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Also at stake in Ukraine: the future of the two Orthodox churches

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Also at stake in Ukraine: the future of the two Orthodox churches

KYIV, Ukraine – Standing in the cobblestone courtyard of a medieval monastery, with an icy wind tossing his black robe and artillery shells from afar, Archbishop Yefrem suffers from the war that is slowly engulfing his city.

But while the government of Ukraine is calling on every able-bodied man to defend the country against Russian aggression, the archbishop sees things a little differently. Because Russians and Ukrainians are people of the same religion, he said, the Russian military is not the enemy. Believers in Ukraine should “pray for peace, not victory.”

Initiated by President Vladimir V. Putin to re-establish Russian influence in the region, the war in Ukraine is also a contest for the future of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Church – of which Archbishop Yefrem is a part – has made no secret of its desire to unite the branches in Moscow under a single patriarch, which allows it to control the holiest sites of Orthodoxy and millions of believers in the Slavic world. Will give Ukraine. Following the independence of Ukraine in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for its part, has been gradually reviving a separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy under its own Patriarch.

If Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion, the Moscow Church will certainly be ousted. If Russia wins, the Ukrainian Church is unlikely to survive inside Ukraine.

Prizes in the struggle include sacred sites such as the Cave of the Monastery, a sprawling complex of churches in Kyiv overlooking the Dnieper River, whose golden onion domes were shining in the sun on a recent afternoon as artillery shells exploded in the capital. They went. In the caves, in the grotto, are the relics of the early saints of Slavic Orthodoxy, whose control would have been a mark of pre-eminence in this branch of Christianity.

After the independence of Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate retained access to the site, while the Ukrainian government formally owned it as a museum.

The branch of the Church in Ukraine subordinate to Moscow also enjoys the loyalty of most city, town and village churches in Ukraine, although the newly independent Ukrainian Church has had success in encouraging parishes to switch allegiance. Those efforts have angered Mr Putin so much that he warned in 2018 that it “could turn into a huge controversy if not bloodshed.”

Ukrainian political and religious analysts maintain that the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine was deeply infiltrated by Moscow, and is regarded by many as a tool of Russian foreign policy. Last week, when angry mobs threw a Russian preacher out of his church in western Ukraine, police did not intervene.

Christian teaching has also become part of the battlefield. Priests loyal to Russia emphasized the pacifist gospel in sermons recommended by their leadership on Sunday, at a time when the country’s defensive strategy rested on mobilizing civilians to fight. Many Ukrainians considered that stance subversive or seditious.

Archbishop Yefrem, a member of the Moscow Church, which holds mass celebrations at the Caves Monastery, said he was urging believers to pray. “Only God can bring peace,” he said.

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“If an enemy came, yes, we could have fought,” he said, clarifying his stand. “But this is a very important point about Ukraine. We are one person with the Russians and only the devil spreads enmity between us.”

The Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has taken a different approach. In a televised sermon on Sunday, its patriarch, Metropolitan Epiphanius, supported the resistance. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he said. “We pray and we act.”

He said that believers should protect the country. “Our brave people are defending themselves from the onslaught of Russia, which is throwing its soldiers and weapons on our villages and cities,” he said. “And every hour of our resistance inspires more and more people around the world to support Ukraine.”

For both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, the stakes are high on winning the war and are likely to shape the future of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Church formed after independence was given legitimacy in 2019 by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the senior official in Eastern Orthodoxy, angering Russian political and religious leaders. Parishs in Ukraine soon began to change their allegiance, and the Ukrainian Church today counts around 700 parishes in the country, with 12,000 remaining under Russian influence.

“This is also one of the factors of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Ihor Kozlovsky, a scholar of religion at the Institute of Philosophy at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. “If our Church is fully united under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow will lose its hegemony in the Orthodox world.”

Last week in western Ukraine, villagers furious about Russia’s invasion fired a Russian Orthodox priest from his church in Tsenyava in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Archpriest Georgi of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a telephone interview, the crowd “brutally snatched the church.” “They knocked on the doors, drove the parishioners out.” He said the mob was armed with rifles. The priest called the police, but “no police came,” said Archpriest Georgi.

The Russian Orthodox Church is treading cautiously in the conflict. The church’s top official in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, made no mention in his Sunday sermon of the war that had begun three days earlier. Metropolitan Onufri, the top official of the Moscow Church in Ukraine, condemned the invasion and asked Mr Putin in a video address to stop it.

But the prayers read at the end of the church in churches, coordinated by the leadership, only encourage prayer and make no mention of resistance – or Russia for that matter. “We pray for peace in Ukraine and the enemy leaves our country,” said the prayer at Saturday’s worship, for example, without explicitly condemning Russia.

“They are natural allies of the Putin regime,” said religious scholar Mr. Kozlowski, adding that he was not surprised to see the church now quelling civil resistance.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches converted to Christianity in 988 by the conversion of a Kyiv prince, Prince Vladimir into Russian and Volodymyr in Ukrainian. In a sign that Mr Putin is inspired by this history, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 he erected a statue of Prince Vladimir near the Kremlin walls in Moscow.

The Ukrainian Church has been under Moscow’s jurisdiction since 1686 when, under pressure from Russia, it renounced allegiance to Constantinople until 2019, until it formally gained independence.

The churches share the same sacred sites, perhaps the most important being the cavernous monastery and its catacombs that hold the bodies of saints who are deeply revered in both Ukraine and Russia.

In this dim, ancient Battle of the Tunnels – lit only by oil lamps – some loyalists turned out on Tuesday, despite the battle on the edge of the city. In silence, they bowed before the coffins, or bowed down and kissed them in the dark.

Marina Shuyeva, 37, a doctor, walked on icy, stone paths, weeping, between medieval brick walls.

Tears started flowing down his cheeks. He said his son was trapped in a basement in the city of Kharkiv, which was targeted by Russian missiles on Tuesday. She said that she knew nothing of his fate, and that she could do nothing for him but come to the caves to pray.

“Write the truth,” he said of Russian troops now advancing in Kyiv, with satellite images showing a mile-long column of Russian tanks on the road leading to the city. “They are not saving us. They’re killing us.”

Sadhus dressed in black clothes were walking outside. In a Russian service at the site, believers bowed their heads to the deep, harmonious vocals of a choir of monks.

Christianity encourages non-violence, said Darina Melnik, a 28-year-old former flight attendant who studied at the Caves Monastery to become a nun in the Russian Church.

“I think people who really believe in God won’t be violent,” she said. “I understand my people who want to protect our country. But the Bible says, ‘You must not kill.'”

Of both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fighting outside the city, she said, “I pray for his soul to be saved. But we do not know what victory looks like in the eyes of God. ,

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