Orthodoxy’s Last Stand

By Graham Clark

A political firestorm turned literal in Kiev on Tuesday. Ablaze, the city’s Independence Square became the flashpoint of a conflict that has been heating up for more than a month. The intensifying physical violence has prompted widespread global reaction, including some surprising claims from Ukraine’s religious leadership.

Unrest in Kiev may be a chance for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to reconnect with parishioners and gain relevance in the increasingly intense battle for influence between locals and Moscow. In fact, it may be the last chance.

Ukraine has had a troubled relationship with the Bear since the Soviet Union split. In those days, the Ukrainian Orthodox church kept close ties to the Russian political leadership. An article from Kyiv Post entitled “Moscow’s Plan For Ukraine’s Church” went in-depth on how the Ukrainian church is currently tangled up in Russian politics. Orthodox Christianity is Ukraine’s most popular religious tradition by far, but adherents in the country remained overshadowed by Russian interests.

Heightening the stakes even further, the spiritual leader of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is gravely ill. In the past three years, Father Metropolitan Volodymyr been hospitalized to treat Parkinson’s disease and have a pacemaker implanted. According to a release from the Institute Of Religion And Society, “the independent status of the UOC-MP [Ukrainian Orthodox Church] now rests only on the authority of Metropolitan Volodymyr.” The power to choose his successor will soon be up for grabs.

Ukrainian op-ed writer Daniel Bilak has been chronicling the rise of Russian interests in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since July of 2013. He goes so far as to suggest that the victor in Ukraine’s current crisis will determine the fate of Orthodox Christian churches worldwide.

How is religion being leveraged for political gain? Yesterday, global news outlets circulated commentary on Kiev’s violence from Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church. Shevchuk condemned “the violence and the disregard of human rights and of the people’s will,” writing that, “the one who has authority bears full responsibility for what is happening in this country.”

Russian religious media have reported that monk have playing an informal role in de-escalating protests. The blog “Waging Nonviolence” also  described the Ukrainian Church’s interest in leading conflict resolution.

But that might not be the whole story.

At Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, politics are being left off the agenda. Here, Father Vasyl Shtelen politely declines to share any personal thoughts about turmoil in Kiev. His wife Maria has slightly more to offer: “I see it on the news, on TV, but,” she said, “I don’t know. We are overseas. They have their own minds.”

Ukrainian Orthodox blogger Alexander Roman even encouraged his readers “not to dwell on the nastiness of the past (and even of the present in Ukraine).” Lacking a strong response to the era’s political upheaval, the future of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine could be bleak.

According to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church’s official website, one of the structures torched in Tuesday’s blaze was a makeshift chapel. In the face of Russian advances and mass violence, imagining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reduced to ashes isn’t much of a stretch.

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