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Analysis & Opinion
29.07.10 Sacred Ties
By Dan Peleschuk

During Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Ukraine – the third in a year – he made sure to characterize it as a simple matter of spirituality. But the increasing frequency of his visits, especially in the midst of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s election in February, sends signals that spirituality may not be the only priority on Kirill’s Ukrainian agenda.

Religion has always been messy business in Ukraine, especially when it comes down to past or present imperial dominations. The Russian religious influence is today perhaps the biggest thorn in Ukraine’s spiritual side, as it is one of the factors that splits Ukraine’s Orthodox majority into several groups. The largest of these are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains part of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the independent Kiev Patriarchate, which emerged as a result of a schism in 1992 and remains unrecognized by the world’s family of Orthodox Churches.

The Kiev Patriarchate’s claim to independence was intended to carve out for Ukraine an identity distinct from that of a Russian vassal, but it instead has provided fodder for Ukraine’s crippling ethno-territorial divide. Today, the conflict is among the most prominent in Ukrainian society: generally, the nationalists and independence-minded tilt toward the Kiev Patriarchate, while those who lament the break-up between Ukraine and Russia answer to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Enter Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus, who, unlike his predecessor, made Ukraine one of his priorities since his election in February last year. His July 20 arrival in Ukraine – the third over the past year - marked yet another milestone in rapidly warming relations between Russia and Ukraine. The articulate Russian church leader also happens to be the inventor and active proponent of “Russky mir” [“Russian world”], which has generated considerable controversy in Ukraine. In this concept, the divisions between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which all trace their roots back to the medieval Kievan Rus, are blurred and their historical ties played up. His statements – and actions – while in Ukraine, however, are bound to raise eyebrows at to where spirituality ends and politics begins.

"Let us pray for the prosperity of Ukraine and the entirety of historical Rus, that the Lord should keep the fraternal peoples in the unity of mind, make them cooperate like brothers, keep them aware of their community, and keep them in spiritual unity," he told a congregation in Dnipropetrovsk.

The patriarch’s summertime jaunt through Ukraine last year, which took him to the country’s east, west and south, was a crash-course of sorts: he was welcomed everywhere by thousands of followers, while the visit was met with minor, but well organized protests from nationalists. Former President Viktor Yushchenko tried to sell Kirill on the idea of an independent Ukrainian church answerable to Kiev, a proposition he firmly rejected. This year, however, with the openly pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovich (and Moscow Patriarchate adherent) now in office, the going seems smoother, and the patriarch this year made visits to (besides Kiev) predominantly Russia-friendly Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk.

Yet the visit underscored exactly how close church and state remain in Eastern Europe today. Take, for example, Kirill presenting Yanukovich with the Order of St. Vladimir, the highest honor of the Russian Orthodox Church: he is the first Ukrainian leader to receive such recognition. The order was presented during Kirill’s surprise visit to Crimea, which coincided with those of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Although the patriarch took care not to meet with the Russian politicians on Ukrainian territory, the heavy concentration of Russian leaders on the Ukrainian peninsula – which is home to an ethnic Russian majority and has a track record of ethnic tension - was more than enough to stoke concerns among those wary of anything Russian.
What’s more, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate told Ukrainian media this week that Kirill plans to head to Ukraine at least annually on such “pastoral visits,” an unprecedented routine for a Russian church head. Ever since last year’s visit, the patriarch’s aides have said that he wants to change the perception of himself in Ukraine from that of a “foreign leader” to that of the patriarch of the Ukrainian Church.

But a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church firmly denied this week that the visit was politically charged. Instead, he blamed Yushchenko for politicizing religion in Ukraine during his push for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

"This is not a political visit, but a strictly pastoral one," Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky, head of Patriarch Kirill’s press service, told the Ukrainian edition of Kommersant. "The Church does not strive to be engaged in politics, into which it is sometimes forcefully pushed. Unfortunately, under Viktor Yushchenko's presidency, religion was a major card for certain political forces."

The nationalists were among those who led protests against Kirill’s visit in Ukraine. Perhaps the most active and vocal detractors were members of All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom,” the foremost nationalist party in Ukraine, who accused the Russian patriarch of tightening his – and Russia’s – grip over Ukraine. Party leader Oleh Tiahnybok said that Kirill is an unwelcome guest on foreign territory, regardless of religious affiliation.

“This is a clear demonstration of the belittlement of the Ukrainian nation,” Tiahnybok said in an interview. “The arrival of foreign citizen Gundyayev [the patriarch’s lay name is Vladimir Gundyayev] as a representative of the Kremlin to declare his desire for a ‘Russian world’ laughs in the face of our culture and our faith on our own territory. This is a clear political move that offends the national consciousness of a great deal of Ukrainians.”

A look at the statistics, however, provides a different lens through which to assess Kirill’s visit. Religious conflict or not, Ukraine is still a key bastion for the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, the country has more than 11,000 parishes faithful to Moscow according to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, which makes it the biggest religious group in Ukraine by the number of registered communities, and about a third of the church’s bishops are based in there. In this way, Kirill’s mission in Ukraine was to tend to his flock.

On the other hand, the Russian church leader has repeatedly emphasized the multinational character of his patriarchate, which runs contrary to the Ukrainian nationalist mantra that an independent nation is entitled to an independent church, and said that he doesn’t want to be seen as “the patriarch of the Russian Federation.” He even played with the idea of requesting dual Ukrainian citizenship – a proposal rejected by the Ukrainian government on the basis of the country’s constitution. To play up to the local sensitivities, the Moscow Patriarchate even launched the Ukrainian-language version of its official Web site in time for the visit.

Kirill’s repeated visits and the priority he attaches to Ukraine in his policies have raised concerns that the Moscow Patriarchate is edging to retract the autonomy it had granted to its Ukrainian branch in 1992. But speaking in the Monastery of the Caves on the day of St. Prince Vladimir during the open-air service attended by thousands of believers, the patriarch confirmed that the local church’s rights to appoint its own bishops and elect their own metropolitan are there to stay.

“The Church never breaks its word,” he said. “They say the patriarch comes to Ukraine to limit the rights of the primate of the Ukrainian Church. The patriarch comes to Ukraine not for this, but, together with the primate of the Ukrainian Church, together with the bishops of our entire church – Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans and people of other nationalities – to bear witness to the world, including here, in Ukraine, about Christ crucified and resurrected, about Christ, capable of granting the power of resurrection even to the greatest of sinners.”

As a self-styled independent church for an independent Ukraine, the Kiev Patriarchate is on shaky ground. In the past years, its ups and downs have followed the degree of support it received from the Ukrainian government. As such, the election of Yanukovich, as well as a recent “reset” in relations between the leading Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, on whose differences Ukraine’s pro-independence churchmen are trying to play, all look like bad omens for Patriarch Filaret of Kiev and his followers. The Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which met in Kiev on July 26, issued a renewed call to the “schismatics” to repent and “return” to the mother church – which was promptly rejected the following day by Filaret and his synod.

“Kirill’s visit shows us that unification is impossible,” said Taras Antoshevskiy, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. “Because according to his idea, there is no independent Ukraine, so there is no reason for a Ukrainian independent church. It’s more a dictation of requirements, and requirements will always win.”

Other experts said that the patriarch isn’t necessarily to blame for the bad blood between the groups. Rather, it’s the crippling divide in Ukrainian society that creates room for conflict.

“Kirill is certainly not interested in unifying the two Ukrainian churches, but we really can’t even discuss this question to begin with,” said Viktor Yelenskyi, head of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Freedom. “This church in Ukraine is split because society is split. If Ukrainians were united in their geopolitical orientation and national plans, then there would be no split to speak of. This [conflict] is a reflection of society.”

Perhaps the largest question mark in Kirill’s visit was the culmination of his trip to Ukraine on July 28 - the Day of St Vladimir. The holy day, which is now established as a state holiday in both Ukraine and Russia, is meant to mark the unity of the two nations through acceptance of Byzantine Christianity in 988 by Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus, the predecessor of modern East Slavic nations. But both Russians and Ukrainians claim their stake as “the first,” and it remains a hotly debated issue.

Shortly after Kirill presided over a service attended by a congregation of thousands in the Monastery of the Caves on July 28, thousands of Kiev Patriarchate followers marched in a show of strength and competition toward their own service at St. Vladimir’s Hill. Some wielded banners that read “For a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church with Kiev as its center,” or “Moscow Patriarch go home.” But perhaps the most telling comments came from bystanders gawking at the marchers from the sidewalk in disbelief.

“More than 1,000 years of history,” said one woman to her friend, “and this is what we come to?”
The source
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