New Ukrainian Church Marks a Victory for President, Setback for Moscow

By James Marson (Wall Street Journal)

Dec. 16, 2018 1:40 p.m. ET


[President] Poroshenko calls founding the day ‘we finally attained our…independence from Russia’

KIEV—For 27 years of Ukraine’s independence, its only internationally recognized Orthodox Church was controlled by Russia, a pillar of the Kremlin’s continued influence in its former vassal.

But 4½ years into an armed conflict against Russia and separatists in the country’s east, Ukraine on Saturday founded its own national church, endorsed by the foremost leader of global Orthodoxy.

“We will get out from under Moscow’s hoof,” said Viktor Kolesnyk, a 67-year-old retiree who was among several thousand people gathered near St. Sophia Cathedral, where bishops from three Orthodox churches met for a Unification Council.

The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is a signature victory for U.S.-backed President Petro Poroshenko, whose country has lost control over parts of its territory in the conflict, which has left more than 10,000 people dead. Mr. Poroshenko, who faces an election in March, told the crowd that “today we finally attained our Ukrainian independence from Russia.”

The move is a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used the countries’ shared cultures and pasts to justify his efforts to keep Ukraine in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. The Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian arm of the Russian Orthodox Church, has long been a proponent of close ties with Russia, supporting politicians favored by Moscow and, in recent years, giving mostly vague statements calling for peace without condemning Mr. Putin.

Russia has claimed dominion for its church in Ukraine for centuries. After Ukraine declared independence in 1991, a group called the Kiev Patriarchate split from the Russian church, but its calls for recognition went unheeded. The popularity of the Kiev Patriarchate surged after Russia annexed Crimea and launched covert military interventions in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Mr. Poroshenko, senior officials and Ukrainian bishops shuttled back and forth to Istanbul to coordinate with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the first among equals of Orthodox leaders, and his advisers. In granting the new Ukrainian church official, self-governing status, Bartholomew is asserting his authority in the second-largest Christian denomination, which Moscow has sought to challenge with its wealth and political clout.

To be sure, the new church’s path is fraught with obstacles: Russia has opposed its creation, and the Ukrainian church will face a battle to attract clergymen and congregations from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Russia and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine have warned of potential bloodshed if the Ukrainian government and the new church try to take control of religious buildings that the Moscow Patriarchate uses. Ukraine’s security service has raided several of the church’s religious buildings in recent weeks as part of investigations into spreading religious hatred. The Moscow Patriarchate called it an unfounded pressure campaign.

The official status of the new Ukrainian church “is a convincing argument for those who want to move over, but some will remain with their convictions,” Metropolitan Oleksandr, one of two Moscow Patriarchate bishops to take part in the council, said in an interview. He said he had joined the new church.

Thousands from across the country gathered from 9 a.m. outside the 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral where the council was taking place. Many were veterans of a 2014 revolution that ousted a pro-Russian president.

The council, which brought together around 200 clergy and laity, was supposed to start at 10 a.m., but last-minute disputes and maneuvering delayed the start until just after 1 p.m.

Amid freezing temperatures, the crowd listened to performances and speeches, including prayers from a group of military chaplains and music played on the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian string instrument. As darkness fell around 5 p.m., bells rang to signal that a leader for the new church had been elected.

Mr. Poroshenko took the stage alongside the new leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, a 39-year-old who learned Greek while studying in Athens and is a close ally of Kiev Patriarchate leader Filaret.

Mr. Poroshenko gave a lengthy, booming speech, shaking his fist and shouting, “Glory to Ukraine!”

“It’s a church without Putin,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “It’s a church without prayers for the Russian government and Russian army. Because the Russian government and Russian army are killing Ukrainians.”

Mr. Poroshenko has placed the church issue at the center of his re-election campaign, but polls place him third amid anger over corruption and economic inequality.

Mr. Kolesnyk, a former brewery technician who said he didn’t support Mr. Poroshenko, said there are two churches in his village outside Kiev, one of which belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate. He said he hoped his neighbors would now realize the affiliation of that church, which has styled itself the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“People who go to Russian churches will be embarrassed to look in the eyes of Ukrainians,” he said.

Epifaniy, who will visit Istanbul on Jan. 6 to receive a decree from Bartholomew granting self-governance, held his first liturgy as head of the new church on Sunday and offered to welcome Moscow Patriarchate members “with fraternal love and mutual respect.”

Write to James Marson at

Appeared in the December 17, 2018, print edition as 'New Ukraine Church Is Rebuff to Russia.'