The Russian invasion of Ukraine widens spiritual divisions among the Christians of the nations

The Russian invasion of Ukraine widens spiritual divisions among the Christians of the nations

ZVANIVKA, Ukraine – After a solemn Mass at the Church of Transformation, Rev. Marco Fedak retreated to a back room to read the latest news on his iPhone. Artillery rattled the church windows, and uniformed Ukrainian soldiers prayed on carved wooden pews. If the Ukrainian army retreats, Father Fedak said he must go with them.

“I wouldn’t live long among the enemy,” he said.

As Russian forces close in on Father Fedak’s Greek Catholic monastery, a major church escape is taking place in Ukraine. When Russia launched its invasion in February, the ground war was combined with a spiritual one.


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In Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, blessed Russian troops and declared the war in Ukraine a metaphysical conflict between believers in God and a decadent West. That has officials of other denominations fleeing to the western regions of the country to escape the fighting.

Emigrants include Catholics, Protestants and members of Ukraine’s own Orthodox Church. Even some clergy of the Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church, long under Moscow’s perceived control, fled when their leaders in Kyiv denounced war and declared the church’s independence.

The geographic shift underscores a broader spiritual divide that has been underway since President Vladimir Putin first seized Crimea in 2014 and secretly invaded eastern Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church has backed Putin’s geopolitical ambitions by viewing Russia as the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization and therefore entitled to seek control over countries of the former Soviet Union and Russian Empire. Patriarch Kirill has described the war as a necessary struggle, the outcome of which will decide “where mankind will end up, on which side of God the Redeemer”.

Critics of the Russian Church speak of a spiritual land grab.

“For Russians, the religious sphere is important, and wherever they occupy territory, they want to understand who is important there,” said Ruslan Khukarchek, founder of the Ukrainian-language Christian newspaper Cornerstone. Wherever Russian troops arrive, churches have reported visits by Russian security services, who tell them To their activities or halt meetings, he said.

A representative of the Russian Orthodox Church did not respond to a request for comment.

In Mr. Khukarchek’s native city of Berdyansk in the Russian-occupied province of Kherson, most of the pastors of the Protestant churches have left. Most Ukrainians self-identify as Orthodox Christians, but about 20% identify as Catholic, Protestant or non-denominational, according to a 2018 poll by the Razumkov Center in Kyiv.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine widens spiritual divisions among the

The shell of a church in the besieged city of Mariupol, April.


“There is no place for us in the Russian world,” said Bishop Sergius Horobtsov of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, most of which were overrun by Russian forces. Bishop Horobtsov resigned from office in March in the besieged city of Mariupol before it fell, and slipped through Russian roadblocks by disguising himself as a musician, he said.

Within Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church has helped Mr Putin consolidate his power by glorifying his rule. He, in turn, has supported the church by crowding out its competitors. In 2016, Mr Putin signed a sweeping anti-terrorism law that effectively restricted the missionary activities of Protestant and non-Orthodox Christians, many of whom the Kremlin views as cults or tools of Western governments.

Since the February invasion, Moscow has taken steps to establish a similar regime in Ukraine but has faced headwinds due to Ukraine’s complex religious makeup, Mr Khukarchek said.

Some of the non-Orthodox groups have a history of resistance to Russian authority. Catholics are mainly concentrated in western Ukraine, according to the Razumkov polls, where the Soviets crushed an uprising and banned the Greek Catholic Church in the early 1950s. Mr Khukarchek said some of the largest Protestant and non-denominational churches, which Moscow sees as sympathetic to the West, arose in areas that were traditionally most secular during the Soviet Union – near the border with Russia.

Mr Putin has mentioned a shared Orthodox faith as a justification for his invasion of Ukraine, a country he has described as being glued together by leaders of the former Soviet Union. Now, to unite fractured countries, the Kremlin has referred to the concept of Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”), a term dating back to the 11th century and referring to the East Slavic countries that make up much of present-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine comprised . Mr Putin invoked the term in 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea, which he said reflected the “aspiration of the Russian world, historical Russia, to restore unity.”

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Ukrainian soldiers rest on a roadside in Luhansk province in June. Some clergymen who remain in the eastern areas of Ukraine are now serving as army chaplains.

Photo: Emanuele Satolli for The Wall Street Journal

But in Ukraine, orthodoxy alone has been a weak glue, even among orthodox believers. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church traces its roots back to the earliest Christian church founded by the apostles. But unlike the Rome-based Catholic Church, from which it split in 1054, the Orthodox Church is divided into autonomous branches.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Orthodox believers in Ukraine have belonged to a Russian-run Orthodox Church, but the country also has an independent Kyiv-run Orthodox Church that holds services in the Ukrainian language and seeks recognition from the rest orthodox churches in the world.

Before the conquest of Crimea, the proportion of Orthodox believers in Ukraine was split evenly between the Moscow- and Kyiv-run churches, said Andrey Shirin, associate professor of theology at the John Leland Center, a Baptist seminary in Virginia.

Moscow’s conquest of Crimea dealt a blow to the influence of the Russian-led Orthodox Church, driving believers into the Kyiv-led Church. In 2019, the spiritual head of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, bestowed on Ukraine its own autonomous church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This led to a schism within the Eastern Orthodox world. Various national churches have sided with Moscow or Constantinople. Patriarch Kirill has suspended communion with Patriarch Bartholomew, saying he is helping “to make Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine mentally enemies of Russia”. Mr Putin accused Patriarch Bartholomew of doing Washington’s bidding.

Various national churches have sided with Moscow or Constantinople. Patriarch Kirill has suspended communion with Patriarch Bartholomew, saying he is helping “to make Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine mentally enemies of Russia”. Mr Putin accused Patriarch Bartholomew of doing Washington’s bidding.

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Earlier this year, after the invasion of Moscow, the Russian-led Orthodox Church in Ukraine declared itself fully independent from the Moscow hierarchy and stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill in its regular prayers.

“The more Ukrainian territory Putin seizes, the less influence he has over the rest of Ukraine,” said Mr Shirin, who described the Russian invasion as a disaster for the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Mariupol, Bishop Horobtsov said his diocesan offices of the Kyiv-run church were hit by a rocket shortly after he left the city, leveling the building and other buildings within a 100-metre radius.

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Father Marco Fedak, outside a village monastery about 10 miles from the front lines of the war, says he’s keeping an eye on whether fighting is drawing closer.

Photo: Emanuele Satolli for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Horobtsov has headed to the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, some 200 miles northwest of Mariupol, where he helped set up a refugee aid center and transported medical supplies to Ukrainian troops at the front. Priests who used to lead services in his churches in the now-occupied Donbass are now serving as chaplains in the Ukrainian army, he said.

The Catholic monastery in Zvanivka has also been put into a state of war. The village, which Ukraine’s military says is on the way to Russia’s next planned offensive and was destroyed by artillery fire, is a symbol of Ukraine’s long struggle with Moscow.

Most of Zvanivka’s 1,500 residents are descended from Ukrainians who hailed from the west of the country and were exiled near the Russian border in the early 1950s when Moscow crushed an uprising against Soviet authority. By sending them hundreds of kilometers from their homes to a predominantly Russian-speaking region, Moscow intended to assimilate them into Soviet society, said Svanivka Mayor Sophia Maksimenko.

Initially, Catholic and Orthodox residents were suspicious of each other and rarely socialized, she said. But soon families from different churches intermarried and differences were forgotten, she said.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, residents established a Greek Catholic Church, which later expanded into a monastery. Shortly after the invasion began, almost all residents, both Catholics and Orthodox, fled to Ukraine’s western regions, she said.

Stray artillery shells have destroyed some cottages and shattered the windows of others. Father Fedak’s congregation has dwindled to a handful of parishioners, but lately attendance by soldiers at Mass has swelled. He said he checks maps on his phone several times a day to see if the front line – usually less than 10 miles away – has moved much.

When the soldiers leave, “there will be no one left to serve,” he said.

write to Alan Cullison at [email protected]

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