100 Days of the Independent Ukrainian Church

Saken Aymurzaev
02 Apr 2019

Enthronement of the Kiev Metropolitan (Credit: Mikhail Palinchak)

► One hundred days after the establishment of the autocephalous Ukrainian Church, it faces grave opposition from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Nor is there any unanimity within the Church itself; instead, it features a range of conflicting groups, factions, and centers of influence.


In December 2018, eparchs (senior clergy) of Ukraine's three main Orthodox Churches gathered in Kiev’s St. Sophia's Cathedral. Among them were all the bishops of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, as well as two representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Unification Congress—held in the presence of exarchs (envoys) of Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko; and the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Andrey Parubiy—laid the foundation of a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The same congress elected Kiev Metropolitan Epiphanius to the position of OCU Primate.

It has now been 100 days since the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church, which is in itself amazing—it is not often that one can observe the birth of a new church.

By the standards of ecclesiastical history, the establishment of the OCU was incredibly swift: the whole procedure took nine months. The unprecedented religious and political campaign was launched in April 2018, when the Verkhovna Rada officially appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (to whose canonical territory the Kiev Metropolitanate belonged until 1686), asking him to grant independence to the Ukrainian Church. Since then, negotiations with the Patriarchate in Istanbul have been overseen by the Ukrainian President's Administration. President Poroshenko visited Patriarch Bartholomew and personally delivered the Ukrainian bishops' petition for autocephaly. When Bartholomew dispatched two special envoys to Kiev, they were lodged in the official government residence in downtown Kiev, in the immediate vicinity of the President's Office.

At several points when negotiations seemed to hit an impasse due to the personal ambitions and recalcitrance of the Kiev bishops, Poroshenko personally interfered, persuading the bishops to concede. Eventually, this close cooperation between Church and state proved successful: on Orthodox Christmas Eve (January 6, 2019), in the Patriarch's St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, Patriarch Bartholomew handed Epiphanius a beautiful scrolled charter (tomos in Greek). This was the document that established the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church.

Conversion of Communities

On the day that the OCU was established, it included all the parishes of the Kiev Patriarchate (just over 5,000 in total) and of the Autocephalous Church (over 1,000), as well as two parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). Within days after the tomos-granting ceremony was held in Istanbul, Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada voted in favor of a bill, subsequently signed into law by Poroshenko, that made it significantly easier for parishes within the Moscow Patriarchate to move to the newly created Church.

"In Vinnitsa, there were numerous high-profile conversions, including the metropolitan of the UOC MP, the metropolitan cathedral, and part of the clergy."

In the subsequent three months, almost 500 OUC MP parishes joined the new Church. These parishes were drawn from a vast geographic area, but the largest number came from central and western Ukraine, including the Vinnitsa and Khmelnitsk oblasts (see map). In Vinnitsa, there were numerous high-profile conversions, including the metropolitan of the UOC MP, the metropolitan cathedral, and part of the clergy. But the bulk of conversions have been by rural parishes.

Notably, Volyn' (Volyn' and Rovno oblasts), where a significant number of parishes have moved to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was once part of an autocephalous Church—not a Ukrainian one, but a Polish one. Before the Second World War, the historical region of Volyn' was part of Poland. In 1924, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted independence to the Polish Orthodox Church. That independence, however, was short-lived: following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 and the subsequent invasion and division of Polish territories between Germany and the USSR, Volyn’ was incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Throughout the Soviet period, Volyn, like Ukraine as a whole, remained under the ecclesiastical rule of Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Volyn’ saw a rapid rise in support for autocephaly. Around that time, there emerged an alternative to the UOC MP, namely the self-declared Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, but since it was not recognized by other local Orthodox churches, not everyone wanted to join it. For a number of years, the ecclesiastical “balance of power” in Ukraine therefore remained unchanged.

After the 2013 Revolution of Dignity and the outbreak of the war in Donbas, several communities abandoned the Moscow Patriarchate. But with the emergence of a canonical Church recognized by ecclesiastical law, over 150 parishes chose to put themselves under its jurisdiction.

The transfer procedure laid out by the new law is straightforward. In order for a parish to move to another jurisdiction, the community has to hold a meeting in which the parishioners take a vote. Members of the clergy who belong to the Moscow Patriarchate believe that this opens the way for manipulations: as many parishes do not have formal lists of registered members, anyone in the village can attend their meetings and have a say in the decision to convert.

In those localities that had two or more churches when the OCU was established, conversions have been mostly peaceful. Those who want to remain under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church continue to pray in their habitual churches, while those who choose to convert to the OCU join the parishes that used to belong to the former Kiev Patriarchate.

"The meetings where parishioners discuss their ecclesiastical preferences look more like political rallies: irreconcilable disputes with people yelling at each other."

Things are more complicated, however, in those localities that have only one church, or where there is one church for several neighboring villages. In these cases, the meetings where parishioners discuss their ecclesiastical preferences look more like political rallies: irreconcilable disputes with people yelling at each other. Sometimes, these disagreements even descend into physical fights that require police involvement.

The main argument of the proponents of autocephaly harks back to Ukraine’s push for independence during the early 1990s. They contend that an independent Ukraine must have an independent church.

There are also more practical arguments for conversion. Many believers’ decision to transfer to the OCU results from their desire to attend services in modern Ukrainian instead of Church Slavonic, which is the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other parishioners are dissatisfied with their priest or bishop being too “pro-Moscow.” Whatever believers’ reasons, the outcome is the same: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is losing parishes, to which some segments of the Church react harshly. At present, about 12,000 communities are registered under the Moscow Patriarchate. The UOC MP claims that the loss of 500 out of what used to be more than 12,000 is insignificant; its high-ranking clergy invariably refers to the transfers as church reiderstvo (a term applied to hostile and often violent business takeovers).

Map: Transfers of Moscow Patriarchate communities to the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine

Source: Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU). The author expresses gratitude to RISU for permission to include it.

"Tomos Tour"

Immediately after tomos was granted, Poroshenko, accompanied by Metropolitan Epiphanius, went on a tour around the country to show the historical document to Ukrainian believers. Local authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical, joined forces to organize meetings in the main squares of their oblast centers; prayers attended by numerous members of the clergy were conducted in the main metropolitan cathedrals. Poroshenko attended all of these meetings, his political speeches not infrequently sounding more like sermons, interspersed as they were with quotes from Scripture and calls for prayer, communion, and confession. Never before had a Ukrainian president used ecclesiastical language so intensely and emotionally.

"Billboards showing the president and the Metropolitan jointly congratulating the people of Ukraine on their new Church became ubiquitous across the country."

The media instantly referred to Poroshenko's idea to take the charter to the cities and villages as a “Tomos tour”—it was pretty obvious that it was motivated by the upcoming presidential election. Billboards showing the president and the Metropolitan jointly congratulating the people of Ukraine on their new Church became ubiquitous across the country. When journalists asked Epiphanius, the Primate of the OCU, whether such joint appearances on campaign billboards were appropriate, he sidestepped the question, responding that Poroshenko had not yet registered his candidacy and that the campaign had not yet officially launched, implying that joint appearances were not problematic. He also said that he and his congregation were very grateful to the head of state. The Church seemed unperturbed by the fact that all these tours were taking place just three months prior to the scheduled presidential election. 

A Billboard with "Tomos for Ukraine" showing Poroshenko and Metropolitan Epiphanius (January 2019) (Credit: Bohdan Kutiepov/Hromadske.ua)

For Poroshenko, those trips paid off: after the autocephaly charter had been granted and Poroshenko was traveling around the country, the share of voters planning to support him rose by four or five percentage points, reaching 18 percent. For comparison, in the fall of 2018, before it was clear that the presidential administration's design would succeed and a new church would indeed be established, just 10 percent of voters planned to support Poroshenko, according to sociological surveys conducted by three different polling organizations: the Kiev Institute of Sociology, Razumkov Center, and “Rating” group

No polling has yet been conducted on Ukrainians' opinions of the new church and the level of public trust in it, so it is hard to evaluate the effect that such close cooperation between the newly created OCU and the state might have had on the OCU’s authority.

"Down with the Moscow Church"

"The UOC MP’s clergy are commonly—and without any direct evidence—referred to as FSB agents who work for the Russkii mir (“Russian world”) and support Vladimir Putin's policies."

Ideologically speaking, the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate finds itself in a vulnerable position. One of the main campaign slogans promoting the idea of autocephaly was “Down with the Russian Church.” The UOC MP’s clergy are commonly—and without any direct evidence—referred to as FSB agents who work for the Russkii mir (“Russian world”) and support Vladimir Putin's policies. These barely substantiated allegations have been voiced throughout the presidential campaign, both by Poroshenko himself and by his numerous supporters among the politicians, journalists, and religion scholars loyal to the Ukrainian government.

The UOC MP responds with alarmist statements, indicating that the Church is being persecuted, repressions are imminent, and religious war is inevitable. The UOC MP leadership makes regular appeals to the embassies of European countries and sends letters to Brussels, Strasbourg, and Washington begging them to immediately interfere and “raise their important voices…[to] defend justice with the help of modern instruments of diplomacy [and] law.”

Thus far, these letters and appeals have gone unanswered, which enables the UOC MP to claim that there is all but a world conspiracy against the canonical Orthodox faith in Ukraine. Such statements make a strong impression on UOC MP parishioners, giving them a sense that catastrophe is imminent. One of the most influential high-ranking clergymen of the UOC MP, Archbishop Theodosius, the vicar of the Kiev Metropolitan and the head of that Church’s ecclesiastical court, referred to Istanbul’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church as a “betrayal of Orthodox believers” and predicted “an almost inevitable … martyrdom.”

Some among the UOC MP clergy talk about more mundane consequences. Just recently, the head of the UOC MP’s legal department, Archpriest Alexander Bakhov, warned that parishioners may be searched, pressured, and fall victim to aggression by radical elements as well as law enforcement.

The UOC MP’s top clergy regard the Verkhovna Rada’s decision to change the name of their Church as a striking instance of persecution. A newly adopted bill mandates that this church should now be referred to as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Those Orthodox believers who have opted to remain united with Moscow describe this name change as a crude violation of religious freedom that interferes in the internal affairs of their religious community.

A Difficult Path Toward Recognition

A crucial stage in the establishment of the new Church is its recognition by so-called “world Orthodoxy”—that is, by other local Orthodox churches. Contrary to the statements made by the Ukrainian government and top clergy before autocephaly was granted, most local churches are in no rush to recognize the OCU. Some of them refer to ancient ecclesiastical regulations to explain their refusal to recognize the OCU. In their opinion, those regulations were violated during the all-too-swift process of granting autocephaly. Others cannot countenance the canonical rehabilitation of those who were for thirty years regarded as schismatics (namely the clergymen of the self-declared Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Church that have now dissolved themselves and joined the OCU).

"As of March 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which granted independence to the OCU, is the only one to have recognized its autocephaly without reservations"

As of March 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which granted independence to the OCU, is the only one to have recognized its autocephaly without reservations or convoluted formulas. Other ancient patriarchates that emerged in the first centuries of Christianity—the Antioch church based in Syria; the Jerusalem church; and the church in Alexandria, which has jurisdiction over Africa—have not recognized the OCU. The Churches of the Greek tradition (the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as those of Cyprus and Albania) are procrastinating. The Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, and Czech Orthodox churches have also remained silent. The Serbian Church, which has historically had close ties with Russia, is openly opposed to recognition. The Romanian Church is the only one that appears willing to recognize the autocephaly of the OCU, yet it makes this conditional: in exchange, it expects Ukraine to recognize the rights of the Romanian minority in Bukovina, a region of Ukraine that used to be part of the Romanian kingdom. The Romanian Synod would like to develop its own parishes on those territories, which in Ukraine would inevitably prompt popular criticism of the authorities for fomenting separatist sentiments in the region.

Most local churches believe that the Ukrainian question is so complicated, convoluted, and painful that any solution should be preceded by direct talks between Moscow and Constantinople. Should such talks fail, a decision should be entrusted to a specially gathered pan-Orthodox convention. But calls to discuss, let alone revise, the decision that has already been made are hurting the pride of the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate hierarchs. In a recent letter to his Albanian brother, Patriarch Bartholomew ruled out the possibility of calling a pan-Orthodox convention; in Istanbul, the decision to recognize the OCU is deemed final and irrevocable. In Kiev, other churches’ delay in recognizing the OCU is explained by the intrigues of the Russian Orthodox Church. On this view, having lost control over ecclesiastical developments in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church is now pouring all its energy into the “external front” of the struggle against Ukrainian autocephaly. Contrary to the earlier expectations of the OCU hierarchs, who were inspired by their quick success, the recognition may take years instead of months.

Two Centers

The first sessions of the Synod of the new Church have revealed serious contradictions within the OCU’s top leadership, which has evolved as dual rule. The Kiev Metropolitan Epiphanius was elected as the de jure head and fully-fledged Primate of the Church. However, the 90-year old Patriarch Philaret, who maintained his status as bishop and permanent membership in the Synod after the tomos was granted, is not inclined to give up his positions. Drawing on his personal authority and the loyalty of dozens of eparchs, he continues to speak on behalf of the Church, occasionally making remarks in stark conflict with the terms of autocephaly defined by Istanbul.

For instance, Philaret stubbornly refers to the new Church as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while the tomos refers to it as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It may seem that there is hardly any difference, but this word order is quite intentional. “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” is the name of the Church under the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch picked an alternative name in order to emphasize the supranational nature of the new jurisdiction in the Ukrainian territory and not to alienate those believers who are not yet ready to convert to a new jurisdiction. Istanbul's idea was to give the believers of the Moscow Patriarchate an opportunity to make their own decisions peacefully, without any rush.

"The OCU cannot hide the fact that the Church has two centers of power, which causes confusion among the clergy as well as believers."

Philaret continues to wear patriarchal honors and insists that neither Moscow nor Istanbul can give orders to Kiev any longer. Epiphanius, who just a year ago was Philaret's loyal deputy in the Kievan Patriarchate, has yet to enter into an open dispute with Philaret. But the OCU cannot hide the fact that the Church has two centers of power, which causes confusion among the clergy as well as believers.


Ukraine's other Christian denominations have not hailed the establishment of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The government's role and its rush were too obvious. Neither Protestant nor Catholic communities took any part in the discussion of autocephaly. The main supporter was Svyatoslav, the Primate of the Greek Catholic Church. This Church, which is rather numerous (about 10 percent of Ukraine's population), and its head expressed public support for autocephaly, their argument being that this would reestablish Kiev's ancient Orthodox tradition, which dates back to the pre-schism times, when Catholics and Orthodox believers belonged to the same Christian community.  In order to emphasize that autocephaly would promote the restoration of unity, however nominal, the head of the Greek Catholics hailed the granting of tomos and attended Epiphanius' enthronement as OCU Primate. However, a few weeks after the establishment of the new Church, it became clear that his enthusiasm was premature.

For the first time in centuries, Greek Catholics expressed a desire to conduct a service in Kiev's St. Sophia’s Cathedral, built and consecrated before the Great Schism of 1054—only to face a hard rebuff, first from Patriarch Philaret (it is still unclear in what capacity he opposed this) and later from the OCU Synod. Both made the same argument: St. Sophia’s is an Orthodox cathedral that belongs exclusively to Orthodox believers. In fact, today St. Sophia’s does not belong to anyone. It is an architectural landmark of national significance and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Because of the controversy between the Churches, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture decided to close St. Sophia’s Cathedral for restoration and temporarily suspend all religious services held there. As long as restorers are putting up scaffolding to examine the condition of ancient frescos and engineers are fixing the climate control and installing a new video registration system, the disputes will be on hold. 

"Because of the controversy between the Churches, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture decided to close St. Sophia’s Cathedral for restoration and temporarily suspend all religious services held there."

But Greek Catholics will not give up their idea: they want to hold services in St. Sophia’s, if only a few times a year. Meanwhile, the OCU claims the exclusive right to pray in St. Sophia’s. This line of conflict is sure to continue, as the OCU hierarchs have openly laid long-forgotten historical claims on Greek Catholics, accusing them of betraying Orthodox Christianity by recognizing the primacy of the Pope and the tenets of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, this stance further deepens the divisions between Ukraine's Christians of different denominations. Attempts to establish a dialog and friendly communication have failed.


The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is only one hundred days old—exceptionally young by church standards. However, during this period, the OCU has managed to create its main administrative bodies and gain almost five hundred new communities that have converted from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. During its early months, the new Church has demonstrated loyalty to the Ukrainian government and its services have had a markedly patriotic character. There is no unanimity within the Church itself—instead, there is a range of conflicting groups, factions, and centers of influence. Enthusiastic speeches have given way to complicated daily work and the need for the conflicting parties to overcome their differences. But even though the establishment of the new Church faces grave opposition from the UOC MP and is fraught with disputes, emotions, and anxieties, the process is already underway and cannot be stopped. One can only hope that the Ukrainian authorities will take a sensible approach to this process by stepping back, not interfering with the free development of the new Church, and ensuring that all Ukrainian citizens have an equal right to profess the religion of their choice. 

Saken Aymurzaev is a journalist, radio host, and producer. He has worked at Echo of Moscow, as well as a range of Ukrainian radio and TV stations, and most recently as a producer at RFE/RL TV in Prague. He is the director of a documentary about the establishment of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.