Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Slavic rivals embroiled in church rift

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the titular head of Orthdox Christianity and President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine attend a ceremony at a Kiev's airport on Friday. Yushchenko is seeking Ukrainian independence from the Russian church. (Pool photo by Anatoliy Medzyk/The Associated Press)

As Ukraine and Russian churches drift apart, a sense of loss

By Anne Barnard Published: July 29, 2008


MOSCOW: For many Russians, it is bad enough that the president of Ukraine is pushing to join NATO and to eject the Russian Navy from its Black Sea port. But over the weekend, the confrontation over Ukraine's attempts to shrug off Russian influence reached an even more painful emotional pitch - with a new tug of war over history, identity and power.

President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine chose the 1,020th anniversary of the advent of Christianity in the Slavic kingdom that predated both Ukraine and Russia - a date that each country claims as a founding event of its nationhood - to issue a public plea for Ukraine's Orthodox Christians to gain independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.

President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine chose the 1,020th anniversary of the advent of Christianity in the Slavic kingdom that predated both Ukraine and Russia - a date that each country claims as a founding event of its nationhood - to issue a public plea for Ukraine's Orthodox Christians to gain independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.

With Orthodox church notables from around the world looking on, Yushchenko asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the titular spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, to bless the creation of an independent Ukrainian church - "a blessing," he said, "for a dream, for the truth, for a hope, for our state, for Ukraine."

The Ukrainian president - who claims that Russian agents tried to murder him with poison that left him with a pockmarked face - snubbed the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei II, giving him a businesslike handshake after warmly kissing Bartholomew on both cheeks.

During three days of solemn religious ceremonies, rock concerts and political brinksmanship in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the power struggle was not resolved. Both sides declared victory as Bartholomew stopped short of supporting or rejecting the independence movement, saying only that divisions in the Ukrainian church would have "problematic consequences for Ukraine's future."

But there was insulted pride and inflamed nationalism on both sides, and it was clear that it would be hard to resolve the dispute without causing a schism in the church, heating up ethnic tensions in Ukraine and deepening the division between Russia and the former Soviet republic.

The possibility of a split in the church revealed that behind the geopolitical bluster that the two countries have directed at each other since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 lies an identity crisis and a deep sense of loss.

Many Ukrainians believe the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union robbed them of the chance to develop a national identity, while many Russians feel that Ukraine is now claiming for itself both land and history that belong to them as well.

For Svetlana Dyomena, a nurse who prayed Monday at Yelokhovsky Cathedral in Moscow, the idea of an independent Ukrainian church immediately reminded her of her objections to an independent Ukraine.

"How can Ukraine not be part of Russia?" she said after lighting a candle at the turquoise, golden-domed church, which was the Russian capital's main practicing Orthodox cathedral under Soviet rule. "We have a common faith, a common history."

Dyomena said it was less painful to see countries like Georgia seek to escape Moscow's sphere of influence.

"Georgians - well, they were always from the Caucasus," she said, referring to the restive mountainous region that has fought wars against Russian rulers for centuries. But Ukraine and Russia, she said, have "one language, one religion, even one cuisine."

Ukrainians disagree. Russian was the language of government and education in Ukraine under the Soviet and Russian empires, and Ukrainians struggled to maintain their language. They view the absorption of the Ukrainian state and church into Russia's institutions under Peter the Great as an annexation that was not reversed until 1991.

"How can you live like neighbors when your neighbor says the house you live in is not your own house, but our common house?" asked Bishop Yevstraty, the spokesman for one of two Ukrainian breakaway churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, which the Moscow Patriarchate has declared heretical.

Establishing an independent church is essential for Ukraine to consolidate its national identity and statehood, and it will probably happen eventually, said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on religion and society at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"But for Russia it is also a tragedy," he said. "I don't know how they are going to agree."
When Ukraine left the Soviet Union in 1991, the new nation took with it much that was dear to Russian hearts.

The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, won by Catherine the Great from the Turks for the Russian empire, was a vacation getaway for generations of Russian nobles and, later, Soviet laborers. Its port, in Sevastopol, is the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Odessa, an important shipping hub now part of Ukraine, is also the source of cultural touchstones from its bawdy jokes to the famous shot of the baby carriage rolling down the steps in the classic Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin.

Even historical tragedies are subject to the tug of war: There is a Ukrainian movement to convince the world that the famines that killed millions of Soviets during forced collectivization was a genocide aimed at ethnic Ukrainians - while many Russians object that their ancestors, too, starved after being stripped of their private land.

But the biggest prize is the inheritance of Kievan Rus, the kingdom that Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity in the 10th century. Some historians consider the kingdom to be the predecessor of the three east Slavic nations existing today - Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - as well as a cultural high point in the medieval history of Europe as a whole.

Speaking in Kiev, the Russian patriarch called it "the mother of Russian cities, a city from where Holy Orthodoxy began to spread through our land."

Moscow church officials, who are close to the Kremlin, linked church unity to political efforts to maintain close ties among Slavic countries.

At a rock concert organized by the Moscow patriarchate, the popular rock band DDT performed alongside Metropolitan Kirill, a Moscow church spokesman who declared in a kind of ecclesiastical rap: "Russia, Ukraine, Belarus - That is Holy Rus!"

There is also division within Ukraine itself over the issue.

The idea of church independence is less popular in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking, pro-Russian industrialized south and east than in the Ukrainian-speaking, Western-leaning part of the country west of the Dniepr River.

Alexei II canceled a planned trip to Donetsk, a pro-Russian city, citing health reasons, but was widely seen to be either trying to avoid stirring up conflict by rallying his supporters, or to be leaving early because the Ukrainian president did not show him enough respect.

At Yelokhovsky Sobor, another worshipper, Aleftina Prosvirnikova, 65, declared that all the problems had started in Western Ukraine.

"The south and east - that's the normal, Russian Ukraine," she said.

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