Russian flag in Simferopol © Hannibal Hanschke
In Ukraine, the three major Orthodox churches are fighting over ecclesiastical supremacy. The conflict can only be solved from Moscow, says theologian Thomas Bremer.
"As hard as it sounds for Ukraine, the key lies in Moscow," the Catholic theologian told the Evangelical Press Service on the sidelines of a conference at the Loccum Protestant Academy. The dispute between the two larger Ukrainian Orthodox churches, that of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kiev Patriarchate, revolves around the question of who is the legitimate church in the country, said Bremer, who holds a professorship in ecumenics, Eastern Church studies and peace research in Munster, Germany.
Only if the Moscow Patriarchate grants more autonomy to its followers and congregations in Ukraine will the country's church dispute be resolved, Bremer said. Only then will international Orthodoxy officially recognize an Orthodox Church in Ukraine, including the Kiev Patriarchate.
Is Moscow the aggressor or the solution?
In the current war situation, however, no solution of this dispute is to be expected. With the political-military conflict since 2014, the church dispute has also intensified, Bremer stressed. The Kiev Patriarchate has clearly sided with the Ukrainian government: "It calls Moscow the aggressor and thus tries to discredit the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate."
The head of the church in Moscow, on the other hand, is in a "quandary," Bremer said. Many bishops, priests and faithful felt Ukrainian and agreed with the government in Kiev. The Muscovites must refrain from political statements on the war, because otherwise they would lose many supporters. The Moscow Patriarch has never said: "Crimea is Russian"!" or "Crimea is Ukrainian!", the church expert underlined.
Who is on which side?
The Moscow Patriarchate focuses on peace messages and emphasizes that it is the only church that has members on both sides of the front. Positioning in military conflict differs from parish to parish, he said. Some are collecting clothes and medicines for the Ukrainian army, others are campaigning for disputed territories to become part of Russia.
For people, the church conflict is often less important in everyday life, Bremer said. Many people are not even aware of their own affiliation. It is not as strictly regulated as in Germany. "People go to the church they have always gone to or where they find the service particularly nice."
The Moscow Patriarchate is the largest church in Ukraine in terms of the number of parishes. The Kiev Patriarchate became independent from Moscow when Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Bremer stressed. Ukrainian politicians have repeatedly gone to the Patriarch in Constantinople, the head of Orthodox Christianity, to seek official recognition of the Kiev Patriarchate – so far without success. In addition to these Orthodox churches, there is also the smaller Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine. All three do not recognize each other.