Moscow (AsiaNews) - As expected, yesterday's referendum in the Crimea confirmed the majority's desire to join the Russian Federation. Although the annexation requires Moscow's formal approval, Crimea's "return" to Russia and Ukraine's domestic crisis are raising concerns among the leaders of the Orthodox Church.
In yesterday's liturgical service, Patriarch Filaret, the 84-year-old head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (pictured), called on the faithful to pray for the region's "liberation from the occupiers," reference to the Russian forces that have been in control of the Crimea for weeks and which many fear might take over the country's eastern regions.
Before the Mass, the patriarch warned of the possible ban of the Kyiv Patriarchate Church in Crimea. "We have information," Filaret said at a press conference, "that after the so-called referendum and the declaration of the Crimea as Russian territory, the Orthodox Eparchy of the Moscow Patriarchate will be placed under the direct control of the Patriarch of Moscow".
In Ukraine, Orthodox Christians are divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (not recognised by other churches and opposed by Moscow), the Ukrainian Orthodox-Moscow Patriarchate (the only one that is recognised and with the largest following) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
If the Ukrainian Church-Moscow Patriarchate is absorbed directly by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, "We expect the Ukrainian Church-Kyiv Patriarchate to be completely banned in the Crimea," said Filaret. The latter has 30 parishes on the peninsula.
As he spoke about the difficult situation faced by many of his followers, the religious leader said that some Ukrainian Orthodox have even been abducted or illegally detained only for expressing their opposition to secession.
Speaking to AsiaNews, sources close to the Moscow Patriarchate share Filaret's fears, but also warn of the danger that the Orthodox Church linked to Moscow Patriarchate could disappear in Kyiv and western Ukraine and that a rift might develop within the Russian Orthodox Church itself.
By contrast, Patriarch Kirill acknowledged that Ukraine has the right to self-determination, but also called for prayers "that brothers of one faith and one blood never bring destruction to one another" and that the former Soviet republic (Ukraine) never separate spiritually from Russia.
In the Russia Federation, Orthodoxy has become central to state policies after decades of persecution under the Soviet regime, but the escalation of tension with Ukraine has brought to the fire certain problems within the Church itself, like its failure to condemn totalitarianism.
For the Washington Post, protests in Independence (Maidan) were "a galvanizing religious awakening," and "apart from being a political and social phenomenon, [. . .] it was also an ecumenical phenomenon". All of Ukraine's churches, including the Catholic Church, were united in defending people and condemning violence.
According to Andrei Zubov, a leading expert in Church-State relations who teaches at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), if war comes, the division between the Churches of Moscow and Kyiv will be inevitable.
Zubov, who almost lost his job in early March for an article in which he compared Putin's moves in the Crimea to Nazi Germany Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in 1938, said, "Putin has started an uncontrollable process".
If relations between Russia and Ukraine continue to deteriorate, he added, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is likely to recognise eventually a Ukrainian Church, and a united Ukrainian Church could redraw the map of Orthodoxy.
With a population of 44.3 million people, 80 per cent of whom are Christian Orthodox, Ukraine is the second largest Orthodox nation in the world after Russia.