Risky battle for Ukraine's soul ahead of elections - Reuters

12:20, 01 June 2018
Ukraine
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Petro Poroshenko on Facebook

Religious divisions deepened in 2014 after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and subsequent conflict between Ukrainian and Russian proxy forces over the Donbas region in the east, according to Reuters.

Those tensions are back in focus after Ukraine stepped up efforts to create an independent, or "autocephalous," national church, according to Reuters.

President Petro Poroshenko says the move is designed to bring religious and social unity as well as to blunt Russia's influence in Ukraine.

"This question goes far beyond the ecclesiastical. It is about our finally acquiring independence from Moscow," Poroshenko told parliament in April.

The Moscow Patriarchate considers its Ukrainian rival illegitimate, and fiercely opposes Poroshenko's proposal.

The Kyiv branch, which broke away in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, supports it.

Critics of the Moscow Patriarchate call it a fifth column for the Kremlin, used to harbor pro-Russian separatist fighters, store weapons, justify Russian expansionism and spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

The Moscow Patriarchate rejects such accusations. It says it is autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church, and many of its followers feel they are unfairly cast as "stooges" of Moscow.

Archbishop Kliment, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the official name for the Moscow Patriarchate, denied his church was a security threat and said it had done much for peace in the east.

Poroshenko is trailing in the opinion polls. The move for an independent church could boost his ratings and burnish his legacy, though opponents call it a dangerous electoral ploy that will inflame social tensions. Even supporters say it is a risk.

Read alsoPatriarch Filaret says Ukraine Orthodox Church may be granted autocephaly in July

Archbishop Yevstraty, the Kyiv Patriarchate spokesman, said Poroshenko acted with surprising courage in staking his authority on a policy that may not come off.

"For him as a politician it is clear that if the hopes he has sowed in society ... are not realised, it is a big threat," he said.

He is not the first president to push for an autocephalous church. But the quest has gained impetus since he returned from a visit to Istanbul in April, when Poroshenko sought the backing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

A spokesman for the Patriarchate declined to comment.

The move is opposed by the Kremlin, Russian Orthodox Church and some of Poroshenko's political opponents. A campaign is underway to collect signatures asking Bartholomew to block the plan.

That prompted Iryna Friz, an MP in Poroshenko's faction and senior member of the parliamentary security committee, to ask the state security service to investigate the campaign, which she says was initiated by the Moscow Patriarchate church.

Read alsoUkraine's parliament backs appeal to Bartholomew to create independent UOC

Asked about the assertion, Archbishop Kliment said "it is the initiative of the laity."

Patriarch Filaret, the leader of the Kiev Patriarchate church, would be the only obvious choice to head the autocephalous church, according to Archbishop Yevstraty.

That could play well with many Ukrainians, two-thirds of whom are Orthodox believers, according to 2018 research published by the Kyiv-based Razumkov think-tank.

The proportion of those supporting the Kyiv Patriarchate doubled to 29% from 15% between 2010-2018 while support for the Moscow Patriarchate almost halved to 13%.

The Kyiv Patriarchate won followers at its rival's expense after 2014 protests ousted a pro-Russian leader.

Read alsoRFE/RL: Patriarch Filaret says Ukrainian church will never go back to Moscow Patriarchate

It blessed those protesting against President Viktor Yanukovich and gave sanctuary to people injured in clashes with security forces in a makeshift clinic in its St. Michael's monastery in the centre of the capital.

Cases where priests from the Moscow Patriarchate refused to hold funeral services for Ukrainian soldiers who died in the Donbass conflict, or blessed pro-Russian fighters, have raised hackles.

"...there are many examples when they refuse to read the burial service over deceased veterans or people baptized in Kyiv Patriarchate; this all leads to tensions," said Rostyslav Pavlenko, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration.

"Moreover, the veterans recall instances when churches in the east were used as rally point for terrorists," he told Reuters.

Read alsoMoscow Patriarchate desperate to block parishes from leaving

Poroshenko's plan is criticized by the Opposition Bloc, the heir to Yanukovych's defunct Party of Regions, which has its power base in the east.

"When officials interfere with church affairs, expect trouble, expect tension and interconfessional conflicts," leader Yuriy Boyko told Reuters.

Poroshenko's camp denies his plan is for electoral gain, saying work towards it began four years ago.

"We see it as a historical opportunity," said Pavlenko of the Presidential Administration.

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