On December 1, 2022, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, signed a decree on certain aspects of the activities of religious organizations in the country, imposing sanctions on a number of clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (УПЦ МП). The fact was preceded by an intensive investigation, which began in November 2022, and according to the Ukrainian Security Service, revealed cases of collaboration by clerics with the Russian side during the war.
Following the mentioned fact, Russian propaganda media has amplified messages claiming that the government of Ukraine restricts the freedom of religion. On January 23, in a video published by the Facebook account, the former president of Ukraine – Petro Poroshenko, was also accused of interfering in the decision of the church. The video claimed that Poroshenko violated Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine by supporting the autocephaly of Ukraine and signing a document with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on November 3, 2018, which allowed him to “rule the church.” According to the video, Poroshenko made this decision without asking for people’s opinion.
The claim that the former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, violated the Ukrainian constitution by initiating the autocephaly of Ukraine and signing the document of cooperation with the patriarch of Constantinople is false. The document implied mutual cooperation in the creation of an independent Ukrainian church, which the Ukrainian constitution does not prohibit. In addition, the decision on autocephaly is being taken by the members of the synod.
Ukraine’s three Orthodox churches before obtaining autocephaly
In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of Ukraine led to the fragmentation of the church, leading to the emergence of three Orthodox churches in the country.
First, (УПЦ МП) [Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate] was the largest and, at the same time, the most influential Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which enjoyed autonomy but was under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Notably, after the election of Vladimir Putin for the second term, the connection of this church with Russia has increased.
Second, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – the Kyiv Patriarchate (ПЦУ), which was founded in 1992 and was not recognized by other Orthodox churches until Ukraine gained autocephaly. Third, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (AOCU) (УАПЦ), which was founded by Ukrainians in exile in 1917, returned to Ukraine after Ukraine gained independence and had congregations mainly in western Ukraine. It was this church that tried to gain independence; however, a few years after the declaration of autonomy, the autocephalous church was dissolved by the Soviet Union. The second attempt to obtain autocephaly was during the World War II. In 1990, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church was resurrected and had parishioners mainly in Western Ukraine.
These two churches (OCU and AOCU) were separated from the Moscow Patriarchate, although they still did not have autocephaly granted by the Church of Constantinople. Despite the fact that there were several attempts to restore autocephaly in Ukraine, Moscow stifled all of them.
Poroshenko’s initiative and the attempt to restore Ukraine’s autocephaly
After the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014, the attitude towards Russia in Ukraine changed, and the issue of autocephaly gained momentum once again. It should be noted that the Euromaidan events were supported only by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In Kyiv, it was announced that Moscow-supported churches in Ukraine became a tool for the Kremlin’s propaganda. In order to restore national security and historical justice, the then President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, initiated the unification of the two Orthodox Churches of Ukraine (OCU and AOCU) and the gain of the autocephaly of Ukraine. Poroshenko addressed this request to the Patriarch of Constantinople on April 17, 2018. The initiative was supported by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. On August 31, 2018, Patriarch Kirill of Russia visited Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople; however, the visit was unsuccessful, as both sides maintained their views on this issue. Bartholomew I of Constantinople continued the process of granting autocephaly to Ukraine, which was opposed by Patriarch Kirill.
On October 11, 2018, the Synod of Constantinople made a decision to extend the process of granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
On November 3, 2018, Petro Poroshenko and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signed an agreement on cooperation between Ukraine and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. This document was signed to promote the creation of an independent church in Ukraine.
After signing the document, Rostislav Pavlenko, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine, clarified that the Constitution of Ukraine does not oppose the creation of a new church. He also pointed to Article 5 of the Constitution of Ukraine (on freedom of belief and religious organizations), according to which the state protects the rights and legitimate interests of religious organizations; It promotes the establishment of religious and tolerant relations between religious and non-religious citizens, believers of different confessions and their religious organizations.
Pavlenko also explains that the state promotes the creation of an independent church with the methods available to it, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople does this in all canonical ways.
What does Article 35 of the Ukrainian Constitution entail?
According to the viral video disseminated on Facebook, with the document signed in Istanbul, Poroshenko violated Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine and “started to rule the church”, he made the decision without asking the opinion of Ukrainians about it.
According to Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine, religious activities are separated from the state. A specific religion cannot be declared as a state religion. The expression of all religious beliefs and the right to engage in religious activities unhindered are protected. Restriction of this right is allowed only if there is a threat to public order, people’s health or the rights and freedom of other people.
With the support of Petro Poroshenko, two Orthodox churches in Ukraine were united, thus forming a new one, without violating the constitution, as it does not prohibit the creation of a new church.
“Myth Detector” contacted theologian Beka Mindiashvili to figure out more on the mentioned topic. He noted that Poroshenko has an important role in recognition of Ukraine’s autocephaly, although his action is of a more formal nature. According to him, autocephaly is traditionally granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to those churches that exist within this or that state and play an important role in the life of the society and the state.
Beka Mindiashvili: “For centuries, secular rulers, and kings participated in the process of obtaining autocephaly, and in this respect, it can be read as a traditional action. But overall, the participation of the President of Ukraine was still of a formal nature, since in essence, the main communication about autocephaly took place between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Church of Ukraine.”
Mindiashvili points out that Poroshenko did not violate the principle of secularism and the Constitution of Ukraine, but on the contrary, he gave the opportunity to fully enjoy the freedom of religion to the citizens of Ukraine who opted for autocephaly. On the other hand, he protected the country from a hostile country and strengthened the country’s sovereignty and western orientation by weakening the aggressive Russian political-ideological group – the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
It should be noted that Poroshenko’s initiative to obtain Ukrainian autocephaly coincided with the period when the Ukrainian presidential elections were held. Nevertheless, this issue did not cause internal discussions in the country, and Poroshenko’s rival presidential candidates did not accuse him of violating the constitution.
2019 – Autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine and the unification of Orthodox churches
The Russian Orthodox Church’s 330-year control over Ukraine ended when Ukraine gained autocephaly in 2019. On January 5, 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signed the certificate of autocephaly, Tomos, and on January 6, he handed it over to Metropolitan Epiphanes, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The ceremonial transfer of the document was held in Istanbul, at St.George’s Cathedral. The then President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, also attended the ceremony.
“Tomos” is another act of declaring Ukraine’s independence,” Poroshenko said on January 6, 2019.
After gaining autocephaly, two Orthodox churches are left in Ukraine – the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Orthodox Church of Ukraine (ПЦУ) in its current form was formed on December 15, 2018, at the Council, by uniting all the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, as well as two metropolitans of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Bishop Epiphanes became the metropolitan of the new church.
Notably, even before signing Tomos, the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I called on other Orthodox churches to support and recognize the autocephaly of Ukraine. In addition to Constantinople, the autocephaly of Ukraine was recognized by the Orthodox Churches of Alexandria, Cyprus and Greece. The Georgian Orthodox Church still does not recognize the autocephaly of Ukraine.
On April 27, 2019, the Patriarch of Ukraine stated that Moscow actively opposed the process of recognition.
Who can grant autocephaly to a church?
In general, there is no specific legislation in the church on the granting of autocephaly, and in such cases, the churches are mainly guided by past experience and ecclesiastical traditions.
According to the ecclesiastical tradition, either the Patriarch of Constantinople or the Mother Church has the authority to grant autocephaly. In the case of the Ukrainian Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople had authority on both sides, because the Ukrainian Church, based on history, always belonged to it, and the Russian Church illegally seized it. In particular, in 1589, when the Russian Church received the status of Patriarchate from the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Metropolitanate of Kyiv was not included in it, and it remained under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.
Russian Church tried to strengthen its influence in the Ukrainian Church even before. In particular, Vasyl, the head of Moscow, took advantage of the weakness of Constantinople and, in 1448, presented Jonah of Moscow as the metropolitan of Kyiv and All Russia and broke the ecclesiastical tradition. Of course, this fact was recognized as illegal by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Russian Church later gained independence from Constantinople, although, as already mentioned, this independence did not apply to the Metropolis of Kyiv, and it remained under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Consequently, the Church of Constantinople, as the mother church, had full authority to grant autocephaly to Ukraine.
For more information on the topic, see:
Which Orthodox Countries Have Recognized the Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church?
The attitude of Ukrainian people on autocephaly
In 2018, the Ministry of Education of Ukraine decided to include the Unification of Ukrainian Churches and the granting of Tomos in the textbooks of the eleventh-grade school subject “History of Independent Ukraine”. According to a sociological survey conducted by the organization “Rating” in the period of July 23-25, 2021, the results show that 45% of Ukrainians support granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 31% refrained from answering, and 19% did not support it.
It should be noted that after receiving autocephaly, the number of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church increased. As of 2021, according to a survey by the Kyiv Institute of International Sociology, 58.3% of Orthodox Christians identified themselves as parishioners of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (ПЦУ), and 25.4% as members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). The institute’s data show that from 2020 to 2021, support for the former has increased, and decreased for the latter. After the launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in the country decreased even more – by May, about 400 parishes left the church and became part of (ПЦУ).
The video circulating on Facebook on the topic of Ukrainian autocephaly was taken from the TikTok account “veraitrud.” The account publishes various videos against Ukrainian autocephaly.
For more information about the Ukrainian Church, see the previous articles prepared by “Myth Detector:”
- Does the Ukrainian Government Fight against Orthodoxy or the Influence of Russia?
- The Preachings of the Georgian Priest against Ukraine and the Ukrainian Church
- “Stalin” against Ukrainian Church Autocephaly and Kremlin’s Three Myths
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