Ukrainian Orthodox worshipers turn away from Moscow as they celebrate the first Easter of the war
But if Putin wants to unite “old Rus” around a strengthened Orthodox communion, the way he went about it has backfired horribly. In recent weeks, hundreds of Ukrainian priests have demanded that Mr. Kirill be tried by a church council for giving his blessing to the war. There are calls to expel the Moscow-led church from the World Council of Churches.
Taras Kurylko, a 21-year-old student from the village of Khvativ, explains that under the Communists, the Orthodox in his community had kept the faith, but they had also developed a strong aversion to Moscow politics. “We remember from our history, that there was no way to go to the open-air liturgy under the Soviets. Children were baptized in secret. There were many spies, watching who prays, who is a priest. Our village remembers these difficult times.
So when Ukraine gained independence, many Orthodox believers also wanted to replicate that blow to religious freedom – hence the 2018 establishment of an autonomous church affiliated with Constantinople rather than Moscow. , a schism that has been condemned by both Mr. Kirill and Putin who, centuries ago, has accused him of being proto-fascist. Mr. Zelensky supported the UOC.
Tiny at first, it got a spark of growth thanks to the invasion – and the war forced Orthodox priests to test their conscience.
Father Shestak explains: “On the first day of the war, many parishes recorded videos asking the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to break his communion. [with Moscow]… Churches in Ukraine [initially] decided not to pray for Kirill and the Moscow hierarchy in their services” to signal their discomfort.
These prayers come back, especially in the Carpathians and in eastern Ukraine; some priests are preaching Mr. Kirill’s line that this is a civil war, not an invasion, and therefore both sides should lay down their arms.
Student Kurylko describes this as a “mental invasion”. One could certainly speak of an attempt at neutrality that does not reflect the reality of mass graves. The conflict is a test, “of who is Ukrainian and who is not, and where is the gray.” Are you on the white side or the black side? There is no middle zone.
Ultimately, says Father Shestak, most believers will eventually choose independence. “Sixty days of war have totally changed the mentality” of the average citizen, religious or not. They no longer argue over which language to speak – Ukrainian or Russian – “they are bound together by war and want peace. They are ready to make this change, not to be connected to Moscow.
Father Myhailo agrees. Standing in a church transfigured by candlelight, the air laden with incense, he quietly predicts that more and more parishes will join the autonomous church. Even if Putin succeeds, even if the whole country falls, which everyone claims is impossible, “most of my parishioners have a clear idea of what to do. We will decide to remain free even if it costs us our lives.