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Orthodox Church in Ukraine has decided to cut ties with Russia


Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. And while the government was no longer managed from Moscow, millions of Orthodox Christians still belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. In Ukraine a few years ago, some broke and aligned with the Greek Orthodox Church. Others remained loyal to the church in Moscow. That is, until now. We're joined now from Kyiv by NPR's Julian Hayda. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What happened to those who remained loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church?

HAYDA: Well, basically, Russia's invasion just became too big to ignore here in Ukraine. They spent decades walking a really fine line in society here between loyalty to Moscow and effective neutrality outside of church affairs. But Russia's invasion in February was just the final straw. The church's leaders here in Ukraine convened an emergency meeting here yesterday, where they determined it would be just impossible to stay loyal to a church in Russia while also keeping their members coming back to church. And that's just because of how unpopular Russia's actions are here in Ukraine. And so they effectively declared independence. That said, they've also kept the door open on potentially reconciling with Moscow and even getting closer with the Greek Orthodox Church. So we'll see.

SIMON: Why would Ukrainians blame a church that happens to have an affiliation with Russia for the actions of the Russian military?

HAYDA: For years, that was precisely the argument that people made. But President Putin has made it somewhat of a policy to bring the Russian church closer to the government, and therefore all of its satellite churches, like the church here in Ukraine, too. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, loyalists in Ukraine have called on their patriarch in Moscow - his name is Kirill - to condemn the war. And in fact, he's done quite the opposite. He's backed the war. He's called opponents of it, quote, "forces of evil." And that just doesn't jive with the believers' experiences on the ground here in Ukraine. I talked with Professor Nicholas Denysenko from Valparaiso University. He's an expert on the Ukrainian church.

NICHOLAS DENYSENKO: Just put yourself in the position of even a pro-Russian bishop in Odesa, which is essentially what it was on the ground there. When you have to deal with the stark reality of people in your city being massacred by missile attacks, you know, how do you reconcile a position that's openly loyal to Moscow with that kind of terror unleashed against your people?

SIMON: Were there other reasons for this declaration of independence from the patriarch in Moscow?

HAYDA: Well, Ukraine has been increasingly hostile to what they perceive to be subversive actors in the country. There have been growing calls to evict the Russian Orthodox Church from Ukraine's biggest holy site. It's a medieval monastery where the bodies of Kyiv's founders lay. And every attempt to do that in the past has elicited these really big protests. Some members of Parliament introduced a law that would ban the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. And there's even a debate in Parliament over this question right now. It's gone nowhere in the past on religious freedom grounds. But I think this war changed people here in Ukraine. I think they saw the ban on Russian religious activity as increasingly likely, and the church leadership wanted to get ahead of it. This group that's always been loyal to Moscow really wanted to prove that they were on the side of Ukraine in this war, and so they donated nearly $51,000 worth of humanitarian aid and ammunition to the Ukrainian military.

SIMON: Does this have wider implications beyond the faithful in Ukraine?

HAYDA: So, Scott, everything in the Orthodox Church has come down to two things - loyalty and territory. Now, Moscow has claimed Ukrainian territory since the late 1600s. And until yesterday, you had loyalists to both Greece and Moscow within Ukraine. Of course, there are Orthodox faithful all over the world. One in 200 Americans are Orthodox. But Russia really pushed for every other Orthodox Church to take sides. That has really huge implications for ordinary Orthodox believers - things like who's allowed to take communion, what church to get married in, and whether or not someone's baptism is valid, even in Orthodox churches that don't have much to do with Ukraine.

SIMON: NPR's Julian Hayda in Kyiv, thanks so much for being with us.

HAYDA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda
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