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An Independent Orthodox Church For Ukraine?

Marta Dyczok interviews religion expert Prof. Frank Sysyn, Oksana Smerechuk speaks to Daniel Bilak for an expert view from Kyiv

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo,

Marta Dyczok


Frank Sysyn,

Daniel Bilak

An Independent Orthodox Church For Ukraine?
An Independent Orthodox Church For Ukraine?

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you not one but two our feature interviews, followed by some new music from Ukraine. This week Ukraine has been looking back at its history, at the events of World War Two and how they have been commemorated. History continues to play a key role in the present. We’re going further back in history with our feature interviews, and look at how the legacy of the medieval period continues to be a hot political issue in Ukraine and Russia. Specifically, the Orthodox Church, which has been in the news recently. Professor Frank Sysyn and Daniel Bilak explain why this is important.


Dyczok: Some say that religion and politics do not mix. In Ukraine religion is political. The Ukrainian President has recently made an announcement about Orthodox Church that has caused quite a stir. To help us understand what is all about is Professor Frank Sysyn, one of world’s leading experts on religion in Ukraine and Director of Petro Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, author of numerous publications on the topic.  Professor Sysyn, thank you very much for finding time to speak to us. Let’s start with «what» and «why.» Could you remind our listeners what document Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko issued about Ukrainian Orthodox Church? What did he announce?

Sysyn: What President Poroshenko said is that traditionally states have requested for the Church the recognition of the autocephaly or an independence of Orthodox Church. It’s a very old tradition in the Orthodox world. The Ukrainian state has requested recognition from the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is seen as the Head of the mother church of the Church of Ukraine. Recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine an autonomous member of the Orthodox community. Most countries surrounding Ukraine have autocephalous churches.

Poland, Czech and Slovak republics have one even though they have very small Orthodox populations, whereas Ukraine, with its huge population of Orthodox believers does not.  And this is above all for historical reasons –Moscow’s opposition to Ukraine having an independent church. [For more information on the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church click here]

Dyczok: Could you just explain a little bit more. Why is that Ukraine does not have its own autocephalous church or perhaps not recognized church? How did that happen?

Sysyn: The reason is when in the 17th century Moscow got a greater control over Ukraine, the Metropolitanate, that is when the Church in Ukraine was headed by a Metropolitan (a post beneath the level of Patriarch) which traditionally was under the Patriarch of Constantinople was transferred to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Many in the Orthodox world viewed this as illegitimate, not conducted by canonical means. As long as the Russian Empire existed, there were virtually no other possibility for Ukraine.

When the Russian Empire fell, there were movements within Ukraine trying to establish an autocephalous, or fully independent, Orthodox Church. And for much of the history from 1917 to today, a century, there have been numerous attempts by various groups at various times to set up an independent Ukrainian [Orthodox] Church.

The most significant was after 1991 Ukraine’s independence when two independent Ukrainian churches under Moscow emerged in Ukraine. One of which is called Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, a rather small body, and then much larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. They are not at the moment recognized by most other Orthodox Churches as canonical, that is fully in communion with the other Orthodox Churches. Only that body which is under the Patriarchate of Moscow is recognized, even though by now it appears clear that the largest body of Orthodox believers in Ukraine are in adherence of Kyiv Patriarchate. Particularly in the past decade and, especially since Maidan and the Russian-Ukrainian war in the East, larger and larger numbers of Orthodox believers have been transferring their allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarchate. 

For the Patriarchate of Constantinople this is a very difficult problem, because it brings Moscow into the conflict. But there are already precedents. In 1924, after the Russian Revolution, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized those Orthodox believers in the traditional Siem [Metropolitanate] of Kyiv which were outside of the Soviet Union would be able to establish their own independent churches and declare this transfer of the Kyiv Patriarchate in the 17th century as illegitimate. So, there may be a restitution of the so-called TOMOS, or Act, of 1924, or there might be a new act. We really do not quite know what Constantinople will do in this situation. It is the position of Constantinople that as the Ecumenical, or Universal Patriarch, and the Head of the Mother Church of Ukraine, that Constantinople would have the right to give this autocephaly. Moscow, of course, argues very differently on this issue.

Dyczok: If I understood correctly, what we have in Ukraine is sort of bottom up democratic creation of independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and it is currently requesting to be formally recognized by the Church hierarchy in Constantinople. Is that putting it in simple terms?

Sysyn: Well not entirely bottom up, because various Ukrainian governments, particularly President Kravchuk (1991-1994), wished to establish an independent Church right after independence. So, at times, Ukrainian governments have supported the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. At other times, particularly Yanukovych’s regime, they have been ardently opposed or very opposed to them. So, we now have a very delicate issue of the degree to which a modern state intervenes in these affairs. And within the Orthodox world what Poroshenko has done is viewed as the only way through which Orthodox bodies will recognize, or can begin the process of recognizing an independent Church.

Whether this will happen quickly, or will take longer, is very hard to tell. As I say, the price for Constantinople will be very great. And as we know the religious issue has been politicized throughout Ukraine. We particularly see diocese or eparchies such as that of Zaporizhzhia, where clearly the Church has become fully engaged on the side of the Moscow Patriarchate. In other areas, Volyn, Volhynia, the Khmelnytskyi region, we know that many of the clergy, and most of the laity, would prefer to have an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

What I think will eventually emerge out of this, is a recognition by Constantinople of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and then an exarchate or a remnant follower who will remain under Moscow. But there is going to be a lot of politicking, and I’m afraid, just as in the 17th century it was argued, that simony or purchasing, bribes were used to transfer the Ukrainian Church, I fully expect Russia to be using every lever it can to try and stop this process. 

Dyczok: So, there’s a power struggle happening on many levels, between the Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church within Ukraine. And then at the political level. Why is Russia so opposed to having Ukraine’s Orthodox Church recognized as a separate one? That might seem like an obvious question, but what do they stand to lose?

Sysyn: They stand to lose one of their last mechanisms of influence in Ukraine. Over time the Moscow Patriarch, old believers, and particularly the higher clergy have worked hand in glove with the party of the opposition, as they did with Yanukovych, and it is one of the last mass-following bodies in Ukraine that is pro-Russian, or allied to Russia, reluctant to call a spade a spade, or see that Russia is intervening in Ukraine. There have been many instances in which Moscow Patriarchal clergy have refused even to conduct burial services for those who fight in the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation – War in the Donbas]. So, for Russia this would be a large loss, because I think in a relatively short time, the majority and probably the overwhelming majority of Orthodox believers would gravitate towards this independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Dyczok: Would this have implications for the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia? Would this make their Church somehow less powerful, smaller, or anything like that?

Sysyn: Absolutely, absolutely, because Ukraine has a very high level of religious practice. The loss of Ukraine and its jurisdiction in Ukraine will weaken that Church greatly, and particularly its claims to, in many ways, being the leader of the Orthodox world.

Dyczok: And the historical heritage, is there an angle there that’s also part of this discussion?

Sysyn: Yes, yes, but that already has become the possession of the Kyiv Caves Monastery by the Moscow Patriarchate is an important symbolic act in Ukraine at the moment. So, I see that this will also be questioning of the legacy, of who has the legacy of Kyivan Rus’, of the original baptism of Ukraine at this point.

Dyczok: Which has significant political implications in the present.

Sysyn: Yes.

Dyczok: What role do believers have in this larger power struggle? We have the President making a statement appealing to the church hierarchy in Constantinople. Do the people who actually go to these churches have a role to play in this situation?

Sysyn: They have an immense role. First of all, the Moscow Patriarchate has begun a programme of petitions, or writing letters against recognition of the Autocephaly. The Kyiv Patriarchate has begun to call for its believers to become involved in this issue. Within cities the believers have a choice in most areas of Ukraine, and of course they can vote with their feet. The real problem are the rural areas, where you see things coming into conflict. The believers, and above all the clergy. When more elements of the clergy begin to see that there is not a future within the church under Moscow, I think we will see greater shifts in Ukraine.

Dyczok: You mentioned earlier that this is unlikely to be resolved quickly. Could you perhaps lay out a few possible scenarios? How do you see this playing out? What are the possibilities? And, if I could push you to say which scenario do you think will be most likely?

Sysyn: I think the possibilities are: One. Outright recognition by Constantinople. It’s hard for me to believe that they’ll take that full step this year. Constantinople has called for consultations with its sister Orthodox churches. Second issue: Constantinople has under its protection the Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the West. That I think is a possible scenario, at the moment. And then, the most radical, would be putting this off entirely. That would be a victory for Moscow, and, I think, the wrong way for Constantinople to go. But the Constantinople Patriarchate is relatively weak now. And we must also remember that the Turkish government will play a role, since the Constantinople Patriarchate has to exist in Istanbul. And Putin has considerable leverage there.

So, it is very hard to tell which way this is going to go. But obviously Poroshenko has invested a great deal of his political prestige on this issue. This would make me think that he has been given some signals that at least something positive will occur this year.

Dyczok: You mentioned Turkey and that leads me to my next question. Who are the other players? There’s Constantinople. There’s Moscow. There’s Kyiv. There’s Ankara. Are there other important actors in this who may play a role in the outcome?

Sysyn: Well, I think, at the moment, those are the most important ones. There are the other Orthodox Patriarchates, who have been divided since Moscow did not support Constantinople’s attempt to run a major Synod. There will be peripherally, the Vatican, just for trying to maintain contacts with both Moscow and Constantinople in this swirl. So that’s what I would say would be the major actors within this.

Dyczok: For people who do not know the decision-making process within the Orthodox hierarchy, how is the decision reached? Is this by consensus? Is this a vote? Is this some sort of group decision?

Sysyn: There is a Synod of at least 12 hierarchs in Constantinople who will play a major role in making this decision. And that is where, I think, Moscow will be trying to exert the most pressure to try and stop that process.

Dyczok: So, lobbying the other Orthodox churches to vote in their favour.

Sysyn: Yes.

Dyczok: And you say that you think this will be a long process, and it’s hard to tell when this will be resolved. Because there’s an election coming in Ukraine next year. And I’m wondering if the timing of this is in any way linked to the coming election in Ukraine?

Sysyn: Absolutely, absolutely! I think this is essential from the point of view of Poroshenko. If he can deliver major progress on this issue, this, I think, will be very important in the election, just as for the party in opposition. We have seen the Opposition Bloc [political party made up of many former Regions Party that was headed by former President Yanukovych] take a very active role against this Autocephaly at the moment.

Dyczok: So, religion and politics constantly mix in Ukraine, in Eastern Europe.

Sysyn: And will continue to do so in the future. And as I say, I’m sorry I cannot give you a better prediction of where we are going on this, but …

Dyczok: No crystal ball.

Sysyn: No crystal ball at this moment.

Dyczok: Well, thank you very much for explaining this complicated story for us, we’ll keep watching and maybe we’ll call you again when there are updates on this. We’ve been speaking with Professor Frank Sysyn. This is Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio. Thanks for listening.


Smerechuk: Continuing further about the talk about Orthodox church in Ukraine, and what gaining autocephaly [independence] would mean for church in Ukraine, we have brought another commentator to the studio. Someone who has been observing and participating in the process for number of years and, can help us to have a better picture of what is happening right now. Here is in the studio we have a lawyer Daniel Bilak, who has been active in the Orthodox Church and has been promoting autocephaly or the independence of Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Now, from your perspective, why do you think an issue of autocephaly has been raised right now? Is there a sudden change of circumstances or is this something that people have been working on for a number of years? So where did this initiative come from?

Bilak: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here. I think it’s very wrong to say it has all has been driven by the electoral process. [A Presidential election is coming up in Ukraine next year] In Orthodoxy when changes are measured in centuries, and not even in years, clearly, this has been going on for some period of time. In fact, you can probably trace back the most recent incarnation of 2008, when the last attempt to reconcile Constantinople and to gain autocephaly or some sort of recognition for the churches that are not recognized in Ukraine – the Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Church – fell apart. Pretty much within a short period time after that efforts again started to be revived to move towards where we are today. After the Revolution of Dignity, and once President Poroshenko took on this challenge and decided that he needed actually to reconcile the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches for national security reasons, we can really trace today’s developments back to 2014.

Smerechuk: Do you feel that there is an opposition to this idea within Ukraine and where would it be coming from? 

Bilak: When you look at sociological surveys done up to 2013, the majority of Ukrainians did not really distinguish between Kyiv Patriarchate or Moscow Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. Everybody called themselves Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and people would just go to church. With the war in East, however, the line started to become quite drawn. When you have soldiers who used to go to Moscow Patriarchate churches their whole lives were being denied communion by their village and parish priests because they were killing other Orthodox [people]. These kinds of activities, and open support of the Moscow Patriarchate of the separatists in Donbas, started to have an impact on peoples’ mind-set throughout the country.

It certainly was heightened by President himself who said, «Look, we have one of our churches – the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church – taking its orders form the enemy infecting the minds of our people. We have to be careful. This is not against the Moscow Patriarchate in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It’s about gaining recognition for the Orthodox churches that are not recognized within Orthodoxy – The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church and the Kyiv Patriarchate. This is really critical, because it shows that there has been a shift in people’s perception. In 2013, roughly 60% were in favour of the Moscow Patriarchate. Most recently it’s probably 70% supporting Kyiv Patriarchate, and 30% supporting the Moscow Patriarchate. To say there is an opposition to this move to autocephaly I think is grossly over exaggerated. Clearly the Moscow Patriarchate is opposed to it, and this where the most of vocal opposition comes from.

Smerechuk: Are there perhaps some civic organization that are against it? 

Bilak: Yes, but most of those would be connected to the Kremlin or the Moscow Patriarchate.

Smerechuk: What implications does this process have of the granting of autocephaly for the Orthodox, what implications is this having right now on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and perhaps will have?

Bilak: Well this is a very good question. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church considers itself to be one of the Volodymyr Churches [Prince Volodymyr brought Christianity to Kyiv in 988, churches in Ukraine and Russia link themselves to this legacy]. And I think this is a very valid and rational argument that both the Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox are two sides of the same coin. We are basically one Church that are divided in two different halves. And we’re talking about the pro-Ukrainian side of Orthodoxy, if you like. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Patriarchate, the Major Archbishop Sviatoslav has come out publicly strongly in favour of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, from gaining autocephaly from Constantinople, because Greek Catholics consider Constantinople to be their mother Church as well.

They are currently in communion with Rome, but they consider Constantinople to be the Mother Church. So there is an almost enviable logic behind this, that they would be supportive. There are people that believe that, you know if we can heal the schism [division] in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, then the next step would be healing the schism between Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And then the big step after that would be to heal the schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox worldwide – the schism that took place in 1054. So, we’re a long way from that, but this is actually, we need to look at this as a historic process.

Smerechuk: Hmm. So, what is your personal take on the situation? What is your feeling, just how much support is there for an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church? I’m asking this question both at the level of the Patriarchs, Church leaders, Bishops, and also on another level, say from grassroots up – from the lay people.

Bilak: I think there’s overwhelming support for it, to have an independent Church. I mean it’s the diptychs, part of the canonical law of Orthodoxy, that every nation, every country, is entitled to its own national Church – its own local, national Church. And Ukraine is a huge outlier in this.

We are probably the largest Orthodox Church in total, in the world. In fact, there are more Orthodox adherents in Ukraine than there are in Russia, especially ones that actually do go to church. And this is something I think that is quite terrifying to the Russian Orthodox Church, because if it loses the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to Constantinople, which is the mother Church of Ukraine anyway, as it is for Russia, then the Russian Orthodox Church is basically going to be the size of the Romanian Church. And most of the adherents to the Moscow Patriarchate live in Ukraine.

And so this is actually geopolitical, because, the Moscow Patriarchate has traditionally tried to kill any sort of autocephalous movement in Ukraine, either politically through its adherence in Ukraine, through pressure on Constantinople, and pressure on Rome to try to ensure that the Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox who are patriotic Orthodox do not come close. So clearly this movement to autocephaly, supported by the Greek Catholic Church, which has taken a very low profile because the first argument that the Russian Orthodox Church uses is that this is being driven by the Greek Catholics, and it’s a plot by Rome to take over our Orthodox territory, etc, etc. But it’s clear that both canonically and politically Ukraine is ready to have its own Church.  

Smerechuk: Well thank you. Thank you for telling us your perspective. You’ve been listening to Daniel Bilak. Thank you for coming in.



Bilak: Thanks very much.


Don’t Let Go. Не відпускай. This is the title of a new song by Andriy Bochko from his new album Кольори, Colours. Andriy is from L’viv and used to be the frontman for a group called Illusions. Now he’s branched out into a solo career, and will be presenting his new solo album in the café Копальня кави on May 16th. If you like this song and happen to be in L’viv next week, check it out. Here’s what Bochko sound like solo. Enjoy.


Next week will mark the anniversary of Crimean Tatars deportation by Stalin on 18 May 1944. That will be the topic of our feature interview. And we’ll have a new song by a contemporary Crimean Tatar rock band.  So, tune in. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Bohdan Nahalylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interviews transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iavorenko, and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineers Adam Courts and  Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Andriy Kobalia. Special thanks to 94.9 CHRW Radio Western.