NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: More tension between Russia and Ukraine.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Most people are aware of the simmering political and military tensions between the two countries. But a religious rift between them has received much less attention. And it is threatening to tear apart Orthodox Christianity.
EICHER: Last month, the head of the global Orthodox Church said he would grant independence to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church. That means it would be both recognized and free from the authority of its Russian counterpart. This could lead to the biggest split the Orthodox Christian world has seen in a thousand years.
REICHARD: It also raises questions about Ukraine’s church gaining too much power. WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson talked with Orthodox and Protestant Christians in Ukraine to hear about the ripple effect of this decision.
JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Moscow repeatedly warned Ukraine against seeking an independent church. But the former Soviet country didn’t listen.
In April, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko approached the global head of the orthodox church with what sounds like a simple request: A piece of paper called a tomos that grants formal recognition. Last month, Patriarch Bartholomew announced his approval.
AUDIO: [Celebration in Ukraine]
Ukrainians flooded Kyiv’s Sophia Square for a celebration that included leaders of church and state. Poroshenko called the decision the collapse of Moscow’s claim as the Third Rome.
AUDIO: [Sound of Russian Orthodox bells, monks singing]
Russia wasn’t happy. Four days later, the Russian Orthodox Church announced plans to leave the Constantinople Patriarchate. It also banned its followers from attending any churches associated with Constantinople.
Close to half of the world’s Orthodox believers are part of the Russian branch. That’s roughly 150 million people.
If Russia cuts ties with the Istanbul-based headquarters of the Orthodox Church, it would create the biggest split since the Great Schism of 1054. That divided eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
AUDIO: [Putin speech and cheers in Crimea]
The biggest loser could be Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s gone to great lengths to portray himself as the protector of Christendom and Orthodox believers across the globe. If Ukraine gets its own church, Putin’s closely aligned Russian Orthodox Church would lose up to 40 percent of its members and income. Plus:
SHANDRA: One of Russia’s main channels of influence in Ukraine will be severed.
Alya Shandra is an Orthodox believer living in Kyiv, the capital. She’s been a member of the Moscow Patriarchate, because she didn’t want to join one of the two unrecognized Ukrainian churches. But now….
SHANDRA: I will have an opportunity to go to a church that is free from Russia’s imperialist ambitions, where Ukraine can develop its own approach and be free from the influence. For me, of course, this is a dream come true.
The two nations share many common threads and often call each other “brothers.” But these days, trust has deteriorated.
Andre Murzin is a Protestant believer in Ukraine.
MURZIN: I have a lot of Russian friends. But the Russian political leaders are trying to sit in two chairs. They want to call themselves brothers and at the same time they are waging war against Ukraine. That’s not what brothers do.
AUDIO: [Sound of war in Ukraine]
He’s talking about Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine and illegal annexation of its Crimea Peninsula in 2014. The war is in its fifth year and has claimed at least 10-thousand lives.
Many Ukrainians suspect Russian Orthodox collusion with Moscow’s trouble-making in the East. President Poroshenko—who’s up for re-election in March—says the creation of an independent Ukrainian Church is a matter of national security.
Alya says many Ukrainians view the tomos as a magical cure for all the church’s problems. Even self-identified atheists support it. She sees troubling signs of a state church.”
AUDIO: [Sound of Filaret praying]
Like the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Church inherited priests who worked for the KGB during Soviet times. Alya says this includes the likely leader of the new church, Patriarch Filaret. He’s been a vocal opponent of Putin, but some mistrust the 89-year-old leader.
Andre is concerned that with more power, Ukraine’s church could go the way of Russia’s.
MURZIN: This is very good politically for Ukraine, for its independence, but as for the church—I don’t know. Protestants wonder when the Ukrainian Church gains independence, will it eventually turn into the same monster?
But Ukraine has a history of openness to Western influence. And many are hopeful that an independent Ukrainian Church could initiate much-needed reforms.
This month, President Poroshenko met with the Constantinople Patriarch in Istanbul. The two leaders signed papers outlining the path to church independence.
AUDIO: [Sound of Ukrainian Choir at celebration]
A formal announcement is expected by the end of November. When that’s issued, the Moscow Patriarchate could lose the monasteries and churches it leases from Ukraine. That could spark violence.
And Russian President Putin has a history of using any alleged oppression against Russians as an excuse to invade nearby countries.
SHANDRA: First of all we must remember that Russia uses any chance to protect its interests abroad.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.