In the church dispute with Kiev, Moscow is calling for the division of world orthodoxy. The Ukrainian president also uses the topic for himself. For the believers, it’s all in the last, says Eugen Theise.

Since on January 6, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has handed over to the head of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Epiphanius, to whom Tomos – the Independence Bullet -Triggers the canonically daring maneuver violent reactions. In Ukraine, the advocates of ecclesiastical independence outdo themselves in schadenfreude. They are pleased about the defeat of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who now finally loses control of Ukraine. In Moscow, therefore, the popes conjure up the division of world orthodoxy by renouncing the common validity of the sacraments with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Political observers practice geopolitics and conspiracy theories – even pointing to the alleged role of US intelligence agencies.

In this mixed situation, there is little room left for just one aspect: for the people and their faith. Millions of Orthodox Christians Ukraine are happy and relieved. It is the faithful of two churches that split off from the Moscow-Ukrainian Ukrainian Orthodox Church a quarter of a century ago and are now the basis for the new united church. They believe that with the state independence of Ukraine, their Orthodox Church must be independent of Russia. But more than autonomy is not in Moscow’s eyes.

Banishment as punishment

The “apostates” were punished with exile from orthodoxy. For years, they were stigmatized as “splitters”, their baptism was not recognized, they had no claim to salvation – however firmly they were attached to their Christian faith – from the point of view of the canonical Orthodox churches. And their Eucharist was not a sacrament, but only the consumption of bread and wine in an “illegitimate gathering”.

Provisional commentary Eugen Theise, Deutsche Welle Ukrainian
Eugen Theise is an editor in the Ukrainian editorial board

As a Lutheran I could not care about that. Neither does a pope or a patriarch play any role in my Christian understanding of the world, nor does the question of whether others recognize my baptism and my Lord’s Supper. It’s finally MY faith. And yet, as a Christian, I can sympathize well with the feelings of these “outcast” people. It is clear to me what is different among the Orthodox believers: for them, apart from the Bible, something else is important for them – the legitimacy of their priests, which they trace back to the apostles of Jesus.

Therefore, I am happy for the Ukrainian Orthodox, that they are again considered “legal” Christians. Patriarch Bartholomew deserves respect for not wanting to look the other way in this church drama. The violation of millions of believers in a country belonging to the Christian family was unbearable and unsustainable. The Ecumenical Patriarch recognized this in 2008 at the latest. At that time he had intensive talks with representatives of all three Orthodox church groups in Ukraine. An agreement and thus also the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church failed not only at Moscow, but also at the claim to power of individual Ukrainian church princes. 

The critics of Bartholomew misjudge the reality: At least since the war in the Donbass and the annexation of the Crimea, a united Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine was no longer possible. Why should the Ukrainians be faithful to a church that often denied even soldiers who died in the east of the country even an Orthodox rite? A church whose priests in the Donbass poured words of sages into the fire of the armed conflict and also approved the annexation of Crimea by Russia? The majority of Ukrainians, polls show, no longer want to be part of a Moscow-controlled empire: neither political nor ecclesiastical.

Political dangers for the new church

In the patriotic frenzy, however, Ukrainians are also in danger of acting just as arrogantly and politically as the Russian side. They applaud when their politicians practice cheapest populism, interfering in church affairs. By law, for example, the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is forced to rename itself “Russian Orthodox Church”.

The head of the new church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, even gets involved in Petro Poroshenko’s election campaign: he can be seen on huge banners with the President at every turn. Priests receive orders for their so-called “patriotic services”. A dangerous game that shows how much Tomos is politicized on the Ukrainian side. The people and their faith – that is, what church is there for – gets so unfortunately more and more in the background.


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