United Ukrainian Orthodox Church Movement Gathering Speed

KIEV, Ukraine -- More than a thousand years ago, a Slavic prince ordered his subjects into the Dnieper River that slices through the Ukrainian capital to baptize themselves in his newly adopted faith. Now the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which emerged from that christening, is losing control over its Ukrainian birthplace.

Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret

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.

To lose this predominantly Orthodox nation of 48 million would be a devastating blow for the Russian Orthodox Church, significantly shrinking the size of its flock and its global clout. It could sever one of the oldest links between the two neighbouring 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 Kyiv Patriarchate.

Two breakaway churches who set themselves up after the end of Soviet rule are now talking about unifying. This would create a strong 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 Dnieper, the majestic Vydubytsky Monastery, which commemorates the mass baptism ordered by Volodymyr in 988, is in the hands of the breakaway church.

Russia's political, cultural and religious domination of Ukraine dates back to 1654, when a Ukrainian Cossack leader signed an alliance with Russia, and the church is basically "an avant garde of Russian influence in Ukraine," says Ivan Dzyuba, a religion analyst with Ukraine's National Academy of Science. Critics say the church promoted unity between the two peoples at the expense of Ukrainian identity - particularly during Soviet times.

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

The Moscow and Kyiv churches are the two dominant ones, and differ little in liturgical terms. It's 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 Kyiv-aligned, just Orthodox.

The choice is often more political than spiritual.

"Of course, our links with Russia are very strong," said Nina Venhar, 57, emerging from one of the cool, candlelit churches that make up the Vydubytsky Monastery. "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?"

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 weren't meddling in politics, yet priests and monks from the Moscow Patriarchate regularly marched through Kyiv'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 told The Associated Press in written response to questions.

The Russian Orthodox Church's powerful 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 Kyiv Patriarchate and Autonomous Orthodox Church agreed in May to begin reunification talks. The next move would be winning official recognition from Bartholomew of Constantinople.

In March, Archbishop Vsevolod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States, announced that under canon law, the Moscow Patriarchate has jurisdiction only over territory that it claimed up to the year 1686 - an area that didn't yet include Ukraine.

Vsevolod said he was pronouncing the position of the "Mother Church" in Constantinople. But Alexy fired back that redrawing jurisdictional boundaries could destabilize the entire Orthodox world.

"Such a reconsideration could affect not only Russia but practically every local church and could become the reason for many conflicts," Alexy II said in an interview published on his church's Web site.

Source: CNews