'Broken promises': Is Ukrainian criticism of the Ecumenical Patriarchate fair?

In July 2018, Kyiv witnessed the celebrations of the 1,030th anniversary of Kievan Rus Christianization. Two of the largest Ukrainian Orthodox confessions – the Ukrainian Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC KP) and the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) –  traditionally hold separate sacred processions on different days.

The two branches of the church compete for influence in the eastern European country of around 42 million.

The state-backed UOC KP’s procession was attended by President Petro Poroshenko, a vast number of government officials, and delegates from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Kyiv had assumed that the latter would bring the Tomos of Autocephaly (independence) for the Ukrainian Church, but this did not happen. In his long speech, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France did not hint at a date for granting the Tomos of Autocephaly.

In April, President Poroshenko met Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at his residence in the Phanar quarter (Istanbul). It was revealed later that  one of the main topics discussed was the bestowal of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. At the moment, the church situation in Ukraine is complicated. The country faces a fierce conflict between the UOC KP and UOC MP. The former broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s, during the emergence of the independent Ukrainian state. However, it is not recognized by any of the local Orthodox Churches.

Poroshenko is said to be setting up the new Autocephalous Church with this religious organization as its cornerstone. Obviously, the “hostile” UOC MP won’t be included in the Single Local Church and will witness even higher pressure than now, when its property is seized or desecrated by pro-government radical nationalists.

Nevertheless, for Kyiv and personally for Poroshenko, the autocephaly project really matters. During the upcoming 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, the Tomos (if granted by Constantinople) should become one of the aces up his sleeve in the election race.

Since April this year, Poroshenko has claimed that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would likely become autocephalous on July 28, at the 1,030th anniversary celebrations. Many Ukrainians believed this, and when the Tomos wasn’t granted, they lashed out at the government, Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

For example, the author of one of critical articles, expressing his indignation, not just accuses Constantinople of undermining the process of autocephaly bestowal, but suggests that it should be proclaimed unilaterally, without the Phanar’s consent. Moreover, he blames Patriarch Bartholomew for his ties with Roman Catholics and inability to make firm decisions.

Besides that, the Ukrainians fear that the Phanar is concerned only with the matters of property. In particular, another critical article even provides a list of churches, buildings and territories which can possibly come into Constantinople’s possession. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s representatives will need a place to live and hold divine service in. No one really wishes to see confiscation of the properties of Ukrainian Churches and handing the same to the “Greek intruders”.

Of course, not all Ukrainian media outlets criticize the Phanar, but harsh statements like the above-mentioned are not rare either. Ukrainians seem to have been hurt by the broken promise. But the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Patriarch Bartholomew did not promise Ukrainian people that the Tomos would be bestowed on a certain date.

Phanar clearly understands that in the current scenario (of conflicts between the faithful in Ukraine), autocephaly can be only granted  after finding a solution for the division. The whole thing could easily come to naught.

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