Ukraine vs Russia: Inside the biggest schism in Orthodox Christianity in 350 years

Monks have been secluding themselves from the world for more than a millennium in the caves of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, where 120 mummified brothers lie in glass-covered coffins along the low, sloping corridors.

Their solitude has been increasingly interrupted, however, since the top patriarch in Istanbul said in October he’d recognise a new Ukrainian church independent of Russia, sparking the biggest schism in Orthodox Christianity in 350 years.

On December 15, Ukrainian religious leaders will hold a “unification assembly” to lay the groundwork for the new church and choose its leader.

But the current Ukrainian Orthodox Church has remained loyal to the Moscow patriarchate even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. It controls the Kiev-Pechersk monastery complex, a Unesco world heritage site and the holiest place in Ukraine, as well as 12,000 of the country’s 18,000 churches. 

Late last month, employees of the culture ministry, which technically owns the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, suddenly came to take an inventory of the holy relics there. The next day, agents of the Ukrainian security service raided the Lavra as well as a residence belonging to the head abbot, charging him with the “incitement of religious hatred”.

The pressure came after the justice ministry said it was cancelling the right for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to use another famous monastery complex in Pochayiv.

“Monks went to prison for resisting” Soviet crackdowns and would resist this one, abbot Joseph told The Sunday Telegraph as he shuffled through the Kiev-Pechersk caves cupping a candle in his hand. “The monks won’t leave as long as the army doesn’t come.”

He called the creation of a new church a political ploy similar to Henry VIII’s break with Catholicism.

The seat of power was in Kiev when Prince Vladimir converted from paganism in 988 and brought Orthodox Christianity to much of what is now Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. 

By the 17th century, however, Moscow was in control of Ukrainian lands, and the Constantinople patriarch, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, gave the Russian patriarch dominion over the church here. 

That was all reversed by the current Constantinople patriarch Bartholomew’s decision in October, which was lobbied by Ukraine’s pro-Western president Petro Poroshenko and was a blow to Russia’s influence over the former Soviet republic. 

In response, Vladimir Putin warned that “politicking in such a delicate sphere has always led to heavy consequences”.  

Declaring Bartholomew’s decision heretical, the Russian Orthodox Church broke off all ties with Constantinople. Besides a few rogue bishops, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has refused to take part in the unification assembly. 

Patriarch Filaret, the leader of one of two splinter churches in Ukraine, accused this subordinate church of being an agent of the Kremlin.

“Without an independent church there won’t be an independent Ukrainian state, and Moscow knows this well,” he told The Sunday Telegraph in. “It’s fighting to keep the Ukrainian church dependent on Moscow.”

Many have suspected such ties following reports of Moscow patriarchate priests in eastern Ukraine blessing separatists’ guns or refusing to baptise government soldiers. Former top separatist commander Igor Girkin even claimed his personal guard was formed of monks from the nearby Svyatohirsk Lavra. 

But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has denied supporting separatism.

The priest in charge of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kramatorsk, a city that was once under separatist control, locked out a reporter who asked for commentary, blaming the media for exaggerating the church’s links to Moscow.

“We are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It’s you journalists who have decided we are the Moscow patriarchate,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Why do you lie? Those who lie can get a fist to the face.”

The Moscow patriarchate church’s spokesman Archbishop Kliment told The Sunday Telegraph that canonical law, not Kremlin interests, was why it rejects the creation of a new church here. He argued that president Poroshenko, who is in danger of losing re-election in March, was the one using church affairs to political ends. 

“For more than 300 years, Constantinople didn’t interfere. Now when there’s an election on and the president is using the church issue as a slogan, Constantinople has quickly given autocephaly and interfered in the religious life of our country,” he said. 

This messy religious dispute could play out for years both in Ukraine and abroad, where the churches of Poland, Serbia and Syria have backed Russia. 

Thirty-nine per cent of Ukraine’s 30 million Orthodox believers are for the new independent church and 29 per cent are against, while the rest are undecided, a recent poll found. 

Katya Tokar, a student who was visiting the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra on a recent weekday, said she made a point of praying both there and at St Michael’s monastery, which belongs to a Ukrainian splinter church. 

"Each church has its own view, each is (politically) dependent on someone. That’s bad but that’s the way it is," she said. "The main thing is so that people keep coming here."

Several dozen individual churches already left the Moscow patriarchate since war broke out in eastern Ukraine.

Whether more cross over may depend on the outcome of the unification assembly. Past attempts to merge the two Ukrainian splinter churches have failed due to squabbles over a new name, among other things. 

One Moscow patriarchate bishop sympathetic to the new church warned last week that few of his churches would switch allegiances if the outspoken Patriarch Filaret was chosen to lead it.

Archbishop German, spokesman for the other Ukrainian splinter church headed by Metropolitan Makariy, said it had asked Constantinople to put forward a “neutral candidate,” perhaps an ethnic Ukrainian from an overseas diocese. 

“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “I’m confident that after creation of an independent Ukrainian church, people will demand their pastors join this Ukrainian church.”