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The Russian-Ukrainian Orthodox Church schism continues to anger Moscow


I'm A Martínez in Kyiv, where, just walking around the city, you'll notice the many places of worship - towering structures next to grand squares all over the place. They are ornate historical places with gilded domes and pastel-painted facades, and many are also symbols of Ukraine's independence from Russia. St. Michael's is one of them. It's one of the most opulent Orthodox churches in the city. And yesterday, I stood outside this church and asked visitors what it means to them.


MARTÍNEZ: Lydia's (ph) from the war-torn east part of Ukraine now controlled by Russian-backed separatists. While she lives in France at the moment, she spent 15 years in Kyiv and comes back often with her children. Her son was baptized at St. Michael's.

LYDIA: And I say that I have two motherlands, the east of Ukraine, Horlivka, and Kyiv. And I can't separate this part of Ukraine I love. For me, it is two motherlands.

MARTÍNEZ: For a long time, Russia dictated how the Orthodox Church operated in Ukraine, in a lot of ways mirroring the country's struggle for independence from the same oppressor. Another visitor, a businessman called Michael (ph), says he comes to church a few times a week and that, for him, it's important that St. Michael's no longer identifies with the Russian Orthodox Church.

MICHAEL: This church is a part of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and I believe that all churches in Ukraine will be a part of Ukrainian Church, not Russian Church. And for me, it's identity of Ukraine. It's unite people in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: When Russia invaded parts of Ukraine's East in 2014, it prompted Ukrainians to publicly cut cultural ties from its former imperial ruler and reinforce a sense of national identity. One of the most acrimonious splits happened in religion. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now independent of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. NPR's Joanna Kakissis joins me now to discuss how this split continues to anger Moscow today. Now, Joanna, for years, Ukrainians were part of the Russian Orthodox Church. What did that mean for Ukrainians?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So for years, the Russian Orthodox Church, which is today still a very powerful church, claimed Ukraine as part of its territory. And that means that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reported to the Russian church. Many clergy in the Ukrainian church were also loyal to Moscow as a result. And that began to change as Ukraine began to grow closer to the West and wanted to break free of Russian influence.

MARTÍNEZ: So how did the pro-European revolution in 2014 affect the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

KAKISSIS: So the church responded by having its own revolution. In 2014, a bunch of parishes around the country rebelled. Parishioners were angry that some of their church leaders did not condemn Vladimir Putin for invading parts of Eastern Ukraine, so they started switching over to the Kyiv Patriarchate. This used to be a domestically run church that supported Ukraine's tilt to the West. And Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church hated this. They strongly criticized the creation of this new independent church.

I spoke to Professor Tymofii Brik. He studies religious life in Ukraine. He told me that the Ukrainian Church's assertion of independence goes against this idea that Putin promotes, that Ukraine and Russia are essentially the same nation.

TYMOFII BRIK: I think Putin believes that by rejecting the Russian Orthodoxy, Ukraine rejects his narrative of unity and happy family with Russia. And, of course, he doesn't like it.

KAKISSIS: So the Ukrainians won this battle. In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine became official. The head of the Orthodox Christian world, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who is based in Istanbul - he granted what's called autocephaly. And autocephaly's a Greek word. It essentially means that the church is self-governed.

MARTÍNEZ: So now are all the Orthodox parishes part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: So, no, actually. Professor Brik told me that about 7,000 parishes around Ukraine are in this autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. But another 12,000 - approximately 12,000 - are in another church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to make it confusing. But for shorthand, people here call it the Moscow Church. This church has retained a relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. There's even been an attempt to force this church, which has ties to Moscow, to change its name to the Russian Orthodox Church, just to make it clear. But courts have ruled against this. Parishes, though, are slowly transferring to the independent Ukrainian Church. Professor Brik told me that about 500 had switched sides from 2018 to 2019. And parishes are still joining the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine today.

MARTÍNEZ: So why is the Orthodox Church important to Ukrainians?

KAKISSIS: So under the Soviet Union, the church that exists - that wasn't destroyed by the Kremlin, but the Kremlin did severely control and regulate it. Professor Brik, the religion expert, he said that though Ukrainians aren't particularly religious, they all go to church on Easter and Christmas. They baptize their kids because, you know, the church is just part of their culture.

BRIK: Ukraine is very similar to other Eastern European and post-communist countries in this respect. In our societies, religion is very much connected to the sense of national identity. So it is very important to think about yourself as an Orthodox if you want to say that you are truly Ukrainian.

KAKISSIS: He says about 60% of Ukrainians are part of this church, identify as Orthodox Christians.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Joanna, it sounds like after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a sense to maybe reclaim an independent sense of religion.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right, A. Professor Brik told me, you know, obviously you don't have to be Orthodox to be truly Ukrainian. There are Catholics and Jews here and atheists, as well. But this split in the Orthodox church underscores that more and more Ukrainians - you know, they don't want to be part of the Russian world. They don't want to attend a church where the Moscow patriarch, who supports the war, is praised and where priests refuse to eulogize fallen Ukrainian soldiers. They see the Russian church as just another means of control by the Kremlin.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis with me in front of St. Michael's golden-domed monastery. Joanna, thanks for coming out with me.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, A. It's beautiful here, and it was a pleasure.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.