Onufry’s church in Ukraine has two options: either act by the old playbook or cut ties to Kirill.
Metropolitan Onufry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (L), Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (R)
Just as we were witnessing the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) mobilising and expanding its influence on the African continent, the recognition by Russian President Putin of Donetsk and Luhansk as “independent states” amid the renewed war against Ukraine brings to the fore the possible ecclesiastical implications of such a decision for the Ukrainian and Russian Churches. The official position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), according to Fr. Nikolai Danilevich, who is the Deputy Head of the Department for External Church Relations, is that it “considers these territories [Donetsk and Luhansk] and the people who live there to be part of Ukraine.” He says that the “dioceses in the Donbas remain part of the UOC and are managed from Kiev [sic]…”. According to him, the same applies to the situation in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. This supportive stance regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been echoed by the Primate of the church Metropolitan Onufry and other high-level bishops from this church over the last couple of days.
The statements above suggest a possible clash between the UOC-MP and Patriarch Kirill. Contrary to the position of UOC-MP, Russian church representatives talk about “respecting the choice of the people” in relation to the self-proclaimed independence of DNR/LNR regions. Metropolitan Onufry and the UOC-MP can choose to disengage from Patriarch Kirill as they now have an alternative, joining the [autocephalous] Orthodox Church of Ukraine. If the UOC-MP decides to continue with the old playbook an already familiar scenario may follow.
For many observers, the instinctive, almost knee-jerk reaction dictates that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) will follow the steps of the Kremlin in recognition of these two breakaway regions and adjust its ecclesiastical borders accordingly. A lot has been written about the synergy between the Russian Church and the Kremlin ranging from seeing the actions of ROC as complimentary to Russian foreign policy and those who claim that the ROC has autonomy in its actions. The latter explanation can vary from substantial to regulated autonomy, meaning ROC following the Kremlin in principle, with some freedom of action.
The Russian Orthodox Church has shown that, in ecclesiastical borders, it does not necessarily follow to the letter Putin’s decisions and, more importantly, the path that the Kremlin has taken in redrawing the borders of its most immediate neighbours; instead, the ROC formulates its own approach (with few caveats) towards these regions. The similarities between the recognition of DNR/LNR and Putin’s actions in Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia are evident. Yet, for the Russian Orthodox Church even 14 years after their recognition the position hasn’t changed. These two regions belong to and form part of the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Similarly, in the case of Crimea, the ROC maintains the view that it is within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate’s rights to administer and manage this region from Kyiv and not Moscow. Following this trajectory, a safe-to-assume scenario will be that a similar formula will be applied to both Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway regions, meaning both will remain under the authority of the UOC-MP.
This principle seems to be anchored in the ROC’s foreign policy, at least towards Russia’s neighbouring breakaway regions, and is carefully considered. Concerning Georgia, for example, Metropolitan Hilarion in 2013 said that a “change in political boundaries should not lead to a change in church boundaries.” The ROC’s positioning vis-à-vis Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea attest to this. While the official positions of the ROC and the argument laid out by Metropolitan Hilarion seem to suggest that ROC actions are fully autonomous and in disregard of Putin’s wishes, when looked at more closely the examples of Georgia and Crimea ultimately suggest an overlap with the Kremlin’s interests, despite the variation in approach.
Even though the Russian Orthodox Church formally considers both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be under the jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church, it acts differently on the ground. There have been numerous reports of the ROC sending clergy for the purposes of conducting services in the two regions, as well as building churches. This goes against the proclaimed support of the Georgian Church. The ROC justifies these actions by saying that, due to the lack of government control of these two regions by Tbilisi, the Georgian Church does not have access and the Russian Church is simply filling in this vacuum. In 2019 the GOC Patriarch Ilia II protested against the ROC’s decision to send priests to both regions. The following year he called on Putin to stop the occupation in the two regions. Tbilisi has also supported Ukraine’s position regarding the Russia-led forces in Donbas. Why then has this support not been mirrored in the church arena? The Georgian Orthodox Church has still not recognised the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine because of fears that if it goes along that path the ROC will either take steps to formalise its presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia or (the more remote possibility) to encourage an independent Abkhaz church.
Another example is Crimea. There, on the face of it, the Russian Church supports the view that the Orthodox believers of Crimea are managed solely by the UOC-MP in Kyiv. Despite the annexation of the peninsula in 2014 and that, since then, it has been considered by Moscow to be part of Russia, the ROC maintains that it will not attempt to change the ecclesiastical borders in Crimea to reflect this position of Moscow. Compared to the Georgian church, which is autocephalous and has no formal ties to the ROC, the difference is that the UOC-MP is an integral part of the Russian Church and ultimately UOC-MP believers in Crimea are affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. Another notable development is that, ever since 2014, Crimea authorities have been accused of sponsoring religious persecution (see examples here, here, and here) against the former UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate (now the [autocephalous] Orthodox Church of Ukraine) in order to remove the presence of this church from the Crimean peninsula and in that way allow the UOC-MP to be the sole Orthodox actor. The UOC-KP led by Patriarch Filaret was perceived to be close to the previous Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, but also perceived as being the patriotic church in Ukraine, especially after the Euromaidan protests in 2013/2014. The UOC-KP/OCU church in Crimea has been subject to legal pressures and has had to reregister its activities under Russian legislation which created additional tensions and problems for its operation.
Contrary to the popular belief that the Russian Church follows every step of the Kremlin, the “recognition” of Donetsk and Luhansk by Russia’s president is unlikely to change much in the ecclesiastical realm. The UOC-MP will most likely continue to be able to claim jurisdiction over these territories as has been the case for the past eight years. However, this is not to say that the interests of the ROC and the Kremlin will not converge over time as the above examples show. That is why Metropolitan Onufry has the chance now to change course and translate words into action and cut ties with Kirill. Actions speak louder than words.