- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2022

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, has condemned Russia’s invasion in a phone call to the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the independent Orthodox Times website reported.

Speaking Thursday with Metropolitan Epiphanius, the primate of the Ukrainian church, Bartholomew I “expressed his deep sorrow at this blatant violation of any notion of international law and legality, as well as his support to the Ukrainian people struggling ‘for God and country’ and to the families of innocent victims,” the online service reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who authorized the invasion of Ukraine earlier this week, has long cultivated the support of the Orthodox Church in Russia as a pillar of support for his regime.  

The patriarch “condemns this unprovoked attack by Russia against Ukraine,” the Orthodox Times report said, and said he would pray for “enlightenment” for the Russian Federation’s leaders “to understand the tragic consequences of [their] decisions and actions.”

Bartholomew’s message is part of a critical but little-noticed subtext of the war raging in Ukraine, with Russian troops on the street of its capital, Kyiv.

In part, the battle for political control between Mr. Putin and the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mirrors the struggles between two Eastern Orthodox churches based in their respective countries.

Ironically, Mr. Zelenskyy is Jewish, and said Thursday that he is “number one” on the list of targets for the Russians, with his family “number two.” Not to be outdone on the irony scale, Mr. Putin said his country’s “special military operation” is an attempt at a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, a remark that drew howls from overseas observers.

But it is in the Eastern Orthodox Christian arena that Russians and Ukrainians are both united and divided by a common faith. Eastern Orthodoxy claims 79% of Russia’s population, or approximately 112 million people, and 73% of Ukraine’s population, approximately 32 million residents, according to a report by veteran religion journalist Richard Ostling at the Religion Unplugged website. 

In May 2021, a State Department report on religious liberty in Ukraine noted the continuing rivalry between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). The former is seen as a “schismatic” group by the Moscow church, which is closely aligned with Mr. Putin. There is also a “Russian Orthodox Church” in Ukraine aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s situation grew more hostile in 2019 when Bartholomew granted “autocephaly,” defined as the status of a hierarchical Christian church whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop. This angered the Moscow Patriarchate and its allies, who believe Ukrainian Orthodoxy is their domain.

In recent years, there have been ongoing skirmishes among the various Orthodox camps in Ukraine, some of which drew in government officials, the State Department said. Where the government of then-President Petro Poroshenko encouraged parishes registered as being part of the OCU-MP to transfer their registration to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Zelenskyy government slammed the brakes on this. Serhiy Trofimov, first deputy head in Mr. Zelenskyy’s presidential office, told local governments to hold off on such “re-registrations.”

These simmering tensions have come to a head with this week’s Russian invasion. Mr. Putin views Ukraine — where ancient Prince Vladimir was baptized and then introduced Orthodoxy to what is now Russia — as a spiritual home, one he wants to reintegrate into the Russian Federation.

Many Ukrainians, however, resist this notion, and this week flocked to their churches to pray for safety and peace, several media reports including broadcasts from the BBC, indicated.

The outcome could be dire, according to former U.S. special envoy for religious minorities Knox Thames.

Writing this week for the Religion News Services, Mr. Thames warned, “If Russia’s military campaign is successful, Moscow would likely not countenance an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, possibly forcing it back into the family of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia’s regressive treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and proselytizing groups would likely be forced on the entire country.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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