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Ukrainian Orthodox Church Breaks With Moscow Patriarchate by Hélène de Lauzun

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Ukrainian Orthodox Church Breaks With Moscow Patriarchate

The Orthodox community in Ukraine has been severely shaken since the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in February. 

Ukrainian Orthodox believers are presently divided between three different churches. An independent Orthodox Church has existed since 2014 under the name of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, following the events in Crimea. It was recognised as autocephalous by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019, thus causing a schism between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Alongside it, there is also a breakaway church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, which declared its independence in 2019. A third church is an offshoot of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is said to account for 80% of believers. This Moscow affiliate church decided on Friday, May 27th, to officially break its bounds with Moscow.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Metropolitan Onufriy, who heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, has been eager to show his difference of opinion with the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is accused of being too close to Vladimir Putin. Indeed Kirill welcomed the arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine on February 27th, praising the “fight against dark outside forces” being waged by the Moscow government. A few days later, he praised the fight against “Western depravity.” In response, Onufriy issued a statement condemning the Russian aggression as a “grave sin before God,” comparing it to Cain’s sin against his brother. Patriarch Kirill did not wish to respond to this criticism. 

As the Russian-Ukraine conflict drags on, the position of the Ukrainian church has become increasingly untenable. An emergency meeting of the synodal council in Kyiv on Friday, May 27th, published a document underlining its “disagreement with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia on the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.” The text also reaffirms the “full autonomy and independence” of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate. It will be of some consequence on the composition of the Orthodox community, since Ukrainians are known to practice more than Russians.

Even before the official announcement, about half the 45 dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had already stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill in their prayer services. Yet uncertainty remains on how many parishes and priests will follow the trend.

Despite this distancing from Moscow, no rapprochement with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, which depends on Constantinople, is on the agenda. The spokesman for the Ukrainian Church formerly attached to Moscow also refuses to speak of a definitive ‘break’ with the Russian see.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).