Ukraine Verstehen: Towards a new religious split in Kyiv?

How Patriarch Filaret’s renewed quest for power endangers the unity of Ukraine’s new independent Orthodox church – analysis for Ukraine Verstehen

English version of an analysis published in German on the website of the think-tank Ukraine Verstehen, on 07/07/2019

How Patriarch Filaret’s renewed quest for power endangers the unity of Ukraine’s new independent Orthodox church.

The quarrel is not what it was expected to be. Tensions between the newly-established Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Church of Russia in Ukraine (formerly the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate) are real since the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriachate of Constantinople, on 5th January 2019. Yet it is former head of the Kyiv Patriarchate Filaret who feeds the controversy. The 90 years-old is nowhere close to retirement. Although he is a revered personality for many Ukrainians for his fight for religious and national independence overall, his latest stance appears as a lone-wolf quest for power. It may cost him his historical credibility.

Officially an honorary patriarch, he has expressed discontent with the authority of OCU Patriarch Epiphanius and he convened a synod at the Volodymyrskiy cathedral in downtown Kyiv on 20th June. He was made Patriarch for life of “his” Kyiv Patriarchate, which he claims still exists despite having officially merged into the OCU. Filaret had helped create the Patriarchate in 1992 as a scission from Moscow religious authorities. He took over as Patriarch in 1995. During the synod he denounced the position of the Unification council that was held on 15th December 2018. Filaret claimed the late Kyiv Patriarchate property and he called the ministry of Interior for protection against possible “raids”.

For the OCU spokesman Archbishop Yevstratiy, it was nothing serious. It was rather a “local gathering” than a synod, he commented. It is true that only two bishops attended along with a hundred believers. This does not match with the institutional power of the 9 million believer-strong new Church. Yet Epiphanius had to react. On 24th June, an official meeting of the OCU authorities stripped the two bishops of their titles and deprived Filaret from the right to manage and control churches and monasteries. Yevstratiy did confirm that the Kyiv Patriarchate was disbanded in December 2018 when it joined the new church. All of Filaret’s statements on its behalf “have neither a canonical nor a legal foundation.”

Filaret’s feud is not taken seriously indeed as the man has made his inner reasons very clear on 15th May. He revealed at a press conference the details of an unspoken agreement he made with Epiphanius: the former had to manage internal development of the new Church while the latter was meant to be its public and international face. “If only I knew what would happen (that he would be left aside, i.e.), I would not have nominated him as a candidate”. These allegations cast a shadow on the ethics of the Unification council as well as on former President Petro Poroshenko role in creating the new Church. Yet the logics of Filaret’s discontent is obvious: it is not a canonical or legal criticism of the OCU but a mere personal grudge.

Dmytro Gorevoy, director of the Center for Religious Security, reminds that Filaret “wants to have power. He has got used to this drug of power for more than half a century”. It is well-known from Filaret’s past. Under the formally atheistic Soviet regime he entertained a fruitful cooperation with the KGB that justified his remarkably quick ascension. He did prove exceedingly agressive against Jews and Greek-Catholics. It is only after he failed to become head of the Russian Church that he took a pro-Ukrainian stance and helped create the Kyiv Patriarchate. He has since tried to assert himself as the most powerful and Ukrainian-minded religious dignitary in the country, namely over the head of Autocephalous church of Ukraine Macarius.

Filaret is revered for his active part in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and in the Donbass war. Yet the current feud confirms his life-long actions have been first and foremost justified by his thirst for power. This is potentially dangerous for the OCU’s claim for independence. Filaret is right in arguing that creating the Kyiv Patriarchate in 1992 was a fundamental step that allowed the granting of the Tomos of autocephaly 17 years after. Yet one now wonders about the legitimacy of the 1992 split from Moscow in the first place. If it was based on Filaret sole ambitions, as the ongoing feud is, it would strengthen the Russian church’s claim that it legally bears authority over Ukraine’s canonical land. OCU Archbishop Yevstratiy does understand this threat, as he dismisses Filaret as “an aged man who is influenced by Russian propaganda”.

At stake is the recognition of the OCU on the international stage. None of the 13 autocephalous Churches has yet entered in communion with the OCU, which would equal official recognition. “The personality of Filaret is toxic for many foreign Orthodox churches,” religious scholar Oleksandr Sagan says to explain the lack of reactions from abroad. Were Filaret’s feud to gain momentum, it would surely complicate this perspective.

It may as well severe the OCU’s relationship with Constantinople. The hostility between Filaret and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is well-known. One of the reasons of Filaret’s discontent that he made public is that the OCU “serves the interests of the Greeks”. Any more followers he gains may mean that a significant share of believers are suspicious of Constantinople’s influence over the OCU. Some observers already claim that Bartholomew may cancel the Tomos of autocephaly in case the situation becomes too unstable. Epiphanius assures that it is not possible. Yet it is hard to deny his position is endangered by Filaret’s actions.

it is especially true because any opposition to Filaret does not necessarily mean support for Epiphanius. The Primate still has to ensure support from his OCU flock as his December appointment did not result from a show of joy. He had to compete hard against Metropolitan of Lutsk, Mikhaylo and internal criticism is still flying high. The OCU requires a strong and united leadership to consolidate its institutions and to achieve its primary goal: to attract more believers to join. As of now, hardly 500 parishes transferred from the Russian Church to the OCU.

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