Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ukraine vote fuels religious tensions

Battle lines are drawn
between pro-Moscow camp, Kyiv nationalists

Sep 29, 2007 04:30 AM

Mitch Potter

KYIV–Religion may seem well beneath the radar this time around, but followers of Eastern European politics say a festering spiritual Cold War remains a significant factor as Ukraine goes to the polls this weekend.

Schisms older than Ukraine itself permeate the country's multi-confessional religious jumble, each fault line a legacy of the former empires that once jockeyed for control of its rich black-soil steppes.

Now, fears of new empire-building run through the dominant Eastern Orthodox Christian faithful, where the battle lines between pro-Russian loyalists and Western-leaning Ukrainian nationalists can be found parish by parish.

Though almost identical in terms of liturgy, the two Orthodox streams answer to decidedly different masters, with the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and its more than 9,000 communities under the canonical authority of leaders in Moscow. The rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church, by contrast, answers to its own self-declared Kyiv Patriarchate, a breakaway entity created in June 1992 upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and consisting today of nearly 3,000 communities.

Many Moscow church loyalists see the dreaded hand of Western imperialism in the growth of the Kyiv camp, whose expansion accounts for a corresponding shrinkage in the power and influence of the Russian Patriarchate. They argue passionately for Moscow as the natural centre of gravity for Eastern Slavs, which they characterize as Christian Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians.

Conversely, many Kyiv church loyalists fear Russian empire-building lies behind the staunch resistance of the Moscow Patriarchate to allow Ukraine the spiritual independence to match its political independence. They point to the tightening bonds between the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin as evidence that the dream of Moscow as "a third Rome" is awakening again.

The religious revival is based on the concept that Moscow is the successor to Rome and Constantinople as the last bastion of Christian civilization.)

"Unfortunately, Moscow has not forsaken the idea of `the third Rome' and recently these ideas have been activated," said Father Konstantin Lozinsky, a scholar loyal to the Kyiv Patriarchate at St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv.

Lozinsky said the natural trajectory of Ukrainian independence suggests that eventually the church will unite under a framework independent from Moscow.

It is "fear of the inevitable," he said, that is driving Moscow church loyalists to extremes.

"The fight for Kyiv has some political underpinnings and levers are being used," Lozinsky said. "If the Ukrainian Orthodox unites under one church it will be the largest Orthodox Church in the world. And that means the dream of Moscow as a third Rome will fail. When this happens, Moscow will lose 500 years of its history."

Father Olek Sircee, a Moscow Patriarchate priest from Ukraine's Ternopil province, rejected such predictions. For the past two years Sircee has been encamped at a protest site in the Ukrainian capital with a small band of like-minded followers who accuse the Kyiv church of forcing him out of his parish in Ternopil against the wishes of his parishioners.

"We put our faith in God that justice will prevail," said Sircee. "There is a natural connection between all Slavic peoples. We must be confident that this holy land will unite as a Slavic brotherhood under God."

Such Orthodox tensions are nothing new. But they metastasized three years ago during the run-up to the Orange revolution, when Ukraine's religious camps brazenly abandoned neutrality to take an active role in partisan politics. For the pro-Moscow camp, presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko became "the enemy of Orthodoxy." The Kyiv camp, meanwhile, found common cause with many Ukrainian Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic minorities in backing Yushchenko's Orange coalition, drawn by the promise of closer ties with Europe – and by extension, greater distance from Russia.

Now, as Ukraine readies to vote tomorrow in what counts as the fourth national election in three years, Orange fatigue is biting deep into the dispirited electorate. Voters once again find themselves choosing among the very same candidates who failed to deliver the change promised in 2004.

A statement published earlier this month by the Orthodox Choice Association cautioned voters that an Orange victory will bring reprisals for the pro-Moscow church.

"The question stands this way," it read. "Are we to cast our votes in support of those who will assist the canonical Orthodox church or are we to vote for those who will destroy it?"

Western diplomats and political analysts in Kyiv say the Orthodox tensions provide Russia's leadership with another handy lever over Ukrainian affairs.

"Think of it as spiritual Gazprom," said one Kyiv-based Western diplomat. "Just as Ukraine is dependent on Russian gas, which Moscow has shown can be switched on or off at will, Ukraine is also susceptible to Russian church influence.

"Does that extend to actually telling parishioners how they should vote? It has been known to happen. But the majority of the election problems involve issues other than religion."

Kost Bondarenko, chief political analyst with the Horshenin Institute of Management, places the Orthodox religious schism in the context of all the other links binding Ukraine to Russia. Even 16 years after independence, he notes, the dominant language of Kyiv remains Russian, while Russian television, music and literature flows freely – and is consumed in enormous volumes – throughout Ukraine.

"All these are levers for Putin's Russia – the levers of energy, economics, culture and, yes, religion," said Bondarenko.


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