Introduction: The Pressure and Persecution Against the Ukrainian Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church headed by His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine is being openly pressured and villainized by the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian schismatics who recently united into one non-canonical group.
As has already been happening for years, churches are being seized and now that the long-awaited “unification council” has come and gone, the state is more boldly passing laws aimed specifically at marginalizing and depriving the Ukrainian Church of its parishes and properties. In the weeks leading up to the “council,” the government carried out a number of wildly provocative actions, inspired by its communist past: Hierarchs and priests were searched, interrogated, and rounded up and accused of inciting religious enmity and even treason for possessing literature containing the basic Christian teaching that schism is a sin.
Bishops were forcefully taken to Kiev under false pretenses to try to force them to participate in the “council” and they were forced to sign a vote over to Simeon Shostasky, the former Metropolitan of Vinnitsa and Bar, though these “votes” were thankfully rejected by the Constantinople representatives who presided over the “council.”
Various state Ministries have been systematically laying the groundwork to eventually evict the monks of the Pochaev Lavra and hand it over to the new nationalist church, and similar intimidation practices have been used against the Kiev Caves Lavra as well.
Much more could be said about the present suffering of the Ukrainian Orthodox faithful, but in this article, we would like to address one of the main justifications for this Bolshevistic persecution: The false impression, and even blatant lie, that the Ukrainian Church, as an autonomous body within the Russian Orthodox Church, is merely a foreign agent, serving only the interests of President Vladimir Putin and thus lacking true pastoral care for the Ukrainian faithful.
Again, the state itself has not been shy in boldly making such accusations against its own citizens. The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) has recently published small pamphlets in both Ukrainian and English specifically aimed at painting the Church as the agent of a foreign aggressor state. The pamphlets are quite crude and of low quality.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Philaret Denisenko, the head of the “Kiev Patriarchate,” one of the two groups that united on Saturday, December 15, have openly spoke about the “Moscow spirit” and “Moscow demons” that dominate the canonical Ukrainian Church, and they have even claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church worships a different God than that of the Ukrainians. Poroshenko has proclaimed that the Ukrainian Church has no business being in Ukraine and that its representatives should return to Russia, despite the fact that the majority of them are Ukrainians, originally from Ukraine.
For Poroshenko and company, national boundaries take precedence over unity at and in the chalice, and Ukrainian citizens become little more than Russian invaders if they don’t hold to the right ideology.
Poroshenko has repeated the lie several times that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church prays for Russian President Putin and the Russian army. He has been publicly called out on this point by hierarchs and clergy of the Ukrainian Church, but he continues on his path of misinformation, and there are those who believe him.
On a related note, it is not uncommon to hear from certain Ukrainian circles the question, “Why should we be part of a Church that blesses soldiers who kill us?” There is a fundamental lack of understanding of Orthodox liturgical texts and practices here. The Church always prays for the armed forces in whatever country it exists, and in whatever circumstances. That is, in Russia the Church prays for the Russian armed forces, and in Ukraine—the Ukrainian armed forces.
Praying for and even blessing soldiers, however, does not equate to a call for military conflict or a sanction of any and every operation they carry out. A cleric calls God’s blessing upon the forces and from there it is in God’s hands. Perhaps His blessing is for them to win, or perhaps for them to lose, or for conflict to be avoided altogether. A blessing does not dictate any of these specific results.
If to view things from the Ukrainian nationalist-schismatic point of view, the Russian Church is divided against itself—as the Russians pray for the Russian military and the Ukrainians pray for the Ukrainian military.
But Poroshenko and his allies have not thought their arguments and slanders this far through. It’s enough for them to throw out accusations.
Thus, Poroshenko, and those with him, paint the canonical Ukrainian Church as an unpatriotic foreign agent, as he believes doing so can further his political career.
Kerch Strait Incident
However, when it suits him, he recognizes the exact opposite—that the Ukrainian Church does, in fact, care for its Ukrainian flock, and he appeals to this pastoral care.
Let’s take the example of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine. As the primate of the Ukrainian Church, were the Church a mere servant of Moscow, he would be the one under the most pressure and the one most expected to toe the party line.
However, when twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were detained by Russian border guards in the Kerch Strait in November, it was precisely to Met. Onuphry that President Poroshenko turned for assistance. Of course, as the Ukrainian Church is an autonomous body within the Russian Church, Poroshenko knows that Met. Onuphry has contacts with and enjoys the respect of the Russian Church and state—something that cannot be said of the Ukrainian schismatics.
But more than that, the fact that Poroshenko appealed to Met. Onuphry shows that he believes Met. Onuphry cares for his Ukrainian flock, and that he is able and willing to go against the actions and desires of the Russian state when necessary.
“Yesterday and the day before, I spoke with the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate His Beatitude Onuphry. I turned to him with a request to immediately contact Moscow to return [our sailors]. I will not waste any chance to return our soldiers. We will pray and hope that this will happen as soon as possible,” Poroshenko said earlier this month.
His Eminence Archbishop Clement (Vecherya), the Chairman of the Synodal Information and Education Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, added that the Church is always involved in interceding on behalf of Ukrainian soldiers.
“As a matter of fact, the Church is constantly taking part in the process of returning our soldiers who are on the territory not controlled by Ukraine and in Russia. His Beatitude has repeatedly addressed Pat. Kirill with such requests and negotiations are taking place on the Church line, so that it would be possible to return all citizens of Ukraine to our territory in a humanitarian fashion,” Abp. Clement explained.
“All the prisoners that have been released over the past few years—all this was with the support of Met. Onuphry and the direct participation of the Church,” he added.
Thus, in January, Poroshenko personally thanked Met. Onuphry and the entire Ukrainian Orthodox Church for its role in the prisoner exchange that began last December and saw 304 prisoners being released by Kiev and 74 by Donetsk and Lugansk, and for the rendering of humanitarian aid.
His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia also played a leading role in the negotiations that led to the exchange.
The prisoners themselves thanked Met. Onuphry and Pat. Kirill for arranging their release.
Further, His Eminence Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa and Izmail wrote to Pat. Kirill in early December to ask him to appeal to the Russian leadership to ensure the release of the Ukrainian sailors, and His Eminence Metropolitan Anatoly of Sarny and Polesia also appealed to President Putin for their release. His Eminence Metropolitan Vladimir of Pochaev, the abbot of the great Holy Dormition-Pochaev Lavra, has appealed to Met. Onuphry as well.
None of these clergymen of the Ukrainian Church hesitated to stand up for their Ukrainian nation and flock; none of them feared any kind of reprisal from the Russian Church or state, and indeed, none came.
While the Kerch Strait incident is the latest case in which the Ukrainian Church has showed its free and pastoral heart, a much more important example is the Church’s reaction to the events surrounding the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
At that time, and still today, the Ukrainian Church has protested the Russian state’s actions and did not hesitate to raise its voice, calling for the territorial integrity of Ukraine to be respected and for the shedding of blood to be avoided at all costs.
To demonstrate that Met. Onuphry is free to speak his conscience, regardless of the stance of the Russian state, we here provide in full the text of the Ukrainian primate’s letters to Pat. Kirill and Pres. Putin.
March 1, 2014
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Today, Ukraine is experiencing without exaggeration the most difficult time in its recent history. After a three-month socio-political crisis, a bloody confrontation in the very center of Kiev, and the deaths of dozens of people, we are faced with another equally formidable challenge.
On March 1, officials of the Russian Federation made statements about the possible entry of a limited contingent of Russian troops into Ukraine. If this happens, the Ukrainian and Russian peoples will be drawn into a confrontation that will have catastrophic consequences for our countries.
As the Locum Tenens of the Kiev Metropolitan throne, I appeal to you, Your Holiness, with a request to do everything possible to prevent bloodshed on the territory of Ukraine. I ask you to raise your voice about preserving the integrity of the territory of the Ukrainian state.
At this difficult hour, we offer our fervent prayers to our Lord Jesus Christ that he might preserve us from a clash of the fraternal Russian and Ukrainian peoples by the prayers of His Most Pure Mother.
I ask for your holy prayers and primatial blessing.
METROPOLITAN OFCHERNIVTSI AND BUKOVINA,
LOCUM TENENS OF THE KIEV METROPOLITAN THRONE
March 2, 2014
PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
PUTIN, V. V.
Your Excellency, Mr. President!
By the right given to me by the Holy Synod, having elected me as the Locum Tenens of the Kievan Metropolitan Cathedra, I am addressing you on behalf of the fullness of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Today our much-suffering homeland, for which we all equally love and wish peace and prosperity, is faced with one of the most serious challenges in its entire history. After a protracted internal political crisis and loss of life, the granting to you of the right to use Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine by the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation is a serious cause for concern. We are quite close to slipping into the abyss, the way out of which will take more than a decade.
During his visit to Crimea, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill had some wise words about how the fleets of fraternal peoples located there should never look upon one another through the sight of a gun.
The Lord has destined you to lead a great country. Knowing you as an Orthodox Christian, I entreat: Stop the human sorrow and prevent the division of our Ukrainian state and holy Church.
The official rhetoric today is far from reassuring the people of God, both those living on the peninsula and in all other parts of Ukraine. A careless word can bring unforeseen consequences and, God forbid, turn into trouble. I urge you as the guarantor of the rule of law of your great country to stand in the way of division and to prevent bloodshed and the fratricide of the peoples who emerged from the same Dnieper font.
METROPOLITAN OF CHERNIVTSI AND BUKOVINA,
LOCUM TENENS OF THE KIEV METROPOLITAN THRONE
His Beatitude’s was certainly not the only voice in the Ukrainian Church to be raised on the issue. And indeed, the Church’s stance remains the same to this day. In a live broadcast on Radio Liberty on December 21, Archbishop Clement (Vecherya) said the Ukrainian Church “does not recognize the annexation of Crimea, condemns everything that is happening in Donbass, and has called on the head of the Russian state to stop this aggression. The UOC has repeatedly noted that it fully supports all the initiatives of the Ukrainian state regarding its determinations related to what is happening in eastern Ukraine.”
And before Crimea came the Maidan. Who can forget the photos of the monks of the Kiev Caves Lavra and other monasteries of the canonical Ukrainian Church standing bravely between the demonstrators and the police with crosses and icons in hand. They took no sides but stood only for peace, praying and chanting the Paschal troparion.
Not honoring fallen soldiers?
The last incident we would like to discuss took place in early May of 2015 during a session of the Ukrainian Parliament dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the European victory over Nazism. The event was attended by political and religious leaders in Ukraine, veterans of the Red Army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon.
During the session, President Poroshenko read out the names of twenty-one soldiers being awarded the title of “Hero of Ukraine” for their service in the Donbass conflict, including ten who had died in battle. The names were greeted with applause and everyone stood up … except Met. Onuphry and those with him.
For those intent on seeing the UOC as a mere puppet of the Russian state, this was a sign as clear as day.
But, an explanation of Met. Onuphry’s decision not to stand was soon posted on the official site of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The message reads:
On May 8, 2015, at the invitation of the leadership of the Ukrainian state, the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church took part in a solemn session of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in Europe. During the speech of the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, those present stood to greet the names of those who were awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine for their participation in the defense of the Fatherland in the eastern part of our state. His Beatitude did not react to this speech as did all the other guests and participants in the solemn meeting in order to emphasize that the war must be immediately stopped! He has repeatedly expressed respect for all the heroes who defend Ukrainian borders. However, there can be no justification for feeding the fire of a war that almost daily takes the lives of not only servicemen, but also defenseless citizens of Ukraine, including children. They are dying on both sides of the front line. No one considers their deaths.
Of course, there are those who will simply reject this reasoning or choose to believe that the statement is simply dishonest damage control, but nevertheless, this statement is consonant with Met. Onuphry’s letters to Pat. Kirill and Pres. Putin of the previous year. Undoubtedly, from a secular PR perspective, Met. Onuphry’s choice to remain seated was a nightmare, but he chose to represent a higher calling.
The message continues:
With the blessing of the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the faithful pray daily for peace and collect funds, food, clothing, and medicine to support Ukrainian soldiers and the civilians of Ukrainian Donbass. Among those who were present in the parliamentary loge as guests and stood to greet the names of the Heroes of Ukraine, there were none who, like His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry, have repeatedly personally visited the war-torn eastern Ukraine. He has seen the human pain with his own eyes, not on television screens, and therefore has repeatedly called on those upon whom it depends to immediately do everything possible to stop the bloodshed.
That is how a loving pastor approaches such a situation.