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A Church at War

A Church at War

The Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church has drawn the ire of the Ukrainian government, leaving church congregants in a tough place.

Ringo Harrison

On the outskirts of Kyiv, I joined a gathering of worshippers in the misty forest on a Sunday morning. The setup was minimalist but it had everything a church needed to conduct a service: icons of Orthodox Christian saints displayed on plastic tables, chants in Church Slavonic, and a priest to bless his flock. Why these worshippers were praying in the cold chill rather than in the warmth of the church was clear—they have no church in which to worship anymore.

These parishioners are members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of the Moscow Patriarchate, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church with close ties to Moscow. The UOC is headed by Putin ally Patriarch Kirill, who famously blessed Russian troops heading into Ukraine, assuring Russian soldiers they would go to heaven if they died in combat. 

Given the church’s problematic connections to Moscow, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian parliament have proposed to ban the UOC, not unlike recent bans on Russian-sympathizing opposition parties. The proposed outright ban has proven quite popular among Ukrainians, with 54 percent supporting it. Additionally, many former members of the UOC have abandoned the church, switching to the pro-Kyiv autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) following the invasion.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the head of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufriy, refused to condemn collaborators within the church, remarking that they “are not collaborators. On the contrary, many of them are true heroes of the Ukrainian people.” Holy texts used within the church continue to honor Russian military figures from the past. When a former UOC priest I met condemned Russia’s invasion, his religious colleagues began distancing themselves from him and ostracizing him on social media.

It's clear that UOC priests and parishioners do not uniformly carry sympathies for Moscow. A common retort from them is that they are loyal Ukrainian patriots who wish to worship in peace. Many of them have relatives in eastern Ukraine where churches have been destroyed and lives turned upside down—not at the hands of “Banderites,” but, rather, the “Russian liberators.” The parishioners I spoke with see themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, with the Russians doing everything they can to destroy them while the Ukrainian government condemns their faith.

While it may seem like a simple solution for UOC worshippers to switch to the Kyiv-loyal Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the transition is not always easy. One former UOC priest who switched to the Kyiv-based Orthodox Church described his shift as one of joy and renewed spiritual fraternity, especially after being ostracized by former friends.  However, another former UOC priest who also switched churches tells a different story. He and his parishioners received a suspicious welcome by their new co-worshippers, who wondered why it “took them so long” to leave the UOC. The newcomers were still seen as “Muscovites” and found themselves isolated within their new church. Many expressed regret at their switch, telling family and friends to avoid the mistake they made.

The human rights implications of banning the Moscow-linked UOC have garnered the attention of some international observers. A recent report released by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights notes at least ten instances of violence against the UOC as well as other forms of discrimination. The treatment of the UOC has caught the attention of Western media, as well. The Guardian editorial board condemned the proposed ban on the UOC, and Marc Santora of the New York Times’ likened the potential move to the dictatorial actions commonly seen in China and Russia.

Such a ban would be difficult to legally enforce, as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a single entity but rather a collection of separate legal entities. Any attempt to ban the church would have to address the larger ecosystem that includes parishioners, media outlets, and grassroots-level social media focused on faith. A culture clash and ground-level resistance may ensue. Many of the priests and parishioners that I spoke with have a natural reluctance to follow the dictates of local administrators who aren’t members of their church or even necessarily Orthodox Christians. Enforcing such a measure would require a massive security network, which I frequently heard UOC parishioners compare to the Soviet past.

It appears that the Ukrainian government is taking many of these factors into consideration in shaping a bill to curtail the power of the UOC. Recent revisions to the current bill are significantly less strict than initial proposals to ban the UOC as a whole. In this revised bill, only UOC churches and organizations that have links to Russia would be banned, and only after undergoing an investigation by a commission and a court trial.

Many UOC members are supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia and have friends and relatives in the Ukrainian military. Some were arrested and abducted by the Russian military. One priest I interviewed, Father Sergey, escaped from occupied Kherson after the FSB began using the old Soviet tactic of trying to force the mayors and clergy into compliance.  

But it cannot be overlooked that some members of the UOC feel torn between their loyalties to Kyiv and Moscow. I asked one UOC priest about his opinion on Metropolitan Pavel, the high bishop of the Monastery of the Caves who had been accused by Ukrainian intelligence of supporting the Russian invasion over a wiretapped phone line. When I asked if Pavel should be excommunicated, the priest told me that it was a matter for the courts. But this priest also added that he would not accept a guilty verdict given the corruption in Ukrainian courts. 

However, in the process of writing this article, on March 12th of 2024, the Security Service of Ukraine detained a group of fifteen and put out a press release stating that they had "neutralized a criminal organization in Kyiv that conducted information sabotage at the request of the FSB." I have reason to believe that the UOC priest whom I interviewed was one of those fifteen.

The religious and political loyalties of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christian community may not be the country’s most pressing national security concern, but the issue offers an important litmus test for how well the government can navigate matters of national security while striving to follow the tenets of liberal democracy. The tensions between the Moscow-linked UOC and the Ukrainian government carry repercussions that impact not just national security, but the heart and soul of Ukraine. 

Ringo Harrison is a research associate at American Purpose.

Image: Destroyed art within the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa, Ukraine, following a Russian missile attack on the city on July 23, 2023. (Wikimedia Commons:, CC BY 4.0)/By Вячеслав Діордієв / АрміяInform - Унаслідок ворожого ракетного удару значних руйнувань зазнав найбільший православний храм Одеси, CC BY 4.0

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineReligion