Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and President Volodymyr Zelensky. St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Monastery. April 2019.

In my recent contribution to the Kyiv Post’s “Ukrainian Voices from Abroad: Advice for Zelenskiy” series, I urged the new President to support the stability of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) while also ensuring the legal status of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine headed by Metropolitan Onuphrius—provided that any and all evidence of the latter’s complicity with the Kremlin to undermine Ukraine’s national security and interests be swiftly investigated.

As Halya Coynash reported in February 2018 and scholar Dmitry Adamsky sets forth in his chillingly titled Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy—to cite but two testimonies among many—there can be no doubt that the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate work hand in glove to advance Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical agenda in Ukraine and around the globe. Jonathan Luxmoore has reported that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow went so far as to ridicule the idea of independent Ukrainian nationhood as a Uniate (Greek-Catholic) invention in his remarks to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople when they met at the Phanar last August.

Add to this the fact that Metropolitan Onuphrius sits as the senior ranking member of the Permanent Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Zelensky’s administration has ample reason to keep a close eye on the Russian Church’s activities in Ukraine.  

On the surface, my advice to Zelensky may seem to fly in the face of my earlier applause for his election as the dawn of a new day in Ukrainian church-state relations. As I cautioned here and here just before and after the OCU received its tomos of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Poroshenko came uncomfortably close to adopting the Russian model of Byzantine symphonia and making the OCU an official state church. This is most decidedly not what I am urging Zelensky to do. 

Yet in a majoritarian Orthodox Christian nation where half of the entire population identifies with the ecclesiastical entity (the OCU) which fully supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its independence from Russia, and its aspirations to integrate with the European Union, it behooves Zelensky greatly to recognize the powerful ally that he has in the OCU. Paradoxically, without the overwhelming support of the OCU’s faithful he would not have won the election against the Orthodox incumbent who had inserted himself directly into the creation and autocephaly of their Church.

Already there are concerns that Zelensky may squander this opportunity, if more from indifference or antipathy than outright hostility. In an open letter published on May 23 at EuroMaidan Press, individuals and organizations representing Ukrainian civil society listed “implementing any actions aimed at undermining or discrediting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine [OCU] or supporting the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine [under Metropolitan Onuphrius]” among several red lines that Zelensky must not cross, at the risk of causing “political instability in our country and the deterioration of international relations.”

The fact of the matter is that Zelensky’s presidency will fail if he alienates the Orthodox constituency which comprises the majority of the nation’s population.

To be clear, this is not an appeal to state power to make Ukraine more Orthodox, or to bring more parishes and monasteries coercively into the OCU, or to give the OCU preferential treatment over the other faith communities represented by the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO). Rather this is an appeal to common sense from a purely political point of view: the more the OCU thrives, the more Ukraine’s democratic aspirations and values thrive, and the more Ukraine frees herself from the dark undercurrents of Muscovite hegemony in her political, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual life.

While the separation of church and state stands as a self-evident norm in Western democracies such as Ukraine makes continuous progress in becoming, history shows—for better or for worse—that this separation is neither absolute in any given national context nor identical from one democratic nation to another. In Ukraine it will not look exactly the same as it does in Canada, where I live. As some of our era’s most prominent thinkers grapple with the question of the power of religion in the public sphere, it falls to Ukraine to chart her own course in discovering appropriate ways for church and state to work together for the common good of all citizens, without church or state encroaching on the proper domain of the other.

In cultivating a relationship of “collaborative autonomy,” as it were, the Orthodox Church safeguards her ability both to preach the Gospel and to speak truth to power whenever the state becomes an organ of oppression against its most vulnerable minorities, and the state retains its freedom to enact social policies expected of a modern Western democracy but thought to be contrary to church doctrine and praxis.  

This article appeared earlier today at the Kyiv Post. See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian of Ukrainian and Lemko descent on his mother’s side, a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, the founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and a contributor of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College, both in Toronto, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary near New York City. 

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