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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Violent Priest, A Wounded Soldier And The Weight Of Russia's Orthodox Church In Ukraine

A confrontation between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches has been brewing for centuries. But a video showing a Ukrainian war veteran being beaten up in church shows that the standoff has become all-out war.

Image of people and soldiers in the foreground standing against the background of the Assumption Cathedral during the Christmas service, which was led by the Metropolitan Epiphany of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

In January, the Assumption Cathedral during the Christmas service, which was led by the Metropolitan Epiphany of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Anna Akage

KYIV — On the first Sunday of April, Ukrainian soldier Artur Ananiev decided to go to church. Having recently returned wounded from the frontline, Ananiev had not come to pray — but to speak.

“How many more people have to die for you to stop following the Moscow Patriarchate?” he declared after walking into the parish in the city of Khmelnytsky in western Ukraine.

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Like others in the country, the local church’s choice to remain loyal to the eastern Orthodox patriarch of Moscow — a friend of Vladimir Putin’s — has created growing tension since last year’s Russian invasion.

Indeed, moments after his provocative question, priests and parishioners surrounded Ananiev, and began beating him up. In a video of the scene, one priest can be seen dropping the Gospel before knocking down the soldier and kicking him on the floor.

While local police investigated the incident, which left Ananiev bloodied and with a concussion, residents gathered near the parish and voted for its transfer to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And now the incident and circulation of the video has reignited the debate across Ukraine that's been brewing between Kyiv and Moscow for not only the past 13 months — but 300 years.

Ukraine currently has two Orthodox churches: the Moscow Patriarchate, which reports to the Russian Orthodox Church and Moscow Patriarch Kirill — aka Vladimir Gundyaev, in office since 2009, an old friend and ardent admirer of Vladimir Putin — and the Kyiv Patriarchate. The latter was legally established in 1992 due to the unification of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and part of the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate.

For a long time, the two churches coexisted with regular conflicts and attempts to agree. However, as political relations with Russia deteriorated, disputes between the two churches escalated.

Coincidently, a few days before soldier Artur Ananiev was kicked out of the church in Khmelnytsky, the Ukrainian government ordered the eviction of Orthodox monks accused of being linked to the Russian Orthodox Church from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the capital’s oldest monastery complex.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Security Service put the abbot of the monastery, Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, under house arrest for 60 days after notifying him that he was suspected of two criminal offenses: inciting inter-religious enmity and justifying Russian aggression.

Pavlo, who is seen as the referent of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, had also published a video in which he directly threatened Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with damnation if the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate had to leave Lavra.

Naive Kyiv, greedy Moscow

Escalation between the two churches began in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea when the Moscow Patriarchate seized all churches of the Kyiv Patriarchate on the peninsula. Since the full-scale invasion began, the Moscow Patriarchate has remained virtually the last and only organ of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory, except for the occupied parts.

The priests repeated the same narratives of the Russian propaganda.

Since in Russia, the church and the state apparatus are closely connected personally, corruptly, and politically, the Moscow Patriarchate on the territory of Ukraine continued its propaganda activities on behalf of the Kremlin.

Even in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a year after the start of the full-scale aggression prayers were held not just in Russian but also for the health of the Russian patriarch and the victory of the Russian army. In their sermons and personal conversations with the parishioners, the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate repeated the same narratives of the Russian propaganda — that Ukraine is Russia, that Russia is at war with NATO over Donbas, and so on.

While the Ukrainian government was trying to avoid religious scandals, the Moscow Patriarchate was successfully developing espionage, evidence of which was only recently provided by the Ukrainian Security Service.

Then, the fight over Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra began. Many Ukrainians are unhappy that the Moscow Patriarchate has been removed only from the Lavra as two other significant monasteries in Ukraine — the Pochaev and Sviatogirsk — are under Russian control, as well as hundreds of other churches.

Whose rights are you worried about?

The debate over the eviction of the Orthodox monks from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has split the Ukrainian public opinion: some demand their return, while others require that their presence in the country be banned altogether. As the war with Russia goes on in the background, the context of the hunt for the Russophile clergy is clear. But are they so innocent?

For 300 years, the Russian church almost indivisibly ruled Ukraine. In the 17th and 18th century, every year, the Russian tsars sent their Metropolitans in Kyiv a golden carriage full of jewels. Such was the tradition — the reward for faithful service to the empire.

A priest yelled at me on the temple grounds because I spoke Ukrainian.

When Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, losing the largest and thus most profitable diocese was unacceptable, and the Moscow Patriarchate continued to exist not only in Ukraine but also in many post-Soviet republics, competing with local churches and sometimes supplanting them, as it did in Belarus. It reached the point that any monastery or church belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate considered itself Russian territory, wherever it was located.

Even before the annexation of Crimea, in 2010, I, along with parishioners of a small Kyiv church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, went on a tour of monasteries in the Chernihiv region — a territory occupied in early 2022 by Russian troops, liberated by Ukraine forces in spring 2022. When a local servant heard that we were parishioners of the Kyiv Patriarchate, she started screaming, calling for other ministers, and with terrible curses, they kicked us all out on the road.

In 2018 and 2019, I often traveled to the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk region and separately to Sviatogirsk, where there is another famous complex, Sviatogirsk Lavra, a place of incredible beauty, especially in winter. There, a priest yelled at me on the temple grounds because I spoke Ukrainian.

Image of Patriarch Kirill (C) of Moscow and all Russia releasing a dove into the sky to mark the feast of Annunciation outside the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin

Russian Patriarch Kirill releases a dove into the sky to mark the feast of Annunciation outside the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin

Vyacheslav Prokofyev

What's next

Next, as many Ukrainians hope, Ukraine will return all Orthodox churches and their property, both in the territories already liberated and in the regions still occupied, to the control of the Kyiv Patriarchate. As a multinational and multi-religious country, Ukraine has always perfectly accommodated and become a home for people of different nationalities and religions.

The eviction of the Moscow patriarchate has just begun.

Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate also received an offer to stay as servants of the monastery of Kyiv-Pechersk but under the control of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Some agreed.

So, if we are talking about protecting the rights of believers, it is important to note whose believers and believers in what we are protecting.

And suppose Ukrainians want to go to Ukrainian churches on Ukrainian territory and pray for the prosperity of Ukraine in the Ukrainian language — who dares to take this right away from them?

The eviction of the Moscow patriarchate has just begun and will not go away without loud investigations and scandals.

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