Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Orthodox Rift between Ukraine and Russia

The NYTimes has an article on a potential ecclesiastical rift between the Ukraine and Russia.

The Ukraine and Russia have not been on the best of terms say the least. The Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, claims to have been poisoned by pro-Russian opponents. The Ukrainians also are seeking to eject Russia's navy from their seaport in the Black Sea, and join NATO, Russia's Cold War rivals. Russia, in turn, has threatened to cut off natural gas deliveries, which the Ukraine needs. But now there is a new thing under contention: the Church.

President Yushchenko now seeks to separate the Ukrainians from the Russian Orthodox Church. One should not be surprised at this, since many Church splits in history take place along political lines that take into consideration economic, social, and cultural factors--like the Protestant Reformation, for example. What is more, Orthodoxy since its inception (let's say with the Council of Nicea in the Fourth Century CE) has always been intertwined with state power (the Council was convened by the Roman emperor, Constantine I). Indeed, one might note the differences between Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc.

Note the following staging and politicking:

With Orthodox Church notables from around the world looking on, Mr. Yushchenko asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, to bless the creation of an independent Ukrainian church — “a blessing,” he said on Saturday, “for a dream, for the truth, for a hope, for our state, for Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian president — who claims that pro-Russian opponents tried to kill him with poison that pockmarked his face — also snubbed the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Aleksy II, by giving him a businesslike handshake after warmly kissing Bartholomew on both cheeks.

During three days of solemn religious ceremonies, rock concerts and political brinkmanship in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the power struggle was not resolved. Both sides declared victory, as Bartholomew stopped short of supporting or rejecting the independence movement, saying only that divisions in the church would have “problematic consequences for Ukraine’s future.”

Clearly, Yushchenko is publicly staging his position (details matter!), while Bartholomew is playing wait and see. But what are these "problematic consequences"? Nonetheless, from a different point of view:

For Svetlana Dyomena, a nurse who prayed Tuesday at Yelokhovsky Cathedral in Moscow, the idea of an independent Ukrainian church immediately reminded her of her sadness over an independent Ukraine.

“How can Ukraine not be part of Russia?” she lamented after lighting a candle at the turquoise, golden-domed church, which was Moscow’s main practicing Orthodox cathedral under Soviet rule. “We have a common faith, a common history.”

Ms. Dyomena said it was less painful to see countries like Georgia seek to escape Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“Georgians, well, they were always from the Caucasus,” she said, referring to the restive mountainous region whose people have fought wars against Russian rulers for centuries. But Ukraine and Russia, she said, have “one language, one religion, even one cuisine.”

Ukrainians disagree. Russian was the language of government and education in Ukraine under the Soviet Union and Russian empire, and Ukrainians struggled to maintain their own language. They view the absorption of the Ukrainian state and church into Russia’s institutions under Peter the Great as an annexation that was not reversed until 1991.

“How can you live like neighbors when your neighbor says the house you live in is not your own house, but our common house?” said Bishop Yevstratiy, the spokesman for one of two Ukrainian breakaway churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, which the Moscow Patriarchate has declared heretical.

Establishing an independent church is essential for Ukraine to consolidate its national identity and statehood, and it would probably happen eventually, said Alexey Malashenko, an expert on religion and society at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

I am not so good on my history of that portion of the world. Did Peter the Great annex both the state and the church? Put another way, was the Ukrainian Church originally separate from Moscow? Or is the historical development messier than this? The claims of "heresy" are hardly surprising--such claims usually come from one in power when they see a threat to their power or position. Given the tendency of Orthodox Christianity to fall along political or ethnic lines, indeed, this eventual split is not at all surprising.

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