In anger over the decision to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from Moscow the Russian Orthodox Church broke off relations with Constantinople. This is good news for president Poroshenko, who wants to be re-elected next spring. The real challenge is to unite the three orthodox denominations in Ukraine into an independent national church. This, however, is unlikely to happen. And Moscow still owns most parishes in Ukraine. So it might be a purely symbolic victory, explains Andrii Fert on Open Democracy.

kiev patriarch filaret over tomosPatriarkh Filaret of Kyiv welcomes the news on the Tomos of Constaninople                                                                         

By Andrii Fert

The Ukrainian government has promised its citizens a new, independent Orthodox Church that will unite Ukrainian believers. But bringing several denominations together is harder than you think.

Over the last few months, the lexicon of many Ukrainians has been enriched by two new words: ‘Tomos’ (religious decree) and ‘autocephaly’ (religious autonomy). These words have been all over the media. In April this year, Ukraine’s president and parliament asked the Patriarch of Constantinople, the highest arbitrator in the Orthodox world, to recognise the canonical independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Religionhas dominated headlines and public debate ever since. For many, the Tomos is a kind of declaration of Ukrainian independence – not so much religious independence, but political.

Indeed, President Petro Poroshenko has stressed the political nature of this independence. Speaking on television recently, he declared that ‘this isn’t a religious matter. It isn’t simply a matter of state either. It’s a historic event, when Ukraine’s own church will return home after hundreds of years.’

Other public and political figures have echoed his sentiments. Vitaliy Deynega, a prominent activist on Ukraine’s frontline, posted this declaration on Facebook: ‘Many generations have fought for the independence of our country, including its spiritual independence… It’s important to free the hearts and minds of Ukrainian believers from the influence of [the Russian occupiers].’

But a closer look at the situation shows that it is less a matter of ‘freedom from influence’ or the unification of several denominations. Rather, this is about the creation of symbolic capital that will give Ukraine’s political elite an advantage ahead of next year’s elections.

Three Ukrainian churches

Ukraine has 3 Orthodox churches fighting for the role of ‘national church’. In numbers of dioceses and parishes the largest is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, that after the breakup of the Soviet Union remained under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). After Ukrainian independance metropolit Filaret in 1992 declared the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP,) independant from Moscow, that excommunicated them. The Kyiv Patriarkhate was not recognised by Constantinople. The (small) Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) dates back to 1921, was supressed during communism and resurrected after the collaps of the USSR. In doctrines and liturgy all three are identical.

The Kyiv Patriarchate and Autocephalous Church want Ukrainian Orthodoxy to be independant from Russia, but the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) sees Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians as equal successors to medieval Kyivan Rus’, with a common faith and a common church.