Drive to Form a Ukrainian Church Gains Speed

Kiev, Ukraine - More than a thousand years ago, a Slavic prince ordered his subjects into the Dnepr River, which slices through Kiev, to baptize themselves in his newly adopted faith.

Now the powerful Russian Orthodox Church that emerged from that christening is losing control over its Ukrainian birthplace.

Having broken free of Russia's political grip in last year's Orange Revolution, many Ukrainians are now turning their nationalistic impulses toward religion and with tacit backing from their president, Viktor Yushchenko, are seeking to create an independent Ukrainian church -- an equal to Moscow, rather than a daughter.

For the Russian Orthodox Church, to lose this predominantly Orthodox nation of 48 million would be a devastating blow, significantly shrinking the size of its flock and its global clout. It could sever one of the oldest links between the two neighboring countries, dealing another setback to the Kremlin's efforts to maintain influence in the former Soviet republics.

"Russia understands and is fighting to keep the Ukrainian church. ... If it loses the church, Moscow doesn't have any hope of ever returning Ukraine into a revived Russian empire," said Patriarch Filaret, who heads the breakaway Ukraine Orthodox Church's Kiev Patriarchate.

The split is already real, with two breakaway churches having set themselves up since the end of Soviet rule. They are now talking about unifying, which would create a strong new independent church, boasting nearly 4,700 parishes and 3,400 priests.

Although still smaller than the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, as the Russian Orthodox Church is called here, its size could nudge Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox, into recognizing the new church. That would be a significant stamp of legitimacy that Filaret believes will prompt many priests and parishes to switch sides.

Losing Ukraine would cost the Russian Orthodox Church not only followers, but also valuable church property, including some of Russian orthodoxy's most revered sites. The oldest and holiest monastery, the Pechersky Lavra, remains under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate. But around a bend in the Dnepr, the majestic Vydubytsky Monastery, which commemorates the mass baptism ordered by Volodymyr in the year 988, is in the hands of the breakaway church.

In Orthodox countries, national identity is often forged equally by the state and the church, giving the clergy a powerful voice in society. That clout has been growing since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of a communist creed hostile to religious freedom.

The Russian connection long predates communism, dating to 1654 when a Ukrainian Cossack leader signed an alliance with Russia, which gradually ushered in the Russian political, religious and cultural domination that persists to this day. The Russian Orthodox Church promoted a message of unity between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. Critics say this was done -- particularly during communist times -- at the expense of Ukraine's own identity. The church is basically "an avant-garde of Russian influence in Ukraine," said Ivan Dzyuba, a religion analyst with Ukraine's National Academy of Science.

Ukraine renewed the push for its own independent Orthodox church shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. But the Russian church resisted, sparking a division that eventually resulted in three separate Ukrainian churches: the Moscow Patriarchate, the breakaway Kiev Patriarchate, and its splinter, the Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church.

The Moscow and Kiev churches are the two dominant ones, and differ little in liturgical terms. It is not unheard of for Ukrainians to marry in one church and baptize a child in another. Opinion polls suggest many Ukrainians identify themselves simply as neither Moscow- nor Kiev-aligned, just Orthodox.

The choice is often more political than spiritual.

"Of course, our links with Russia are very strong. We are all Slavs, and Russia has always been the most dominant Slavic country. But Ukraine has detached itself, so why shouldn't our church also enjoy that independence?" said Nina Venhar, 57, emerging from one of the cool, candlelit churches that make up the Vydubytsky Monastery.

Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk, was a moderate nationalist and backed the breakaway church. His successor, Leonid Kuchma, whose support base was Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, swung state support back toward the Moscow Patriarchate church.

Yushchenko, winner of last year's tumultuous election, has said he will not meddle in church affairs, but he has also emphasized that Ukrainians are eager for an independent, united national church.

For Ukraine's new government, which has been using Cossack symbols to strengthen Ukrainian identity, the need for an independent church is also driven by political concerns. During last year's presidential campaign, church leaders insisted that they were not meddling in politics, yet priests and monks from the Moscow Patriarchate regularly marched through Kiev's streets holding icons and crosses aloft in support of the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. And Filaret and clergy from his breakaway church were often on stage blessing the crowds at the pro-Yushchenko rallies.

The Moscow Patriarchate insists it too wants a Ukrainian Orthodox church as "an equal sister in the family of Orthodox Churches, but we are going toward this on a canonical path," its leader, Metropolitan Vladimir, said in a written response to questions.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, however, has given no indication that he would consider loosening his church's grip on Ukraine. The breakaway churches hope to force his hand. The Kiev Patriarchate and Autonomous Orthodox Church agreed in May to begin reunification talks.

It remains to be seen whether Ukraine has the appetite for a fight. The new government came to power amid threats of a split between Ukraine's pro-Russian industrial east and its more nationalistic west. Those passions, while somewhat cooled, still exist, and Yushchenko has his hands full fighting corruption and trying to win much-needed foreign investment.

Oles Doniy, head of Ukraine's Center for Research into Political Values, cautioned against adding a religious battle to the mix. "Religious wars in Europe took place several centuries ago, and it is hardly necessary to rouse those spirits on the shores of the Dnepr."