Politics behind the Kyiv-Moscow religious clashes involving Constantinople

On November 16, 2017 Patriarch Filaret (Denisenko) of Kyiv and all Rus-Ukraine wrote a letter of reconciliation and communion to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). But two weeks later he denied any apologies or formal unity with the ROC. So why then did he write that ambiguous letter?


On November 30, 2017, the whole Orthodox World was shocked by media reports about a letter of the unrecognized Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) Patriarch Filaret (Denisenko) to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Bishops’ Council. This former Metropolitan of Kyiv left the ROC after he lost the election of its Primate. In the document of November 16, 2017 he claimed his will “to end the divisions and dissensions among Orthodox Christians, to restore communion in the Eucharist and in prayer, as befits the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”. “For the sake of achieving the God-commanded peace between coreligionist Orthodox Christians and the reconciliation between nations” Patriarch Filaret called the Council to “nullify” the anathema imposed on him in 1997. The letter concluded with words of mutual forgiveness: “as your brother and concelebrant, ask forgiveness for all that I have done in word, in deed, and through all my senses, and likewise sincerely from my heart I forgive you”.

Having considered the appeal, the ROC hierarchs didn’t find it possible to ignore the words of caring for the Orthodox Christian Church’s good. Council members immediately established a special commission to negotiate with UOC-KP on how to restore the canonical order in Ukraine and how to address the related technical issues.

However, once Moscow started to implement preliminary agreements and the media got suspicious about possible confidential talks behind it, the UOC-KP suddenly reversed its course. Instead of making another step towards the dialog they made two steps back. At the pressconference on December 2, Filaret (Denisenko) announced that his appeal to the ROC Primate’s Council had been misunderstood. The UOC-KP’s Primate stated that in his letter he hadn’t intended to deliver apologies for anything or seek any formal unity with the ROC. He said the letter had been written to give Moscow an opportunity to correct its mistake and lift “unjust” prohibitions that prevent the ROC from recognizing autocephaly to which the UOC-KP is “rightfully” entitled. In its turn, the Synod of the Kyivan Patriarchate decreed to “agree to negotiate with the ROC”, but didn’t establish any corresponding commission for that.

It’s just amazing why on Earth the Russians believed that Patriarch Filaret repented for his schism! I mean Filaret himself had repeatedly declared that he wouldn’t submit himself under any other patriarch – neither of Moscow nor of Constantinople. Moreover, while dealing with Constantinople, UOC-KP leadership has already shown its inability to fulfill agreements and maintain confidentiality. Now Moscow has learnt it the hard way.

Supporters of Filaret have been covertly seeking assistance at the Fanar for decades, addressing it as their Mother-Church. In 2016, Ukrainian authorities adopted and submitted appeals to the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and waited for a response (or at least a hint of it) for almost half a year. And when all these efforts proved to be in vain they made an instant U-turn. Ever since Ukrainians accuse the Ecumenical Patriarchate of “spiritual wandering“, «Byzantine art of “palaver“», intriguery and Greek chauvinism. In contrast to the Fanariots, the ROC not only received delegates of the UOC-KP but almost welcomed them all with honours. Representatives of the Kyivan Patriarchate were accommodated in the 5-star hotel Metropol, had a peaceful conversation and were presented with valuable books.

Besides, Bishops’ Council in Moscow demonstrated its openness and readiness to talk by establishing a commission to further negotiate with Patriarch Filaret after his former letter. According to the comments from the UOC-KP’s clergy, the whole process took just about a month from the first unofficial meeting to the creation of the commission by the ROC. Nevertheless the matter remained stalemated due to Kyivan Patriarch’s backtrack later. Why then did he write that ambiguous letter?

The question of UOC-KP’s motives is indeed complicated. One could suggest, there are some actors in the UOC-KP that strive for improvent of the relations with the canonical Orthodox Christian Churches, but attempts to bring Filaret to the negotiation table were blocked by those interested in alienation of the contestant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP, self-ruling entity under the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate). This provokes tensions between different groups and movements within the UOC-KP that fight for influence and opportunities to enthrone their own candidates on the Kyivan See at the right moment. If this is true then the UOC-KP is likely to split further and further.

The Patriarch Filaret’s appeal to Moscow might be also driven by the intention to make the Fanar jealous and thus prompt it to take more specific actions. But we remember that according to the statements of the UOC-KP’s hierarchs their Church is de facto autocephalous and they don’t care if this status is formally recognized by other Patriarchates. Thus we can suppose that it is Ukrainian politicians who might be eager to simulate the start of the negotiations with Moscow. Yet, it’s unlikely that their inelaboate maneuvers will meet their goal. Patriarch Bartholomew is well aware of the complexity of the situation in Ukraine and takes into account all possible risks.

Moreover, his wisdom and deep situational vision are proved by the unofficial discussion of the appeal of the Ukrainian parliamentarians to the Ecumenical Patriarch on the sidelines of the Holy and Great Council in Crete. As the majority of hierarchs in attendance expected back in June 2016, His All-Holiness obviously distanced himself from Ukrainian issue.

However, one cannot rule out that the real mission and the raison d’etre of the Kyivan Patriarchate is to maintain the present instability which weakens the UOC-MP and gives benefits for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. The Uniates are interested in promoting other Orthodox Christian denominations in Ukraine. For example, most of the Ukrainian parliamentarians who initiated the letter to the Patriarch Bartholomew are Greek Catholics. And even some clerics of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church prove that gathering all Ukrainian Orthodox believers under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch is a first step to bringing them under the authority of the Pope. Besides, the situation between patriarchates of Moscow and Conastantinople is one more trouble-issue in the context of the Russian –Turkish relations. This is exactly the objective of the Washington’s foreign policy in the region. And the White House is by the way one of the crucial partners of the present Ukrainian Administration.

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