Friday, January 24, 2014

Moscow's plan for Ukraine's church

After forcing the reversal of Ukraine's political course and offering President Yanukovych a financial and economic bailout last year, Russia is apparently now planning to intervene directly in Ukraine’s church affairs.
The events surrounding the EuroMaidan over the last sixty days have shown just how important the church remains to Ukrainians. 

This concerns primarily the three main confessions that trace their roots to the Kyiv Metropolitanate created by the Patriarchate of Constantinople during the times of Prince Volodymyr the Great: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), which remains in union with the Pope of Rome.

The Kremlin plans to suborn Ukraine politically, economically and culturally. Support for separatist movements, coupled with the December 2013 economic accords signed in Moscow, form part of the first two pillars of this strategy. 

As a serious instrument to advance Russian political interests in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate is indispensable to the construction of the third pillar.

The leader of the UOC MP, Metropolitan Volodymyr, is in grave health; uncharachacteristically he was absent from any Christmas-related celebrations this year, even in the hospital.

Metropolitan Volodymyr, an ethnic Ukrainian, has maintained a measure of balance of power within the UOC MP and allowed the church to retain relative independence from Moscow. 

His successor will determine whether this church continues on its Ukrainian path, or will fall into complete dependency on Russia, fulfilling the dreams of the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, and the Kremlin.

There are several potential candidates among the church's bishops to replace Metropolitan Volodymyr. Most often mentioned as a successor is Metropolitan Antoniy (Pakanych), but the candidacies of metropolitans Onufriy of Bukovyna, and Ilarion from Donetsk are also under discussion.

However, none of these hierarchs enjoy Moscow’s full trust. 

Therefore, since 2011 there is a plan to appoint the head of the UOC MP from Moscow, in particular, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev), a Russian citizen, the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) chief diplomat and Patriarch Kirill’s closest adviser.

An appointment like this would be akin to President Vladimir Putin sending someone from his inner circle to run Ukraine's economy as prime minister.

To implement this strategy, Patriarch Kirill might come to the council that elects the new Metropolitan of Kyiv, where either he or his loyal bishops in Ukraine will propose to elect Hilarion (Alfeev). To ensure the desired result, the voting procedure will be made open and not by secret ballot.

This appears to be a plausible scenario, especially after we witnessed how, under Kremlin pressure, Ukraine's leadership changed its political orientation on the eve of signing a civilizational pact with the European Union.

Moreover, this scenario falls into the bigger picture of a long-standing conflict between the Moscow Patriarchate and Constantinople, which has traditionally been acknowledged as the first among the Orthodox Churches, as well as the arbiter of disputes and the protector of the canonical order.

Since the start of the Cold War, from the late 1940s, the Moscow Patriarch has through various means tried to force the Patriarch of Constantinople from his place of primacy, and to occupy this position himself. 

Moscow’s argument is based on power – the Russian Orthodox Church currently has more bishops and faithful than all of the other Orthodox Churches combined.

But there is a nuance – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by Metropolitan Volodymyr represents about half of the structure of the Moscow Patriarchate. Thus, without its control over Ukraine, the Russian church loses its principal argument regarding Orthodox primacy and a major lever for implementing its neo-imperial ambitions.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople is not the mere representative of a Greek minority residing in Turkey, as the Russians claim. It is true that not much is left on Turkish soil of the once-mighty Patriarchate, the religious mirror image of the Byzantine Empire. 

But the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, by virtue of overwhelming universal moral authority and espousal of Christian values influences churches and people across the Orthodox tradition and around the world, something the Patriarch of Moscow has never been able to achieve.

Therefore, the conflict between Moscow and Constantinople is to a large extent a reflection of the conflict of values between Russia and the West. The latest step in this battle was the decision of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on December 25 to challenge the primacy of Constantinople as the first-throne in Orthodoxy. 

One of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s leading theologians, Metropolitan Elpidophoros, delivered the Patriarchate’s reply on Jan. 7 on the Church’s official website; he severely criticised not just the Moscow church’s document, but its entire policy of world hegemony, described as “wherever there is a Russian, there too the jurisdiction of the Russian Church extends.”

Russia’s imperial ambition poses an existential threat to the stability and unity of Ukraine: the appointment of Hilarion (Alfeev) (or another Russian hierarch) as Metropolitan of Kyiv will give the ROC total control over the UOC MP, and will become a serious instrument of Kremlin pressure over Ukrainian society and state authority, especially in the year before presidential elections.

Further, a Metropolitan from Russia under the control of Patriarch Kirill and the Kremlin will obviously also destroy those threads of compromise that have been recently weaved between the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kyiv Patriarchate and Greek Catholic churches in Ukraine.

In all of this there is also a colossal opportunity – if the UOC MP doesn’t just preserve its autonomy, but elects a Metropolitan capable of dialogue and continuing the line of Metropolitan Volodymyr in church reconciliation, it could open the path to overcome the current divisions in the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

And Ukrainian Orthodox unity, along with recognition of autocephaly from the Patriarch of Constantinople, will not just secure Ukraine’s independence, it will put an end to Moscow’s global ambition to primacy among Orthodox Churches.

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