Happy Christmas, Ukraine

On 7 January, Ukrainians celebrated a double-holiday: Orthodox Christmas and the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox church

Last Christmas witnessed the biggest change in Ukrainian cultural life since the fall of the Soviet Union. On 6 January – Christmas eve in the Orthodox world, which uses the Julian calendar – the country’s church completed the lengthy, carefully managed process of gaining independence, or autocephaly. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Orthodox communion, signed key documents in Istanbul, clearing the way for translations to appear in public view in Kyiv on Christmas day. The move occurred despite intense Russian hostility and potentially the greatest upheaval in Christianity for hundreds of years.

The Tomos, Bartholomew’s decree granting independence, recognises “a canonical, autocephalous, self-governing Orthodox Church within the limits of the politically formed territory of Ukraine”, including Russian-occupied Crimea and war-torn Donbas. The transfer of the document to Ukraine followed the Unity Sobor held in Kyiv on 15 December 2018. The Sobor took place without disruption or delay, and in the presence of representatives of all three branches of local Orthodoxy. It successfully established a new entity called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a formulation that excludes the word “Ukrainian” to avoid any suggestion that the organisation is only for ethnic Ukrainians.

Patriarch Filaret, the controversial and triumphalist head of the erstwhile Kyiv Patriarchate, did not stand for the election as head of the new church. But he manoeuvred to ensure the election of his protégé Epifaniy, who received the title of Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine. This title used to belong to Patriarch Onufriy, head of the Moscow Patriarchate, which does not recognise the new church. While the Moscow Patriarchate uses Russian and Church Slavonic, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine seems likely to use Ukrainian as its main language – although it is still discussing the question.

There is almost certain to be further conflict over the status of Ukraine’s new church

On 18 December, the head of Ukraine’s other main church, the Greek Catholic Church – which is in communion with the Holy See but uses the Orthodox liturgy – sent an encouraging letter to the new church. The letter warmly entreated the organisation “to begin our path to unity, to the truth”, hinting at broader religious unity within Ukraine.

But the Unity Sobor was only a qualified success. Forty-two bishops from the Kyivan Patriarchate attended the event, along with twelve from the former Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Both organisations announced they would dissolve to join the new church. However, although ten of the Moscow Patriarchate’s 90 bishops signed the unity appeal, only two showed up at the event (prompting the patriarchate to denounce them). Although pressure from Russia doubtlessly persuaded the others not to attend, the behaviour of Filaret’s faction – which has treated the new church as an expanded version of the Kyivan Patriarchate – may have also discouraged them.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine hopes to expand from the bottom up, with various parishes voluntarily joining it from the Moscow Patriarchate now that it has established its canonical status. To encourage this, the Ukrainian parliament decreed on 21 December 2018 that the Moscow Patriarchate is no longer permitted to call itself the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and must use the word “Russian” in its title.

The sides continue to question each other’s legitimacy using emotionally charged historical references. The language of the dispute centres on the status quo ante – ante 1439, that is. The Ecumenical Patriarch sent a letter to Onufriy suggesting that Russia is schismatic. The country, he said, “unilaterally cut itself off from canonical authority, i.e. the Holy Great Church of Christ (1448) [when Russia unilaterally elected its own primate, before the fall of Constantinople in 1453], but other metropolitans in the city of Kyiv, being lawful and canonical, were consistently and tirelessly subordinate to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the Kyiv clergy and laity did not accept their subordination to the centre from Muscovy”. He continued: “in 1685, the Moscow patriarch personally appointed the Metropolitan of Kyiv – which Constantinople had previously done – thus violating the canons.”

The Moscow Patriarchate replied that “the Russian Orthodox Church forcefully declared its autocephaly because of the betrayal by the Patriarchate of Constantinople of the Orthodox faith and signing the Union with Rome at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. The Kyiv Metropolia, being weakened by a religious confrontation with the Uniates [Greek Catholics], devastated by wars, especially after the Union of Brest in 1596, in order to preserve the Orthodox faith, became a part of the Russian Orthodox Church at the end of the seventeenth century.”

Thus, there is almost certain to be further conflict over the status of Ukraine’s new church. With Russia set to lose some of the ground it now bitterly defends, there is no clear sign of how President Vladimir Putin will react. But he has cited the unity of the “all-Russian” church – joining Russians and Ukrainians, and reabsorbing the Russian Church Abroad, which spilt away after 1917 – as one of his proudest achievements. Kyiv believed it had to seize independence while the opportunity was there. And it will work hard to stress the uniquely Ukrainian, Kyivan, and “more European” nature of the new church. To this end, the organisation has gifted Kyiv’s church of St Andrew – named for the apostle said to have visited the city in 55 AD – to the Ecumenical Patriarch. Moreover, Epifaniy has left open the possibility of moving Christmas to 25 December, “when the majority of Ukrainians are willing to celebrate Christmas according to the new style”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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