Blessings and Curses From Constantinople

How the Orthodox Church Is Reshaping the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine

A man dives in icy water during Epiphany celebrations near a monastery in Rostov Veliky, Russia, 2009.  Thomas Peter/REUTERS

For a community where the passage of time is measured in centuries rather than weeks, recent events in the Orthodox Church have been unfolding at breakneck speed. On October 11, Bartholomew I, patriarch of Constantinople and one of highest-ranking leaders in the Orthodox world, announced that he would grant Ukraine’s Orthodox Church full independence—“autocephaly” in church-speak—ending several centuries of control by the Russian Orthodox Church over much of what is today Ukraine. Bartholomew also reaffirmed the priestly legitimacy of the heads of Ukraine’s two dissident Orthodox bodies, which had not recognized Moscow’s authority.  

Ukrainian leaders had been lobbying for this decision for many months. Recognition of a fully independent, national church carries enormous weight in a country where some seven out of ten people identify as Orthodox Christians. But beyond matters of religious affiliation, the decision is likely to shape Ukraine’s sense of cultural and national identity as the country negotiates its place in modern Europe and its ties to Russia.

Although the decision is expected to come into effect only in late November, its promise immediately prompted a stinging rebuke from the Moscow Patriarchate, which accused Bartholomew of jurisdictional overreach. As a result, on October 15 the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it was severing ties with Constantinople. Given the large size of Russia’s Orthodox community, this move could become the most significant rift in Eastern Christendom since it broke away from the Western church in 1054.

What may at first look like arcane ecclesiastical wrangling matters a great deal even to the more worldly minded. For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose approval ratings have been plummeting and who is up for reelection next year, the announcement scores a major victory, as it will likely result in the establishment of a reconstituted Ukrainian Orthodox Church that backs his pro-European agenda. By contrast, Constantinople’s decision deals a black eye to Poroshenko’s Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as it threatens to push Ukrainian society further outside Moscow’

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