Ukrainians shun church linked to Moscow

A church in the village of Karyshkiv, Vinnytsia region, Ukraine. — Reuters

AS a crowd gathered outside the white-brick Orthodox church in the village of Karyshkiv in western Ukraine, raised voices quickly turned to shouting. Soon old women were crying. The villagers were quarrelling over the affiliation of their parish church, which belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) that the government in Kyiv accuses of being under the influence of Moscow.

Most of the 30 or so villagers standing by the roadside wanted to switch their parish to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), formed in 2019 and backed by the government, as hundreds of communities have voted to do since Russia’s invasion last year.

Some of the villagers angrily accused Russia of seeking to destroy their nation and said its invading troops were guilty of atrocities. Others said they wanted to worship in their own language, not Church Slavonic used by the UOC – an archaic religious language with similarities to Russian. But a handful of the villagers strongly disagreed.

“Some kind of devil has possessed these people,” said Maria, a 73-year-old who wanted the parish to switch, angry at her neighbours. “Do they not understand at all?”

Such tensions have surfaced in villages across Ukraine as authorities have cracked down on the UOC following Russia’s invasion. More than 60 criminal cases have been opened against its clergy, many of them suspected of collaboration and spreading pro-Russian propaganda.

Seven have been convicted by the courts, according to Ukraine’s SBU security agency.

And a legal battle is raging to evict the church from its historic monastery headquarters in Kyiv, one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Church.

The UOC denies being allied to Moscow and says it has seen no evidence of wrongdoing by its clergy. It argues that many of its believers are patriots fighting against Russian forces. Despite that, polls show Ukrainians turning their back on the church in droves.

The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of “illegally attacking” the UOC and has used it as one justification for what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine: defending Russian-speakers and Russian culture from persecution.

Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss this as a baseless pretext for a war of aggression.

Reuters visited two villages in late April in the western region of Vinnytsia, which has one of the highest numbers of UOC parishes in Ukraine. Dozens of residents said the issue had caused a deep rift in their rural communities, even if most want to shun the Moscow-linked church.

Supporters and opponents of their village’s church switch from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine talk, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the village of Karyshkiv, Ukraine. — ReutersSupporters and opponents of their village’s church switch from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine talk, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the village of Karyshkiv, Ukraine. — Reuters

A brief show of hands among the crowd in Karyshiv showed a large majority were in favour of leaving the UOC. A few said now was not the time to be arguing amongst themselves, as battles raged in the east.

Serhiy, who like many of the villagers declined to give his full name, said his son was serving near the eastern city of Bakhmut where thousands of soldiers have been killed in some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

“I don’t know what he’d say if he came back to this,” he said.

At the heart of the dispute are not doctrinal differences but national loyalty.

The OCU was founded with significant support from former President Petro Poroshenko to create a church fully independent of Moscow, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. It received recognition from Orthodoxy’s Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

By contrast, the UOC was established in the dying days of the Soviet Union as a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. It remained under the direct authority of Patriarch of Moscow until May 2022, three months into the invasion, when it said it was cutting ties with Russia.

Polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show the UOC’s flock in Ukraine shrank dramatically from around 18% of the population before the invasion to only 4% in July 2022.

The same survey showed that followers of the OCU grew from 42% of the population in July last year to 54% in July 2022.

One of the main complaints against the UOC by those wanting to switch denominations is that services are usually held in Church Slavonic.

The UOC says it has no objection to holding services in Ukrainian, but in Karyshkiv services were still held in Church Slavonic when Reuters visited. The local priest, Father Volodymyr, said his congregation had not wanted to change.

Hrabivtsi’s new priest, the OCU’s father Dymytriy, told Reuters shortly before serving a Sunday service that language was an important part of why villagers had wanted to switch.

“More and more, people want to pray in the language which they speak all the time – Ukrainian,” he said.

In fact Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine, although that, too, is changing fast as a result of people’s opposition to the invasion. — Reuters

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