Zelensky vs. the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The UOC has opposed the invasion and supported the Ukrainian cause. So why is the government calling them Russian agents?
On January 2, an Orthodox church in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, was covered in blood. In the morning, a man burst into the church and turned the crucifix over, broke several icons, threw banners on the floor, and finally cut the priest’s throat with a razor. A few days earlier, in the city of Chornomorsk, parishioners of an Orthodox church only at the last moment disarmed a man who was about to stab the priest with a knife. In the village of Chechelnyk, a man in camouflage brutally beat a priest right on the street, breaking his nose and shouting curses.
There is a backstory to the above. Stand-up comedians at Kvartal 95, the film studio co-founded by now President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recently released a video where they obscenely insulted Orthodox priests and publicly wished them death. The video is a news parody in the style of The Daily Show that mocks the church and refers to its clergy as “Russian agents.” Many experts see a direct connection between the appeals of the actors and the recent violence.
The target of all these attacks is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which used to be in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate but has had an independent and autonomous status for more than 30 years.
The religious situation in modern Ukraine is complicated. The country has been considered Orthodox since 988, when the bishops of Constantinople baptized this land, which was then ruled by the Kievan Rus. The Russian Orthodox Church originates from Kyiv. The first metropolitans of this church had their sees there, and only centuries later were they transferred to Moscow. It was not until 1686 that the Greek patriarch entrusted the Kyiv Metropolis, which was then subordinate to the church of Constantinople, to the Russian church.
Under the USSR, the Orthodox Church in Kyiv was almost destroyed, but it was resurrected after the fall of the Soviet regime. In 1990, the Russian church granted full administrative independence to its Ukrainian bishops under the name of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Although many call it the “Moscow Patriarchate” by inertia, it is a completely independent structure in terms of governance. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church elects its primate and bishops on its own with no regard for Moscow. There is no “Moscow Patriarchate” in its official name.
The emergence of independent Ukraine in 1991 and the activation of Ukrainian nationalism plunged the Orthodox environment into turmoil. Filaret, the ruling bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), broke away from the church, with the help of the new Ukrainian authorities, and founded a new church structure, which he called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Several other priests founded another structure, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).
The rest of world Orthodoxy never recognized these structures. The fact is that there are very strict rules called canons in the Orthodox Church. For ecclesiastical crimes, Filaret was in 1992 deprived of his episcopal dignity and of divine power in the performance of church sacraments. Even though Filaret continued to perform ordinations, baptisms, and church wedding ceremonies, the sacraments were invalid.
However, bishops, like all people, live in the modern world and are affected by outside influences. This is what happened with the head of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
In 2018, the multimillionaire and then president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko went to Istanbul to Patriarch Bartholomew and requested a legalization document (tomos) for the unrecognized Ukrainian churches, the UOC-KP and the UAOC. At the same time, pressure was put on the UOC so that it would join these breakaway structures.
The reason for Poroshenko’s activity was simple. He was preparing for the presidential elections of 2019 and his program was anchored in three words: “army, language, faith.”
Thus, at the end of 2018, Bartholomew revoked the act of 1686 transferring the Kyiv Metropolis to the Russian Church. He reinstated Filaret in his priesthood and retroactively recognized all rites performed by the anathematized metropolitan. The two churches were united under the name the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU), and Filaret’s disciple Epifaniy was elected as its head of the OCU. Poroshenko presided over this unification council like the emperor Constantine.
At that time, the UOC was twice as big as the OCU. Millions of Ukrainians call themselves parishioners of the UOC throughout the country. However, this did not bother either Bartholomew or Poroshenko. The latter began to implement a campaign throughout the media where the UOC was called the “Moscow Church” and the OCU the “Ukrainian,” although there are only Ukrainians in both denominations. The authorities arranged “transitions” of church communities from the UOC to the OCU. Everyone was invited to these transition meetings—Catholics, Protestants, atheists—despite the fact that, according to the law, only members of the Orthodox parish are allowed to vote. The news in 2019 was full of photos and videos where church doors were broken open with a crowbar or cut off with an angle grinder.
If you think that the United States stood aside while this was unfolding, you are mistaken. The State Department and politicians of both parties carried out work to promote the new church. Two months before the creation of the OCU in 2018, Filaret and Epifaniy met in the United States with Joe Biden, who declared his gratitude for their work. State Department Ambassador for Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and special representative for Ukraine Ambassador Kurt Volker declared their support for this project.
Immediately after its creation, the OCU received its first official congratulations from the State Department and the U.S. Embassy. At the same time, Ambassador Brownback and the U.S. ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt—who was also ambassador to Ukraine from 2013 to 2016—visited church leaders and Mount Athos to urge them to recognize the OCU. Both Ambassador Volker and Secretary Pompeo met with Epifaniy many times. All facts indicate that the promotion of the OCU was part of U.S. policy in Ukraine.
However, this policy almost failed when the comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy unexpectedly became president in the 2019 elections. He immediately stated that he did not intend to interfere in the affairs of churches. During the campaign, he ridiculed Poroshenko’s church trump cards at the pre-election debate and comically pretended to mix up the tomos for the OCU with a thermos (these words also sound similar in Ukrainian).
For a time, it seemed that the seizure of UOC churches was at an end. The church conflict in Ukraine was frozen, and a fragile balance was established. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, alongside the support for that invasion by the leadership of the Russian Church in Moscow, changed everything. Seizures of UOC churches resumed, carried out by the forces of radicals without the participation of the central government. And this was only the calm before the storm.
For the first six months of the war, Zelenskyy and Ukrainian officials emphasized that the UOC is a Ukrainian denomination that completely took the side of its people. That took a U-turn at the end of 2022. The central authorities brought down repressions on the UOC; in comparison, Poroshenko’s methods seemed like child’s play.
Cathedrals and monasteries were searched by Ukrainian SBU officers, who reported that they allegedly found evidence of collaboration between bishops and priests of the UOC and the enemy. These findings were often ridiculous. Security officials exhibited photos of children’s bibles, prayer books, old liturgical books, archival collections of newspapers and magazines featuring the words “Russian,” and Christmas or Easter sermons of the Russian Church patriarch. In cases where there was nothing to find, the special services planted compromising evidence themselves.
For instance, in the church of Hlynsk village, near Rivne, the security services planted “enemy” leaflets while the pastor was busy purchasing cars for the Ukrainian army with money raised by his community. “I received a call from the headman, who said that he was not allowed into the temple. People from the SBU examined the church themselves, then called the headman and led him to the closet, where they took out two packs of leaflets, which they had put there on their own because there could not be postcards of such content in our church,” rector priest Vasyl Nachev told us.
The true details of these searches are practically unknown to Ukrainians. Instead, it is widely reported in all media that the special services find much evidence of collaboration with the enemy in UOC churches. Thus the UOC is cast as an enemy in Ukrainian society, the consequences of which we described above.
Fox News journalist Tucker Carlson assessed the situation accurately: “Zelenskyy’s secret police have raided monasteries across Ukraine, and even a convent full of nuns, and arrested dozens of priests for no justifiable reasons whatsoever and in clear violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, which no longer matters. And in the face of this, the Biden’s administration has said nothing. Not one word. Instead, they continue to push to send Zelenskyy more tax dollars.”
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Carlson is absolutely right. The president, in violation of Ukrainian laws, imposed sanctions against Ukrainian bishops and then revoked the Ukrainian citizenship of some other bishops, despite the fact that this clearly contradicts the constitution.
The situation is even more absurd because the UOC is doing everything to help its people in this unjust war. According to official data, the church renders great assistance to the army, internally displaced persons, and the needy. The assistance to the army has reached nearly a million dollars, and 180 tons of humanitarian aid have been delivered for the Armed Forces of Ukraine—impressive given that people in Ukraine are not at all rich and their donations to temples are very scarce. In addition, at the UOC’s main council in May 2022, it adopted a number of decisions to break off canonical spiritual ties with the ROC.
However, it seems that Zelenskyy is set to completely outlaw and destroy the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. On January 20, a bill on the de facto ban of the UOC was submitted to parliament. The initiator of the law was no ordinary parliamentarian but the prime minister, Denys Shmyhal. It marks a return to a shameful era when a state in the center of Europe intends to crack down on the religion of its own people.