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January 5, 2019, marked the beginning of a new era for religion in Ukraine. The newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) received a Tomos, or decree of autocephaly, from the Patriarch of Constantinople. This was a significant step forward in the formal legitimization of a fully independent national church in Ukraine.

“What makes the Tomos monumental is not just the religious and canonical part, but the wider geopolitical implication for Ukraine’s national security, for Russian foreign policy, and for Europe as a whole,” said Tornike Metreveli, an International Postdoctoral Fellow at University of St. Gallen who studies religion in Ukraine.

Poroshenko and Bartholomew by Tolga Bozoglu

Previously, the worldwide Orthodox community considered only one Orthodox body in Ukraine to be fully, canonically legitimate: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). This church, while autonomous and able to make decisions within its own jurisdiction, is a part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Its top clerics are appointed by the Patriarch of the ROC, and the ROC is considered its “mother church.”

Ukraine had two additional Orthodox branches: the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Both had broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church but were viewed as schismatic by the worldwide Orthodox community.

Leading up to the January Tomos, the UAOC and the UOC-KP agreed to merge as part of the effort to create a unified, independent Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Ukrainian political leadership initiated this effort, and the Patriarch of Constantinople also approved of the request for autocephaly.

In Orthodox Christianity, there is no equivalent of a Pope, who is the authoritative leader of the Catholic Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople, also called the Ecumenical Patriarch, is considered “first among equals.” Therefore, in some cases, the Ecumenical Patriarch has a special leadership role among the Orthodox churches.

“As of today, there has been the practice of two models of granting autocephaly: either through the Patriarch of Constantinople or through the mother church,” said Metreveli. “Both the ROC and Constantinople regard Ukraine as its canonical territory.”

For this reason, the ROC contests Constantinople’s authority to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and other Orthodox churches worldwide can choose whether to recognize the OCU as legitimate or not.

“There are in total 14 autocephalous churches that are recognized by all the other churches,” Metreveli said. “There are two more churches – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Orthodox Church of America - that are recognized at least by some members.”

On January 2, other Orthodox Churches around the world had already diverged in their response to the OCU.

"Its traditional allies have already sided with Moscow," Ilias Kouskouvelis, a professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in northern Greece, told National Catholic Reporter. "Allies like Serbia, Bulgaria and, naturally, the Patriarchate of Antioch, due to its proximity with Syria and Russia's relationship with the Assad regime. Those who haven't spoken up, like the Greek church, are siding with the Ecumenical Patriarch."

Since the establishment of the OCU and the January Tomos, parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate have had to decide whether to join the OCU or remain part of the ROC. This process is ongoing, and the decision to switch to the OCU is followed by logistical questions.

HURI’s MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine team mapped the initial wave of transitions over time. They plan to add more data to the map in the time to come, which is just one part of a forthcoming Religion module in the digital atlas.

MAPA depiction of church transitions

On March 11, HURI hosted Tornike Metreveli for a Seminar in Ukrainian Studies focused on religion in Ukraine, co-sponsored by the Davis Center. The talk, which is available on YouTube, examined the way Orthodox churches engage with national identity and the geopolitical implications of the UOC’s autocephaly.

Metreveli answered a few questions to shed more light on the religious scene in Ukraine.

HURI: For those who might be completely unfamiliar with the Orthodox Church, could you explain its general structure and the difference in “classification” for Churches? (ie. autocephalous, autonomous, etc)?

Metreveli: Unlike the Catholic (Latin) Christian churches, which have a central authority - the Pope - the Orthodox branch of Christianity does not recognize the supremacy of the Pope and has no central figure to report to. Because the organizational structure of Orthodox Christianity is so decentralized, there are a number of classifications and sub-hierarchies of churches. Here, I will only focus on the distinction between autocephalous and autonomous churches, as in Ukraine’s context they are the most important ones.

Autocephalous churches have the right to resolve internal issues independently and appoint their own bishops or elect a patriarch. Conversely, the highest-ranking bishops (often referred to as metropolitans or archbishops) of autonomous churches are appointed by the mother church (or a patron church, if one likes to use political science terminology). In Ukraine’s case, prior to the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in December 2018, the bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was appointed by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which considers Ukraine its canonical territory.

HURI: What is the extent of the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople? In other words, why does it matter what he says vis a vis the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church in Ukraine?

Metreveli: The rank of the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, is what Orthodox churches refer to as primus inter pares meaning the first among equals. The Patriarch of Constantinople is considered the successor of Andrew the Apostle. However, beyond the symbolic part, the Ecumenical Patriarch does not possess legal power over other autocephalous churches. Then, of course, as you rightly asked, why does it matter what the Ecumenical Patriarch says?

A partial answer to this question is a peculiar process of granting autocephaly. There is no consensus (largely between the ROC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate) on this question either. As of today, there has been the practice of two models of granting autocephaly: either through the Patriarch of Constantinople or through the mother church.

Both the ROC and Constantinople regard Ukraine as its canonical territory. This leads to an everlasting (and rather counterproductive) historical debate on who has the right to grant Tomos between the two.

HURI: Could you briefly outline the main Orthodox bodies in Ukraine, prior to the recent changes. What percentage of Orthodox believers belonged to each? Was there a noticeable geographic distribution?

Metreveli: There were three major Orthodox bodies in Ukraine prior to the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (an autonomous church with metropolitans appointed by the ROC), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church.

According to data from Department of Religious Affairs (in early January 2018), UOC-MP had 12,348 parishes, UOC-KP – 5,167, and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) – 1,167.

The Razumkov Center’s poll showed that to the question “which Orthodox Church do you belong to?” 42.6% (of those who consider themselves Orthodox) identified with Kyiv Patriarchate as opposed to 19.1% of Moscow Patriarchate. This was the highest percentage for UOC-KP in the last two decades of polling. UAOC scored lowest - 0.4%.


The same poll showed that 64.1% (of those who identify as Orthodox) in Western Ukraine considered themselves followers of UOC-KP as opposed to 15.2% who follow the UOC-MP. In Central Ukraine - 48.2% for UOC-KP as opposed to 17.7% UOC-MP.

It is important to note that 31.8% in Central Ukraine and 16.6% in Western Ukraine identified as “just Orthodox.”

The category of “just Orthodox” had the share of 46% of the Orthodox population in Southern Ukraine, whereas 36% were for UOC-KP and 14.7% for UOC-MP.

Lastly, a similar pattern emerged in Eastern Ukraine which had 45.2% “just Orthodox” as opposed to 24.3% for UOC-KP and 25.3% for UOC-MP.

If one compares 2018 result to previous years, for example, from 2000 to 2018 UOC-KP reached its highest support and showed a steady increase as opposed to a relative decline of UOC-MP over the last decade (which declined from 34.5 in 2010 to 19.1 in 2018). Yet, one might take survey results with a grain of salt as surveys show that often people mix concepts of belonging and identification, or at times do not even know which church they often go to.

Putin and Kirill by Associated PressHURI: How much influence did the ROC exercise over the UOC-MP? What about the Russian state?

Metreveli: It is hard to quantify exactly the influence of the ROC over the UOC-MP. Firstly, we have to consider that the UOC-MP is a large organization with a number of divergent opinions. The sheer fact that over a dozen UOC-MP clerics joined the newly formed OCU is a vivid illustration that UOC-MP is not ideologically homogenous. However, ROC’s influence fluctuated depending on who was in charge of church and state, as well as what the state policy was towards Russia.

After the EuroMaidan, the ROC has emerged as a symbolic legitimator of the Crimean annexation and has become an integral part of Russia’s national security agenda in Ukraine. Despite the fact that ROC did not make any loud official statements in defiance of Ukrainian statehood, its clerics still blessed new bridges and symbols in Crimea after annexation.

ROC and Russian state acted in true ‘symphony’ in response to Ukrainian autocephaly. Just to take a recent example, the future of Ukrainian autocephaly was on the Russian Federal Security Council meeting in October 2018. This council was headed by President Putin and attended by Prime Minister Medvedev, the head of the FSB (Russian intelligence), and the head of the Counter-Intelligence Department, as well as Ministers of Defence, Internal and Foreign Affairs. Ukrainian autocephaly is a central issue for the Russian state as it challenges Russkii Mir (Russian World) not just as an idea or ideology but also as a project.

HURI: What led up to the events of Fall/ Winter 2018? What exactly happened, and why was the January Tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarch important?

Metreveli: One might only speculate what exactly was a decisive factor for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to make this move now, given that the appeals of presidents before Petro Poroshenko failed. I think we cannot ignore the international political context. I am talking, of course, about the annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. Another factor was the domestic political consensus. Parliament supported President Poroshenko’s initiative to address the Ecumenical Patriarch with this request. Polls also demonstrate a steady increase in support of UOC-KP. The Ecumenical Patriarch probably considered these factors. One must also consider inter-church competition for status and prestige in the Orthodox world. Perhaps Patriarch Bartholomew just wanted to show Patriarch Kirill who is the first among equals.

religion maidanIn my forthcoming book, I show how important the way local priests responded to the tragedies of war was in the making of pro-autocephaly discourse and interconfessional change. Often the role of local priests is underestimated in the macro-sociological discussion of church-state relations but results from my own fieldwork (conducted in eight regions of Ukraine and approximately one hundred interviews and meetings in various villages throughout 2018) showed that often micro-sociological contexts generated macro-sociological outcomes.

For example, if priests gave religious services to the fallen soldiers in the frontline, there was no protest on behalf of population with requests to change the priest or canonical territory. If the UOC-MP priest did not mention Patriarch Kirill during service or prayed for the victims of war and ‘heavenly hundred,’ people were similarly less resistant and less willing to change denomination. How priests adapted those strategies of outreach with communities is another fascinating topic which I also study.

As far as the significance of the Tomos, if we look again at the stakes involved for all actors – the Ukrainian state and its political establishment who actively campaigned for autocephaly, as well as the Russian state and its clerical and national security departments who did the opposite - autocephaly is a litmus test. If ethno-religious nationalism prevails and interconfessional relations intensify to the point of violence, Ukraine will face a daunting challenge of stopping a new religious front. If, however, Ukraine’s secular and sacred establishments stand in defence of the country’s unique secular identity, Ukraine will set a sui generis precedent for religious diversity and tolerance in entire Orthodox Christian world.

HURI: Who makes the choice to change the parish from belonging to the UOC-MP to the OCU? What is the process like?

Metreveli: Ukraine’s legal system is one of the most liberal in Europe when it comes to freedom of religion. The process is decentralized on the village-to-village level; however, a general pattern for an interdenominational change has been the following:

The community must gather two-third majority vote of the religious community members. Each religious community decides on rules of membership individually. There is no one-fits-all model of membership. In regulatory documents of some religious communities, it is a two-thirds majority rule. In other words, if two-thirds of those present at the community member meeting vote in favor, the transfer to another jurisdiction can happen. The remaining part has the right to create a new community, jointly use the temple or divide movable and immovable property. Yet again this procedure applies with a number of nuances written in regulatory documents of communities.

Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine's Crimean region March 1. (CNS/Reuters/Baz Ratner)HURI: Why are parishes choosing one way or the other?

Very often people switch because of the behavior and persona of the priest. The bigger question is: If the Moscow Patriarchate is perceived to be serving the interests of the Russian state, as Ukrainian political elites assert, then why do interconfessional changes constitute less than 5% of the religious population of UOC-MP (out of 12,348, roughly 450 communities at the time of this interview)? In other words, why doesn’t the majority change to the new church? Some argue it is a matter of time. The result of the elections will be vital as to whether and to what extent the pro-autocephaly discourse will be maintained.

HURI: You gave a Seminar in Ukrainian Studies on March 11, “Geopolitics of Interconfessional Relations in Contemporary Ukraine.” Briefly, what did this talk cover?

Metreveli: I looked at operational tactics of Orthodox churches in Ukraine and the wider geopolitical significance of religion in post-revolutionary transition. What motivates churches to engage in national identity politics?

Based on an ethnographic mixture of participant observation and anthropology of public policy, I examined the significance of Ukrainian autocephaly through the grassroots operationalization of the concept of Russkii Mir (Russian World) and ‘Unified State, United Church’ discourse advocated by the Ukrainian leadership. What do those discourses mean to the Orthodox Christian communities of Ukraine that took part in the interconfessional changes? How is Russkii Mir practiced in daily life, as opposed to the conflicting ‘Unified State, United Church’ discourse? How do the two churches frame the narratives of the categories of practice (e.g. belonging, statehood, identity), and later critically reflect on how those categories of practice are negotiated and modified through a process of interpretation, interaction with the state, and interconfessional competition on a grassroots level?

HURI: How did you become interested in this topic?

Metreveli: I have been interested in topics of religion, nationalism and church-state relations for the past 10 years. In fact, the very idea of this research project was born through conversations at Davis Center and HURI’s MAPA project during my fellowship at Harvard. I am thankful to Professor Serhii Plokhii and Dr. Lubomyr Hajda, who gave me excellent guidance at the early stage of my research, and to Dr. Alex Matovski and Dr. Viktoriya Sereda for stimulating discussions on the theme. My interest in Ukraine intensified in St. Gallen where I work with the wonderful team of Prof. Ulrich Schmid that, by the way, contributed exceptional data to MAPA project.

MAPA Religion with PopupHURI: Speaking of MAPA, the team created an interactive map showing the parishes that have transitioned to the newly created OCU. They’re working on a more extensive Religion module that will allow researchers to map data about Ukrainians’ religious identity and practice. How are tools like these useful for those seeking to understand the religion scene in Ukraine? What do you find most valuable and unique about the MAPA project?

Metreveli: MAPA is HURI’s monumental contribution not only to area studies research but also to humanities and social sciences. It gives an innovative interdisciplinary picture of Ukraine. Its new Religion module is a unique collaborative effort between the Ukrainian Catholic University (represented by the RISU), the University of St. Gallen and HURI. It is useful because of its cross-disciplinary approach to data collection and visualization. The new module combines a temporal analysis of the transfer of UOC-MP to the OCU, statistical information about the number of different religious organizations, and larger macro-sociological survey data examining Ukraine’s religious landscape and peoples’ attitudes toward its state-church relationship.

For a number of reasons, data verification is often a problem for social scientists studying former Soviet republics. With MAPA, there is confidence behind those visualizations and numbers because of its sophisticated data triangulation techniques. In my own work, I find MAPA useful for analyzing the meaning-making processes as well as problematizing causal relationships between religious behavior and political change.

Tornike MetreveliTornike Metreveli is an International Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St. Gallen. He received his doctorate in sociology (magna cum laude) from the University of Bern (2017) where he was a Swiss Government’s Excellence Scholarship holder, studying under the supervision of Professor Christian Joppke. Before joining the University of St Gallen, Tornike was a research fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, London School of Economics (LSE) and House of Commons (UK Parliament). Tornike Metreveli is a student of nationalism (MSc in Nationalism Studies from the University of Edinburgh) with research interests in the intersection of nationalism and religion in the geographical spaces of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. His current postdoctoral project at the University of St. Gallen brings original insight into the organizational ecology of Orthodox churches, their operational tactics and geopolitical assertions in Ukraine.