by Mykhailo Cherenkov
Long before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and unproclaimed war in the Donbass, Ukraine had become a religious battleground. Despite the warning of Yurii Chernomorets, Cyril Hovorun, and other observers, none of the leading Ukrainian and Western politicians foresaw the threat posed by an increasingly aggressive form of Orthodox Christianity being promoted by Moscow. As events in Ukraine have now shown, Orthodox fundamentalism is no less aggressive than Islamic fundamentalism, and the “Russian Spring” is no less bloody than its Arab counterpart.
The facts speak for themselves: Greek Catholics and Kiev-patriarchate Ukrainian Orthodox churches have become de facto illegal entities in the annexed Crimea; in the Donbass region, an “Orthodox army” is active; dozens of Protestant churches have been seized; there have been cases of kidnapping, torture, and killing of pastors; Moscow-patriarchate priests openly bless terrorists and refuse to pray over deceased Ukrainian soldiers; Patriarch Kirill of Moscow predicts the downfall of Ukraine as a “kingdom divided against itself.”
Russia’s war against Ukraine has exacerbated a series of international, interethnic, and interconfessional conflicts. It is the religious aspect of the conflict that may prove to be the most significant, because Moscow Orthodoxy has been presented as the thing holding the “Russian world” together, and thereby as the main actor in the bloody Russian Spring.
Putin has justified the annexation of Crimea by saying that it has “sacred meaning for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims.” He calls it “the spiritual source of the formation of the multifaced but monolithic Russian nation. . . . It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first and forever recognized their nationhood.”
There is a nineteenth-century saying: “To be Russian is to be Orthodox.” This is becoming the main motive for the consolidation of “Russians” and the defense of the “Orthodox.” The Declaration of Russian Identity, passed at the end of the 2014 Global Russian National Assembly, asserts: “Claims that every Russian must acknowledge Orthodox Christianity as the basis of their national culture are both justified and fair. Rejection of this fact, and even worse, a search for a different religious basis for the national culture, testifies to a weakened Russian identity, to the point of its loss.” In short, Putin has reversed the old principle “Whose realm, his religion” (cuius regio, eius religio) that settled religious loyalties in post-Reformation Europe by allowing the ruler’s Protestant or Catholic commitment to define the religion of the realm. Now Putin seems to presume an expansionist principle: “Whose religion, his realm.”
“The conflict in Ukraine has a clear religious underpinning,” wrote Patriarch Kirill to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in a letter published on the website of the Moscow patriarchate. “Uniates, and schismatics that have joined them, are trying to seize the upper hand over canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine. . . . I ask Your Holiness to do all you can to raise your voice in defense of the Orthodox Christians in eastern Ukraine who, in a situation of increasing violence on the part of Greek Catholics and schismatics, live in daily fear.”
For the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, there are no other Orthodox churches—they are all impostors and schismatics. Additionally, the patriarch hides the well-known fact that even if one accepts the notion of “canonical territory,” Ukraine is on disputed canonical territory and belongs more rightly to the ecumenical patriarchate than to the Moscow patriarchate.