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Ukrainian Church and the Church Wars in the Istanbul-Moscow-Athens Equation

Ukrainian Church and the Church Wars in the Istanbul-Moscow-Athens Equation

September 17, 2018

In April 2018, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church made an application to the Ukrainian Parliament to become independent from the Church of Russia. This opened another front in the relations between Russia and Ukraine. Fener Greek Patriarchate's support to this separation has launched a political debate among the Orthodox churches in many countries, including Turkey.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been divided into three separate churches. First of them is the Metropolitan of Kiev, subordinated to Moscow patriarch from 16th century on. Nationalist Ukrainian priests, considering detachment entirely from Russia, established Kiev Patriarchate and Ukraine Autocephalous Church. Although the issue of autonomy of the churches was first raised in 1992, Russia constantly rejected such recognition.

The Ukrainian Church's decision of independence has far-reaching political dimensions beyond, the Ukrainian nationalists rejecting the saying in Russian history that reads 'Kiev is the mother of Russian cities.' consider that a pro-western and nationalist Ukrainian church would play a critical role in creating an independent Ukrainian identity from especially  Russia. Because of this, the pro-western politicians in Ukraine have been striving for these two churches to unite and be recognized by Fener Greek Patriarchate. In this way, Ukraine is going to undo Russian effect over its religious realm.

At this point, Ukrainian church regards Fener Greek Patriarchate as an authority whose support can be used against Moscow. In this process, first serious step was taken by Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko in 2008. He, for the sake of the autonomy of the Ukrainian Church, called on Fener Greek Patriarchate for independence of Ukranian church and Patriarch Barthalemeos paid a visit to Ukrania in the same year. While Russia resented Patriarch Bartholomeos, Russian press covered that Moscow negotiated with Ankara for this subject. Ultimately, Fener Greek Patriarchate didn't take such an initiative against Moscow.


Ukrainian President paid a visit to Turkey and conducted negotiation with Patriarch Bartholomeos

As Russia occupied Ukraine and supported separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials accused Russia of effected Ukraine by employing Metropolitan of Kiev subordinated to Moscow patriarchate. They also claimed that Russian Orthodox Church become one of ideological leg of Vladimir Putin and several priests in Eastern Ukraine who belong to the association of Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine supported pro-Russia separatists.  For this reason, a group of deputy declared that they would appeal to Fener Greek Patriarchate for the Ukrainian Orthodox to separate from the Russian Orthodox Church and to create an independent church.

Russian Orthodox Church, however, reacts to Ukraine in this regard and advocates that nobody could grant unilaterally an autonomy to a church. Because Russians inherited Christianity from Byzantine Empire, respectful as they are toward Fener Greek Patriarchate, Russia claims that the real leader of Orthodox Christianity is Moscow. Articulating the fact that, against Fener Orthodox community of a few thousands, Russian Orthodox Church has a community in exceed of 200 million, Russians are trying to make their claims stronger further. For this reason, the probability that more than 40 million Ukrainian Orthodox cease to be under the divine influence of Moscow is likely to hamper the claims of leadership of Russian Orthodox Church.

After the Ottoman Empire destroyed the Byzantine in 1453, Moscow had increased its leverage over the Orthodox in the time of III. Ivan in a struggle to make Moscow the "Third Rome". Presenting themselves as successors of the Roman and Byzantine Empires and protectors of all Orthodox, Russians assumed that the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate was over thatn of the Fener Greek Patriarchate. The battle of leadership between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Fener Greek Patriarchate persisted up to this day somehow.

In 2016, Patriarch Bartholomeos, after a thousand years interval, planned a 'Pan Orthodox Council' in Istanbul, an initiative that would reinforce claims of leadership of Fener Greek Patriarchate. While the council was to be held in Istanbul, Moscow Patriarchate, because of 'plane crisis' between Russia and Turkey, declared that it wouldn't go to Istanbul. And also, Russia stated that a meeting in which not all churches wouldn't attend would put the union in jeopardy and pointed out that independence of Ukrainian Church would not be able to be fulfilled in such a council.

For this reason, Patriarch Bartholomeos declared that the council would be held in Crete, and explained that the request of independence of Ukrainian Church would not be dealt with in this council. Nevertheless, Moscow Patriarchate, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Antioch Orthodox Church, and Georgian Orthodox Church stated that they wouldn't attend. "Pan Orthodox Council", to which 4 out of 14 Orthodox Churches didn't attend, was held on  17-27 June 2016 in Crete. That the Moscow Patriarchate didn't attend the council deteriorated the relationship between Fener and Moscow Church further.

On 9 April 2018, Ukrainian President Petro Porosenko paid a visit to Turkey and conducted negotiation with Patriarch Bartholomeos, President Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoglu. Russian media put forward that the visit had something to do with independence of Ukrainian Church.

On 19 April 2018, a draft of application regarding Ukrainian Church, which was asking for its independence from Russia with the backing of Fener Greek Patriarchate, was brought into the Ukrainian Assembly, with the initiatives of President Porosenko. 268 out of 450 deputies in the Ukrainian Assembly voted in favour of the draft. During the meetings for draft, President Porosenko articulated that he conducted a special negotiation with Patriarch Bartholomeos and both Patriarch Bartholomeos and members of board of directors approached the demand of Ukrainian Church for its independence with regard.

Russia immediately reacted to all these developments, and stated that the Fener Greek Patriarchate couldn't take such a decision with the support or pressure of international society. Soon after the acception of the draft, on 25 April 2018, President Erdogan conducted a negotiation with Patriarch Bartholomeos off the record and the Russian press claimed that the situation of Ukrainian Church was dealt with in the negotiation.

Later on, a lot of commentaries about direct connection of these developments to Turkey came out in Russian public opinion. Andrey Kurayev, Russian Orthodox reverend, asked for President Erdogan to intervene in the issue. He delivered a speech to Russian press and stated that “Ukraine tended to embark on such a thing every year and this could lead to a dangerous results.”  Besides, Kurayev added that the steps taken by the Fener Greek Patriarchate depend on Erdogan's policies.

Russian politician and Middle East specialist Semyon Bagdasarov also advocate that the decision to be given by Fener Greek Patriarchate is contingent on Ankara. Additionally, Vladimir Solovyev, correspondent of Russian newspaper Kommersant, make the claim that Ankara acted as intermediary to solve the previous conflict about church between Fener Greek Patriarchate and Russia.

"On 19 April 2018, a draft of application regarding Ukrainian Church, which was asking for its independence from Russia with the backing of Fener Greek Patriarchate, was brought into the Ukrainian Assembly, with the initiatives of President Porosenko. 268 out of 450 deputies in the Ukrainian Assembly voted in favour of the draft."

The Fener Greek Patriarchate attended to the  1030th anniversary of adoption of Christianity byUkraine and met with President Porosenko. The president raised the issue of occupation of Crimea and the delegation delivered the letter of Patriarch Bartholomeos to Ukrainian leader. In the letter, the patriarch wrote that initiative would be taken for autocephaly to be assigned to Ukrainian Church. The President Porosenko expressed that millions of Ukrainians were waiting for the decision of independence.

Regarding Russian Orthodox Church as a threat to national security of Ukraine, Kiev administration wants to win a victory against Moscow by liberalizing the Ukrainian Church. Such a development can bring a serious advantage for the Porosenko and the elections to be held in March 2019. But, in this process, Kremlin administration does everything to obstruct such a recognition.

At this point, it should be mentioned that the church of Greece is another element capable of influencing decisions to be taken by the Fener Greek Patriarchate. For this reason, news of Russian envoys involving in activities that fall outside their authority have reflected in Russian public opinion for some time. In 11 June 2018, Greece deported two Russian envoys on the ground that they engaged in activities threatening to national security of Greece and introduced prohibition of entry to Greece for another two Russian envoys. It has been claimed that Russian envoys tried to influence Greek Church, notably over Athos mountain in which Orthodox priests reside, an act that would enable Greek Church to side with Russia against Ukraine's initiatives. But, it is a fact that a considerable part of Greek population supports the independence of the Ukrainian Church like Fener Greek Patriarchate.

Finally, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Krill visited Istanbul on August 31 and negotiated about the Ukrainian Church with Patriarch Bartholomeos. In this multi-equational context, although much the process of struggle for independence of Ukrainian Church seems to come to an end, is likely that it will continue for some time. The relationship between Moscow and Istanbul plays a crucial role in determining the course of this struggle as well.