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High Stakes As Ukrainian Orthodox Must Choose New Leader

Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Volodymyr died on Saturday. The showdown between Kiev and Moscow makes picking his successor more than a religious event.

Who will replace Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan in Kiev?
Who will replace Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan in Kiev?
Pavel Korobov and Yanina Sokolovskaya

KIEV — The death of the long-time leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, who had been gravely ill with cancer and heart disease, did not come as a surprise.

Still, the death Saturday of the 79-year-old religious leader comes at a particularly delicate moment as clashes with Russia continue near Ukraine's eastern border. After Volodymyr was buried on Monday in the historic Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery, experts were busy weighing the meaning of his legacy and the huge political stakes in choosing his successor.

“The authority of the deceased Metropolitan was indisputable: He was able to find common ground with all of Ukraine’s presidents, even with supporters of an independent Ukrainian Church,” explained Anatolii Pchenlintsev, a professor of religious studies at the Russian Humanities Institute. “It was his authority that allowed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to continue as part of the Moscow Patriarchate.”

Metropolitan Volodymyr was selected to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1992, in the midst of another crisis between Russia and Ukraine. In 1991, after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, his predecessor, Metropolitan Filaret, had convened a national sobor of Ukrainian Orthodox clergy, which had unanimously voted to become an independent church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church.

This decision was not recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, which asked Filaret to submit his resignation, and subsequently selected Volodymyr to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Filaret founded a separate, independent Church, which he continues to lead to this day.

Both churches are called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The church led by Volodymyr, part of the Moscow Patriarchate, is considered to be under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church led by Filaret is independent, and is referred to as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarch. Surveys have been inconclusive regarding the exact proportion of adherents that each branch has.

“It’s important to remember now the circumstances under which Volodymyr started his service as the Metropolitan of Kiev in 1992,” explained Igor Yakimchuk, secretary of public relations at the Moscow Patriarchate. “The church’s situation was such that there was no hope that it would withstand the pressure from nationalists.”

According to Yakimchuk, both the then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk and the former Metropolitan wanted to divide the Church. “Metropolitan Volodymyr protested with peace and love,” Yakimchuk said. “He was convinced that the only way to prevent a division was through love.”

That position, Yakimchuk thinks, was ultimately what prevented divisions in the church in Ukraine. “For more than 20 years, Father Volodymyr managed to keep the church together. Under his leadership, the church has grown to around 12,000 parishes, which represents almost half of all the parishes in the Moscow Patriarchate.”

In Kiev, preparations have already started for the meeting of bishops where a new leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be chosen. According to our sources who were close to Metropolitan Volodymyr, there are three potential successors.

Meaning of mourners

The first is 69-year-old Metropolitan Onuphrius, who was born in Chernivtsi Oblast and graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy. Onuphrius, who has been filling in for Volodymyr since February, is considered both the frontrunner and the candidate who would continue in Volodymyr’s footsteps.

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Metropolitan Onuphrius — Photo: BO Svoboda

The 46-year-old Metropolitan Antoni is one of the youngest members of the church hierarchy. He also graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy and handles the administration at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. His youth makes his selection relatively unlikely, sources said.

Lastly, 63-year-old Ilarion, who was born in Lviv and currently is stationed in Donetsk, is the third potential candidate for Volodymyr’s post.

According to Vasili Anisomov, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s press office, Onuphrius is the most likely choice, because, “his candidacy works for everyone.” Anisomov thinks that the new Metropolitan should be closer to the older wing of the church than to the young reformers. Many are prepared to vote for Onuphrius, but he doesn’t crave the power himself. He is a monk, and says that Ukraine’s problems can be solved through prayer, not through power. He has indicated that he doesn’t approve of Ukraine’s move towards the European Union, saying that, “they have turned away from Christ, and we need to stand with those who worship Christ.”

The Russian Orthodox Church declined to make predictions about the future Metropolitan, but noted the central role the church plays in current Ukrainian society. “We hope for help from God, so that the Church in Ukraine will remain united,” said Igor Yakimchuk. “Right now the political situation in Ukraine is difficult, but the Church has managed to stay out of the fighting and so I think it will be able to preserve its unity.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was among those who came to bid farewell to Metropolitan Volodymyr. “He was the person who established our church. Now God will hear prayers about Ukraine,” said Poroshenko, who himself is a deacon in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Until the last minute, it wasn’t clear if Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, would attended Volodymyr’s funeral. “Patriarch Kirill was invited to come alone, without his delegation and security, because he is the only member of the upper ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church who is not currently unwelcome in Ukraine. The Patriarch apparently could not agree to that,” explained a source at the Ukrainian Church.

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