Collision course in the Orthodox world: An interview with a Ukrainian archbishop

Collision course in the Orthodox world: An interview with a Ukrainian archbishop

Украинският архиепископ Евстратий Зоря
Украинският архиепископ Евстратий Зоря

Editor’s note: The full audio recording of the interview with Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria is available at the end of the article.



In an interview with Bulgaria Analytica, Ukrainian Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria of the Kyiv Patriarchate states his case as to why Ukraine should and will have an independent Orthodox church. Zoria also predicts a subsequent sequence of events that will tip the balance of power in the Orthodox world, giving New Rome (Constantinople), not the theoretical Third Rome (Moscow), the undisputed status of leader among global Orthodoxy. However, it appears Constantinople (the Orthodox church based in modern-day Istanbul) is reluctant to embrace this scenario, fearing that Moscow will make a break and further divide the Orthodox world.


Ukraine’s Orthodox church is currently divided, with the primary fault line being a power struggle between Kyiv and Moscow. The Ukrainian church that the Orthodox world formally recognizes is known as the Moscow Patriarchate. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and comprises a major chunk of the Russian church’s membership. The Kyiv Patriarchate exists independently of the Russian church, but it lacks formal recognition.


Zoria, a spokesman for the Kyiv Patriarchate, argues Orthodox tradition dictates that an independent state or nation gets an independent church. Such policy exists, in part, to prevent exactly what Moscow does, which is using the church as an instrument of government foreign policy, Zoria said. But in the aftermath of Russia’s incursions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainians are jumping ship to the Kyiv Patriarchate.


“It was a basis for many people to rethink their attitude toward church issues,” Zoria said. “After the Russian invasion, many people saw that Russia used the dependency of the Moscow Patriarchate on the Kremlin as a tool in hybrid war.


“Russian Orthodox Church priests in Crimea supported the invasion, and after unification of Crimea with the Russian Federation, many of them were awarded by the occupation administration with some medals, honorable diplomas and so on and so on.


“In Donbass, when Russian terrorists occupied Sloviansk — according to reports — before they openly occupied Sloviansk, they lived underground in one Orthodox spiritual center of the Moscow Patriarchate in the suburbs of Sloviansk. And they lived there maybe a week or more as they waited to invade openly the city and seize official buildings. And there were many reports of Moscow Patriarchate priests in Donbass who openly in sermons and services support Russia. Some of them support terrorist troops with weapons in their hands. Some of them provide information like spies to separatists or Russian troops.


“People heard news about Moscow Patriarchate priests who reject providing burial services after Ukrainian soldiers were killed by terrorists or Russian troops in Donbass.”


“In this time of Russian invasion and hybrid war, for more and more Ukrainians, it is valuable to support and belong to a real Ukrainian Church and not be a part of Russian hybrid war on Ukraine.”


Moscow has long sought the status of being the Third Rome, the successor to both the Vatican and Constantinople, or New Rome, — the capital of the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire.


Following a couple of decades of persecution, the Russian Orthodox Church was revived by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in order to build up support for the World War II effort. Over the following several years, a split emerged in the Orthodox world, which not only lasted the course of the Cold War, but still remains today, Zoria said.


“After the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, Stalin’s regime and the Moscow Patriarchate tried to call a so-called ecumenical council, or Pan-Orthodox Council, and this council must take place in Moscow in 1947 or 1948. And the goal of this council is to proclaim the Moscow patriarch as the ecumenical, or supreme, patriarch among the other Orthodox primates.


“Moscow ideology uses the geopolitical image as the Third Rome, that Moscow is the Third Rome. But in reality, the Moscow Patriarchate tried to be a second Vatican, or anti-Vatican — a center of unity for all non-Catholic churches, not only for Orthodox churches, but for some conservative Protestant churches, too.”


But Stalin did not succeed in his efforts to establish the Third Rome and the supremacy of the Moscow Patriarchate. As the Cold War kicked off, the United States government and other political powers used their influence to prevent the convention of an ecumenical council, Zoria said.


“And from this time, fighting between the Moscow Patriarchate and the patriarchate of Constantinople for primacy, or for first pace among all Orthodox churches and influence based on this place on all Orthodoxy, is what shaped the Cold War. And the Constantinople Patriarchate and churches that supported it are part of the global western world. And Moscow Patriarchate and churches that supported it are part of the big Russian world. And until now this problem still exists. And global Orthodoxy is divided on two big parts.”


After a decades-long wait, the Pan-Orthodox Council convened on the Greek island of Crete in 2016. Shortly before the council took place, however, the Russian Orthodox Church pulled out. The other churches — the Bulgarian, Antioch (Syrian) and Georgian Orthodox churches — which Zoria describes as “dependents” of Moscow — pulled out as well. Only 10 of the 14 independent, formally recognized Orthodox churches attended last year’s Pan-Orthodox Council. And following the convention, the Moscow Patriarchate declared it would not recognize any of the decisions that were made.


Zoria said the issue of recognition of the Ukrainian church “is the key for resolving this global problem” within the Orthodox world.


“If the Ukrainian church will be officially recognized and will be united as a single, autocephal independent church, it means the Moscow Patriarchate will be twice smaller than it is now. And this Ukrainian church will naturally support the patriarchate of Constantinople, not patriarchate of Moscow. And with the support of the Ukrainian church, the patriarchate of Constantinople will take a real majority because these 10 churches who gathered on Crete, in reality, is not a majority because the Moscow Patriarchate is bigger than all of them. But without the Ukrainian church, the Moscow Patriarchate will be big, but not an imperial or superpower church, like now. It’s like if we compare the Soviet Union and Russia. With Ukraine and some other republics, but first of all Ukraine, the Soviet Union was a superpower — one of two — comparable with the United States. But without Ukraine, it was impossible for Russia to be such a superpower.


“They try to be a superpower now and use the church factor in their policy of restoration of empire. But without Ukraine, it’s impossible to restore the empire. And without the Ukrainian church, for the Moscow Patriarchate it will be impossible to be a church empire.


“And it’s a very important issue for the future of all global Orthodoxy because now these clashes, this fighting between two Romes – New Rome and Third Rome – it’s divided Orthodoxy and both parts are weaker. But when the patriarchate of Constantinople take its historical and canonical role of primus inter pares, first among equals, — in reality, not in name, but in reality — and when Moscow will be just a big but regular church, this fighting, these clashes, will stop. And this is for the better of all churches, and the key of this issue is in Ukraine.”


But Zoria acknowledges that the Constantinople Patriarchate is reluctant to go the route of recognizing an independent Ukrainian church, fearing backlash from Moscow.


“We try to explain this for the Constantinople Patriarchate, but until now unfortunately, I think they have a little bit of fear to start a big war with the Moscow Patriarchate. They fear that if the ecumenical patriarch will recognize an independent Ukrainian church, it means that the Moscow Patriarcahte break up all relationships with ecumenical patriarchates, and it means all orthodoxy will officially divide on two parts. But we think there is no other way of solving this problem other than recognition of an independent Ukrainian church and uniting a real majority around the Constantinople patriarchate.”


Zoria predicts recognition of the Ukrainian church will come once Ukraine emerges victorious in its war with Russia-backed separatists.


In addition to the Ukraine issue, there exists another quandary in the Orthodox world regarding an independent country without an independent church. The Macedonian Orthodox Church remains within the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church.


Zoria says the Macedonia case is different than the Ukraine case because the Balkan state’s neighbors de facto do not recognize the existence of the Macedonian nation.


“The problem with the Macedonian church is wider and not so comparable with the Ukrainian issue because all of Macedonia’s neighbors in reality do not recognize that Macedonia is a real independent state and real independent nation. In Bulgaria, Macedonians are western Bulgarians. In Greece, Macedonia is northern Greece. In Albania, Macedonia is part of big Albania. In Serbia, Macedonia is the southeast of big Serbia.”


Yet Zoria also notes that in the Macedonia case, the Kremlin, too, uses the Russian Orthodox Church in attempt to wield geopolitical influence. In recent years, during political upheaval in Macedonia, Moscow Patriarchate officials have had a number of meetings with Macedonian church and government leaders, Zoria said.


“The next key point of Russian policy is Macedonia. It is a very important question for Russia to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO. And they try to use the church card.”


Zoria also said that Moscow is holding the card of threatening to recognize an independent Macedonian church so as to prevent Constantinople from recognizing an independent Ukrainian church.


“In reality it is part of a big game between Moscow and the West, in general, and Moscow and Constantinople, if we speak about intra-Orthodox relations.”



By Josh Friedman

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