Opinion: Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence is a mistake

The secession of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine has drawn widespread criticism. But Patriarch Bartholomew I may have survived the onslaught, writes DW's Miodrag Soric.
Miodrag Soric
Miodrag Soric

The leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, has granted adherents of the Orthodox faith in Ukraine autocephaly, or in other words, independence from Russia.

Bartholomew did this on his own authority, against the advice of other bishops, thereby violating canon law and contradicting decisions on Ukraine he himself made just a few years ago.

The reactions could hardly have been worse: Other patriarchs refuse to follow suit. Even members of the Greek-Orthodox Holy Synod have voiced their disapproval.

Orthodox Church leaders in Poland or the Czech Republic also oppose the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. The 2,000 monks (abbots and starets) of the semi-autonomous monastic state Mount Athos have been left shaking their heads in disbelief.

But not everyone is up in arms. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Vice President Joe Biden and a former CIA chief applauded the move. Washington supports the division of churches in Eastern Europe. It is another means to weaken Moscow's influence over Ukraine — even if it is just the ecclesiastical.

From the US perspective, such fragmentation is legitimate. Concerns over canonical law are an alien concept to many Americans. Why should people today abide by decrees dating back to the fourth century? The US views itself as a bastion of freedom, especially freedom of religion.

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It is a country to which persecuted peoples from other lands have fled for centuries. It is also a country in which new religious communities are constantly emerging: Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and countless evangelical revival churches. Backed by enormous wealth, they use the US as a springboard to spread their missionary message around the world — including Eastern Europe.

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Patriarch Bartholomew could have taken his time to reach a decision — and without a doubt, he should have. In accordance with canonical law, decisions of such historical significance must be made with the consensus of all parties involved.

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But the patriarch in Istanbul allowed himself to be rushed along, especially by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The beleaguered head of state faces a battle for re-election at the end of March, with abysmal approval ratings. The economy is in a sorry state due to lack of foreign investment, corruption is rampant, and there is still no peace in the east of the country.

Poroshenko is banking on the creation of a national Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a vote-winner. But many Ukrainians are skeptical; the vast majority of Orthodox congregations remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate — the canonically legitimate church.

An opposition to Russia is all that unites Bartholomew's newly created church. A weak bond in the long run. Bartholomew did not even grant them complete independence, for he himself is their patriarch. Other Orthodox churches avoid such a canonical legal structure.

The Moscow Patriarch is also to blame for the risk that the church dispute could escalate further. Patriarch Kirill publicly aligns himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin all too often.

Many Ukrainians thus regard Kirill as an extended arm of the Kremlin, although that is far removed from reality. The perception, however, remains.

Above all else, the Moscow Patriarch should have been more active building bridges in the abominable war in eastern Ukraine — as an institution that urges and encourages both sides towards peace.

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'Constantinople' is history

Confronting modernity and political and social reality are not strengths of the Orthodox churches. The Greek Church, for example, still speaks of the Patriarch of "Constantinople." But the metropolis, which was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire, has been called Istanbul for centuries.

The influence of the Patriarch residing there cannot be compared with that of his predecessors in the historical Constantinople. So why is he still honorary head of the Orthodoxy? Because it was like that in the early Middle Ages and because the Greeks hope to "recapture" the city? It is simply absurd. The patriarchal supremacy has outlived its purpose!

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Instead of arbitration, it creates new tensions — today in Ukraine, Estonia or Bulgaria and possibly soon in other parts of the world.

As exasperating, even tragic, as the church dispute of the past weeks may be, it also bears potential: The national churches could introduce more equality and become more "democratic." Each year a different patriarch assumes the rotating chair among church leaders. Democracy and equality promote openness and tolerance. And no one could place themselves above the law and legally conferred rules in the long run.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a children's hospice on Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6 in St. Petersburg. Russia is the world's largest predominantly Orthodox country, followed by Ukraine. A lot of holiday traditions are still connected to New Year's Eve on December 31, however, including the exchanging of gifts.

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