just have two questions. If we talk about the different regions of the west—Lviv region, central Kyiv, and the eastern region—what is the impact—where is the impact of these decisions going to be most felt? And these schismatics that were mentioned being outside of the church, is there any concentration of them in any regions of the country that would have political meaning to me? Thank you.

HOVORUN: Well, I think it’s not very much an east-west issue nowadays. Even though, of course, I think the surveys demonstrate that the idea of Ukrainian autocephaly has more supporters in the west than it has in the east. But still even in the east there are many supporters. And I’ve heard stories, like, from the Russian-speaking regions, where many priests in the Moscow Patriarchate express their support to Ukraine autocephaly and would join the autocephalous church, even though they are Russian-speaking, you know.

So it’s not really a regional issue nowadays. Now, it has to do with the region in relationship to the Greek Catholic Church, which is another player. A rather silent player, but very closely observing player. The Greek Catholic Church has expressed its neutrality to this issue. And as you know, it is concentrated mostly in Galicia, in the western regions. And this church affects very much the political developments in the west. So the Greek Catholic Church has expressed its neutrality.

At the same time, it fully endorses the process of autocephaly. And this is an altruistic, somehow, attitude, because the Greek Catholic Church, while many Orthodox Ukrainians after 2014 joined the Greek Catholic Church, after they were disappointed by the policies of the Moscow Patriarchate. And now they may come back to the autocephalous church, which will be a loss to the Greek Catholic Church. Regardless of this potential loss, the Greek Catholic Church has supported this issue because they believe, and rightly so, that this issue will contribute to the solution of issue of war and instability—political instability in Ukraine. So I would emphasize this kind of aspect more than the east-west divide.

KARATNYCKY: Yes. I would say even though it does not break down on an east-west divide, it has implications for the greater cohesiveness of the Ukrainian nation and the nation-building process post-Russian attacks and occupation, in one sense. The Moscow Patriarchate in its prayers, at all liturgies, honors the patriarch of Moscow, which subliminally and factually confers on him a lot of soft power. He then is also a voice that expresses, I would say, Russian foreign policy interests in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. And the diminution of his influence by excluding him from such commemorations will have, over time, some influence on how a number of faithful perceive messages that would come from the Moscow clerical establishment, which is, as I think is well-known, substantially politicized and often working in concert with Russian external policy aims.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Thomas Zain with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

ZAIN: Hi. Good afternoon.

I just had a couple of comments before my question, and with regard to Dr. Hovorun. You stated as kind of a fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has the right to grant autocephaly unilaterally to other churches. But that’s not the case, that most of the other autocephalous churches think that it should be done by consensus. And a lot of the protests coming from the other autocephalous churches is based on this other viewpoint. And that also these schismatic groups still are not recognized by the rest of them, of the other autocephalous churches. They’ve kind of remained neutral to this point, trying to find some peaceful solution to this. But also just because the Ecumenical Patriarchate has recognized them and looked as an anathema to most of the rest of the Orthodox churches, the autocephalous Orthodox churches have not done so, including the other Greek-speaking ones. So we have to—that should be made known to the rest of the group.

But my question is, is there a way out of this—do you feel there’s a way out of this from an ecclesiastical standpoint if this impasse continues between the two churches, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Constantinople? Because in the end if they don’t reconcile—and I think to say—use the example of Estonia is not a good example, because Estonia’s a relatively small place, and a small number of churches. Here, you’re talking about twelve thousand churches of the Moscow Patriarchate. They’re not just going to give those up and say, you know, God bless you, good bye. It’s a whole different ballgame in Ukraine. So my question is, if the two don’t reconcile, it could actually split the Orthodox world. And what do you see the consequences are from that perspective? I know the Ukrainian perspective of the Ukrainian national church, but what about the larger perspective for Orthodoxy around the world?

HOVORUN: Right. Right. Thank you for the question. All those questions are absolutely legitimate. And I would first, repeat my statement that I don’t believe that there will be a global split between the Orthodox churches because already many churches have confirmed that they are not going to take any side in this conflict. And they encourage the two churches, I mean Moscow and Constantinople, to engage in dialogue with one another. Second, I would say that, yes, Estonia is smaller, but the Estonian paradigm, the Russian, is the same with Ukraine. And it can serve as a kind of a model also for solution of the Ukrainian issue.

You are right that the Orthodox Churches have not received openly the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And the process of reception of this decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate has just started. So it may take some time, maybe years, for the churches to eventually accept the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Regarding the procedure of granting autocephaly to the local churches by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, indeed there were discussions as a part of the reconciliatory process that led to the pan-Orthodox council that took place in June 2016 in Greece, from which several churches abstained, like Moscow, Bulgaria, Antioch, and Georgia. So there was—there was already decision how to grant autocephaly to other churches. And this decision envisaged exactly consensus of all churches with granting autocephaly.

Before this process started, the common practice was that the Patriarchate of Constantinople granted a tomos of autocephaly to the churches. This was the case with Poland, with the church of Czechoslovakia, with the Church of Georgia, and so forth, which was confirmed. I mean, the tomos to the Church of Georgia for the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate.

ZAIN: Actually, Antioch gave Georgia autocephaly hundreds of years before that.

HOVORUN: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a long story. I don’t want to go into that detail. But my point is that the practice before the reconciliatory process was that it was accepted that the Church of Constantinople would grant tomos of autocephaly to the churches. And this practice has to be reviewed at the pan-Orthodox council. And the irony is that Moscow torpedoed, effectively, the pan-Orthodox council and any discussion about autocephaly. And eventually, Moscow effectively left the practice as it was before the reconciliatory period, which actually untied the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

So the non-participation of Moscow in the pan-Orthodox council, and the fact that Moscow actually insisted that the issue of autocephaly should be removed from the agenda of the council, helped the Ecumenical Patriarchate to come back to the old practices of granting tomos of autocephaly to other churches. That’s why, well, I think Moscow has to blame itself for what happened. The solution was imminent. It was different. And it as provisioned by the pan-Orthodox council exactly in the way as you explained. But because it was removed from the agenda, Constantinople acted as it used to act.

KARATNYCKY: I’d like to make just one point about the internal dynamics of the Ukrainian Church, which I think needs to be made in this. There are clearly the implications for world Orthodoxy are part of the discussion. But the ecumenical patriarch is also reacting to the urgent needs of a country that is under attack, and at war, and in the interests of its national unification. So long as Russia and Mr. Putin are prosecuting that kind of a war, they will want to preserve a divide within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. That is an aim, to now allow that church to unify, because it would unify naturally under a kind of Ukrainian orientation. And so I don’t think there is any solution so long as the political levers are very powerful on the Moscow patriarch. And the Moscow patriarch should be perceived as a part of the overall Russian strategy vis-à-vis maintaining Ukraine in its cultural, political, and geopolitical orbit.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.


We will take our next question from Leslie Minney with the United States Institute of Peace.

MINNEY: Hello. Thank you all so much.

I’d like to ask sort of a general question. Outside of the three Ukrainian Orthodox Church jurisdictions, and perhaps even the Greek Catholic Church, what is the potential for conflict given the situation and the issue of autocephaly? And what is the role of faith-based communities in mitigating this conflict or engaging civil society in some way? Thank you.

KARATNYCKY: I mean, I think there is a lot of potential for strife if the state doesn’t exert strong protection for the principle of maintaining the independence of these religious institutions, churches, and so on. There are a number of far-right groups that could potentially be instrumentalized in physical takeovers of historically important, culturally important, and religiously important churches, monasteries, and the like. And the state has to act responsibly. And from my understanding, having spoken with some of the people in the Ukrainian government and in the president’s administration who are responsible for the diplomatic side of the—of the discussion, they understood that this was part of the obligation that they take.

It’s also the responsibility, obviously, of the religious leadership. And I think that Dr. Hovorun said it very clearly, that the culture that exists within the Orthodox leadership—both of the Ukrainian Kyiv Patriarchate and the non-Moscow side—and the Moscow side, is not one that is inclined to promote conflict. The Moscow Patriarchate, certainly. There was—there was a very difficult period when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was reemerging from the catacombs after Ukrainian independence. And most of its churches and holdings had be secularized or deconsecrated or had been turned over to the Moscow Patriarchate, or to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

And I think—I think that this was handled by building separate churches. And even during the early period, where the state was relatively weak, this danger was averted. So Ukraine has already had experience of dealing with potential interconfessional strife. And it avoided it at a time when, you know, the state was weaker, and the passions were equally strong, in the early years of independence. I think there is enough understanding that strong efforts will be made to protect the continuity of property, and so on, and to ensure that proper processes occur.

At the same time, it shouldn’t be underestimated what the effect of burying the dead by the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, because a very large proportion of those who are combat dead and civilian dead are really the members of this confession. And the impact on those communities, which understand that it was Russian weapons and Russian-enabled warfare that has brought these thousands of dead to their communities, has created, I think, a healthy, grassroots patriotism. So I think there is over time, there is a very strong ground for, once there is an autocephalous church, for natural processes to move the country in the direction of greater consolidation around the Ukrainian church, rather than around the Moscow church.

HOVORUN: Right. If I may add a few words to that, I completely agree with Adrian. And I should say that the existence of this schism within the Ukrainian Orthodoxy contributed to the rise of hate speech among the religious groups in Ukraine, unfortunately. So the canonical group would blame and curse—even curse—at the noncanonical as schismatics and, you know. It developed a whole culture of cursing and of using really hate speech. Now there are fewer excuses to use hate speech. And this is a good development, I believe. Even though it doesn’t help exactly to eliminate hate speech, because now it has been channeled against the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That same rhetoric that are used against, you know, the schismatic groups, they’re now used against the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But still, I believe that the excuses and the—if there are excuses at all—or reasons to exercise hate speech and, you know, accusations, there are less, fewer excuses like that. And I think it is a good development.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Eleanor Ellsworth with the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

ELLSWORTH: Yeah, thank you. I am wondering if you can comment on whether or not there’s any level whatsoever of NATO engagement or consideration in this theological situation there.

KARATNYCKY: As far as I know there is no direct NATO involvement. There have been comments both from Sam Brownback and from Kurt Volker, who is the State Department emissary on Ukraine, in support of the process that has been occurring. But that’s occurred on the basis of, you know, several United States officials supporting that process as helping to strengthen the legitimacy and the unity of the Ukrainian people. But NATO has not, to my knowledge, taken up this issue, is not engaged. At the same time, separate and apart from this process, the Ukrainian public, because of the war and its sense of vulnerability, has turned much more dramatically in support of NATO membership.

Although, again, polls show that it’s sort of like forty, forty-five percent support NATO; twenty, twenty-five percent are opposed; and the rest are uncertain. There is not a clear majority, but there is a substantial plurality of support for Ukraine moving more vigorously towards NATO membership. But that is clearly independent of this. NATO doesn’t really have a big cultural presence in Ukraine. They have a very modest office in Kyiv, staffed by, I think, a handful of people. And there is not a very robust presence culturally in terms of, you know, their presence in the media, et cetera, et cetera. Although there are occasional visits of the secretary-general, I’ve not heard any comments whatever on interconfessional matters from—emanating from those circles.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jack Figel with the Washington Theological Consortium.

FIGEL: Yes. I ask the question of either of our speakers, and that is what impact the situation in Ukraine and the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate vis-à-vis Ukraine might have on the official dialogue between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church globally.

HOVORUN: Well, the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate in response to the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was to withdraw any participation in any dialogue where there is presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Meaning that their official office for Catholic dialogue, which includes the representatives of all Orthodox churches and the Catholic community on the other side, will effectively be suspended. Not in the sense that they will not continue to meet. I think they will continue to meet and discuss their issues. But without the participation of Moscow. Moscow has decided to stop its participation in any official dialogue.

The dialogue will be deficient. It will be unable to take any decision, to receive any document which is supposed to be received by all members, because there will be no membership of Russia, until Russia reconsiders its decision. However, in parallel to that, there are other unofficial dialogues. Like, for instance, I just came back from a meeting of the unofficial Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in Austria, which continues to working properly, regardless of the discussion of the decision of the Russian Church. And we’ve just adopted a very important document on primacy and synodality. So the contacts continue to develop. The dialogue continues. However, not on the official level. On the official level it has been impeded, I would say. Yes, I would put in this way.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from José Casanova, Georgetown University.

CASANOVA: Well, thank you for having the opportunity to intervene again. My only—it’s more a comment than a question, that says that I think long term what we can anticipate to happen is that we are going to have three churches in Ukraine, each of them headed by somebody with the title of metropolitan of Kyiv, and one under the jurisdiction of Rome, namely the Greek Catholic Church. One under the more jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch, the second Rome. And a third, under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, the third Rome. So actually, to have three churches under three Romes, if they learn to live together as sister churches, is the most positive development that Ukraine could offer to Christian communities.

HOVORUN: Yeah. Well, if I may answer this comment, I will respond to this comment briefly. Well, so far, there are three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and one Greek Catholic Church, as you rightly indicated. After this decision, the number of the churches will be reduced, which is already a good token. So there will be two Orthodox Churches and one Greek Catholic Church. In some sense, this situation will be very similar to the situation that existed, say, in the fifteenth century or sixteenth century, where there were two Kyiv metropolitan, one under the Ecumenical Patriarchate and another independent in Moscow, because the metropolitan of Moscow had the title of the metropolitan of Kyiv. And essentially they—originally the one metropolitan of Kyiv was separated, divided into two metropolitans. And this situation will reappear now, it seems. And there will be a Greek Catholic Church, indeed.

I think that the plurality of the Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine will be beneficial for the church, because the Orthodox will learn to respect one another. And this lesson of respecting one another will be very helpful for the ecumenical situation in Ukraine and outside Ukraine. The Orthodox were somehow excluded in Ukraine from the process of appreciating plurality, religious plurality in Ukraine. And the schism contributed to, you know, this isolationist and exclusivist model of Orthodox. Nowadays, the existence of two recognized canonical jurisdictions will help the Orthodox to appreciate plurality. Therefore, I think it is a positive development.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will come from Jayson Casper, Christianity Today.

CASPER: Thank you for your presentations. I have two questions in the little bit of time left. One, are you able to summarize the perspective of minority Protestant communities in Ukraine or Russia concerning this? And, secondly, there has been much talk about the political implications, leaning towards Moscow or to Kyiv, or to questions of leadership personality, in which patriarchs or bishops might be favored. What is the idealistic viewpoint that the honest-to-god parish priests may be deciding on which way they would like their congregations to lead in this struggle? Thank you.

HOVORUN: I think as regards the Protestant minorities in Ukraine, my personal encounters with those minorities indicate that they are in support of this process, most of them. This applies actually to most Protestant churches in Ukraine. And it is quite funny that the Protestants in Ukraine now learned all those words from the Orthodox vocabulary. They also talk about tomos, autocephaly. It’s not a part of their tradition. It’s not a part of their theology or culture, and they seem to be immersed now in the discussions and participate in them fully. And my impression is that they endorse this process because of what I just said, that I think they believe that this process will help the Orthodox to appreciate plurality in Ukraine. Meaning, that it will help the Orthodox to appreciate the Protestant churches in Ukraine to be more tolerant to the Protestant churches.

That’s my take. Maybe it’s subjective, but that’s how I see it. Maybe Adrian can answer this too.

KARATNYCKY: Well, I just want to add one thing, and that is while there may be some bumps in the road for ecumenical dialogue, on the Ukrainian level, even after the anathematization of the Kyiv Patriarchate, there is a Ukrainian council of churches and religious organizations which has functioned with a lower-level participation of the Ukrainian church affiliated with Moscow throughout the last decades. In particular, there is a vigorous dialogue with Jewish leaders who participate in this structure, the Orthodox leaders.

HOVORUN: Mmm hmm, and Muslim as well.

KARATNYCKY: —and the Evangelical, as well as Protestant denominations. So there is a mechanism. It’s really a mechanism to protect the space to maintain a maximum amount of political, religious space for these communities. But there is a healthy dialogue and cooperation. And I think through that mechanism, they meet regularly. They have regular meetings with government officials, as a group. They travel together occasionally on missions. They were traveling after the conflict erupted to build support for Ukraine, and for Ukraine’s position when it was under fierce Russian attack. That is one of the mechanisms through which there is support and understanding at the higher level.

FASKIANOS: And if I could just use my prerogative to just ask you one final. What is the U.S. government’s position on the current crisis?

KARATNYCKY: I don’t know if it’s an official State Department position, but the State Department’s official Ukraine representative, Ambassador Kurt Volker, has said that the United States welcomes the actions of the ecumenical patriarch. And Sam Brownback, the ambassador for religious issues, has issued a similarly supportive statement. So the U.S. seems to be on board for this process at a fairly formal level.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Cyril, any final thoughts?

HOVORUN: Well, I just want maybe to add to that that the Russian propaganda has already used this idea of the U.S. backing, you know, the process of autocephaly. And they’ve painted the process of autocephaly as American driven. But I think it is a misrepresentation, indeed, and it is just the usual propaganda, which has nothing to do with reality.

FASKIANOS: Well, on that note, we thank you both, Dr. Cyril Hovorun and Adrian Karatnycky, for sharing your insights and analysis with us, and to all of you with your terrific questions and comments. We appreciate it. And you can follow both on Twitter, @Cyril_Hovorun and Adrian at @MyrmidonGroup. And we also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about our latest resources. Please do email us at [email protected] with any suggestions on future calls or events, feedback, et cetera. And, again, thank you both for being with us today. We really appreciate it. And we will continue to watch this unfold. Thank you.

HOVORUN: Thank you. Thank you for your help.

KARATNYCKY: My pleasure.


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