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Sight Magazine – Essay: Putin wants more than the land


The physical landscape of Ukraine is not the only battlespace the Russian invaders hope to dominate. Over the past decade, the two countries have fought another battle – not over territory but over Ukraine’s religious orientation. And if Russia occupies the country, religious freedom will be one of the many casualties.

Ukraine is an ancient nation, dating back to at least the 10th century, with an Eastern Christian identity at its root. Founded at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Ukraine is the second largest European country, just behind Russia. While many religions operate freely in Ukraine, such as Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, the country’s population of 43 million is overwhelmingly Christian and identifies primarily with Orthodoxy.

But the question is: what orthodoxy?

The Assumption or Dormition Cathedral, Kharkiv’s main Orthodox church, rises above the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on February 4. PHOTO: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the common orthodox character of Russia and Ukraine in its arguments in favor of a rapprochement. Ukraine is unique in that several expressions of Eastern Christianity are practiced there. On one side is the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. On the other is the Orthodox Church of the Ukrainian-Kiev Patriarchate.

“Ukraine is unique in that several expressions of Eastern Christianity are practiced there. On one side is the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. On the other is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Patriarchate of Kyiv.”

Putin’s efforts to restore Russia’s prestige have included elevating the Russian Orthodox Church to the center of Russian identity while undermining the independence of the Patriarch of Moscow. Putin’s Ukrainian agenda included harnessing the religious soft power potential of the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarchate. Orthodox timesRussia has used disinformation campaigns to stir up conflict between churches.

These efforts came to a head at the end of 2018, when the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kiev asked the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church for autocephaly. Fearing Russian interference, the Kyiv Patriarchate believed that achieving independence through autocephalous status would allow the OCU-KP to free itself from the Moscow Patriarchate, withdrawing from its authority.

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The free Ukrainian Orthodox Church was a declaration of independence from foreign influence and gained greater religious freedom. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said autocephaly was another example of Ukraine swivel away from Moscow and towards Europe. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church cut off all reports with the Ecumenical Patriarch, threatening to divide Orthodoxy.

With war at hand, these religious battles will take a back seat for now. However, people on both sides are turning to their faith. Pictures Ukrainians praying across the country were posted on Twitter on Wednesday as the attack began. Other Non-Orthodox Christians Noted how Christians on both sides are fighting: “The tanks are coming from Russia, Russian Orthodox priests are blessing the tanks”, while “Ukrainian Orthodox priests are blessing Ukrainian soldiers to fight against Russia”.

What does all this mean for Ukrainian religious life in the future? Putin cited NATO expansion as the casisbelli, among other things, fearing the reorientation of Ukraine towards the West. But Ukraine’s religious reorientation is also concerning. The President of the European People’s Party, Donald Tusk, cited sources claiming that “Putin’s demands are also linked to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its independence from Moscow. De facto, what Putin wants is the total capitulation of Ukraine. The surrender sought is both physical and spiritual.

Indeed, Russian control of Ukraine would be a humanitarian disaster and a human rights catastrophe. And the implications for religious freedom in Ukraine would be dire. The US government has classified Russia as one of the worst in the world for religious freedom at home.

If Russia’s military campaign is successful, Moscow would likely not endorse an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, possibly forcing it back into the Russian Orthodox Church family. Russia’s regressive treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and proselytizing groups would likely be imposed on the entire country.

Concerns about the Jewish community in Ukraine also exist. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum sentenced Putin’s “exploitation” of the Holocaust as a pretext for war. “The Museum stands with the people of Ukraine, including the thousands of Holocaust survivors still living in the country,” a statement released Thursday said.

Whatever the outcome, the future is uncertain. Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. War was probably Putin’s only desired outcome. Implications for Ukrainian religious freedom and other human rights are at stake, however.

Knox River Thames is the former Special Envoy for Religious Minorities at the US State Department, who served under the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book about the end of the persecution in the 21st century. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

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