Could St. Sophia’s Cathedral in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv be a Russian military target? Rumors of a possible attack on the 11th-century cathedral, which has long been turned into a museum, have deepened the despair of an already sorely tried Ukrainian population.
Yet the anticipated attack has made clear what Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, told journalists on Feb. 8, two weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion: that “in Ukraine, there is no religious war.”
St. Sophia’s Cathedral is rarely used these days for liturgical functions. But it is considered home by both Orthodox Christians and Catholics in Ukraine. This is because the first foundations were laid in 1037, when the cathedral was commissioned by Yaroslav the Wise, ruler of the principality of Kyiv.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral has a symbolic significance for Kyiv’s residents, who believe that the city will stand as long as the cathedral remains.
After the 1917 revolution, the Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and it was saved only thanks to the efforts of many scientists and historians. In 1934, the Soviets confiscated it and made it into a museum.
After Ukrainian independence in 1991, the building was claimed by all the Orthodox groupings in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It was there that Metropolitan Epiphanius, leader of the newly formed Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, celebrated the beginning of his ministry on Feb. 3, 2019.
Ukraine has long been a terrain of ecumenical conflict. The country’s 44 million people are predominantly Orthodox. But there is no single Orthodox Church to which they belong. There is also a significant Catholic minority.
The Orthodox Church comprises various national realities linked to the territory, all equal in dignity. But the Patriarchate of Constantinople exercised a sort of “primacy,” derived from its leading role in the succession of the Orthodox Churches, to follow up on a Ukrainian request for a recognized national Church. The proposal was made by the then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
In 2019, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), withdrawing the decree of the same patriarchate that assigned Ukrainian territory to the Patriarchate of Moscow.
For the Moscow Patriarchate, this was tantamount to an act of war, which led to the rupture of relations with Constantinople. The patriarchate also withdrew from the ecumenical tables co-chaired by Constantinople, saying that the decision was, in practice, an invasion of canonical territory.
But in addition to the Moscow Patriarchate, there were two other Orthodox realities in Ukraine: the Russian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which later joined the OCU, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which, despite its name, is independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, although it feels entirely like a Russian Church.
The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, therefore, is highly complex — and it contains no shortage of tensions.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on the other hand, had to be rebuilt after being practically eradicated with the so-called pseudo-synod of Lviv in 1946.
In the diaspora, Greek Catholics have kept their identity, established a worldwide Church, and managed to rise from the ashes after the collapse of communism.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the sui iuris Churches linked to Rome. It has a major archbishop, who is the equivalent of a “pope” for its people, and it is a genuinely global Church, with a presence and hierarchy in four continents.
Pope Francis has often spoken of the “ecumenism of blood.” In the case of Ukraine, there is a “field hospital ecumenism,” which finds expression in the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO).
Born in 1996, the council represented 95% of religious communities in Ukraine and played a crucial role after Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” remaining close to people and establishing a channel for dialogue between faiths when the Christian denominations remained divided.
For this reason, Shevchuk strongly emphasized: “There is no war between religions in Ukraine. Even the Orthodox do not appreciate when it comes to a war of religions. On the contrary, religions in Ukraine collaborate and do everything possible to guarantee religious peace, as well as help the population.”
The major archbishop explained that the country’s religious confessions were committed to the four pillars of “prayer, solidarity, preaching hope, working for the consolidation of the people.”
The Churches’ unity in defending the nation is apparent from an event on Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion. Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC-MP, released a surprising statement, in which he said: “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask you to immediately stop the fratricidal war.”
“The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper baptismal font, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification for either God or men.”
On Feb. 28, the synod of the same Church addressed the following appeal to the Moscow Patriarch Kirill: “Your Holiness! We ask you to intensify your prayer for the long-suffering Ukrainian people, to speak your First Hierarchical Word on the cessation of fratricidal bloodshed on Ukrainian soil, and to call upon the leadership of the Russian Federation to immediately stop the hostilities that already threaten to turn into a World War.”
On March 2, the clergy of the diocese of Ivano-Frankivsk announced that they would stop commemorating Kirill during Divine Liturgies. This act means that his authority is no longer recognized.
The Patriarch of Moscow is paying a price for not clearly condemning the Russian invasion.
In a statement on Feb. 24, the first day of the attack, Kirill stressed that he was “the Patriarch of All Russia and the primate of a Church whose flock is located in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries” and called “on all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.”
He reiterated that “the Russian and Ukrainian peoples have a common centuries-old history dating back to the Baptism of Rus’ by Prince St. Vladimir the Equal-to-the-Apostles.”
“I believe that this God-given affinity will help overcome the divisions and disagreements that have arisen that have led to the current conflict,” he said.
The statement did not include any condemnation of Russian aggression but instead seemed to reaffirm the conviction that Ukraine is Russia’s canonical territory.
Kirill’s position is an isolated one within the Orthodox sphere. The Serbian Orthodox Church, traditionally a friend of Moscow, said on Feb. 28 that it was sending aid to the Church led by Metropolitan Onufriy. This meaningful gesture did not burn the traditional bridges of friendship but it was nevertheless striking.
Patriarch Daniel of Romania, meanwhile, did not hesitate to define the conflict in Ukraine as “a war launched by Russia against a sovereign and independent state.”
Patriarch Ilia of Georgia wrote on Feb. 24: “Based on the bitter experience of Georgia, we know how important the territorial integrity of the country is. That is why we are watching the tense situation in Ukraine with anguish. We note that the events of yesterday and today are already in danger of serious bloodshed, although the possibility of regulating the situation is still there. It is also an opportunity to maintain universal peace.”
The bishops of the Finnish Orthodox Church have strongly condemned the Russian invasion. They said: “There is no justification for the war. The Ukrainian people must be supported by all means: both financially through demonstrations and spiritually through prayer.” They also appealed “to the bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate to promote peace.”
Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens expressed his shock, saying that his “thoughts and prayers are directed to our Ukrainian brothers, especially to the young children and the elderly who are experiencing the horrors of war, and of course to the thousands of our compatriots in the country.”
The most surprising reaction, however, came from Russia: 233 priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church lamented the “fratricidal war” and asked for an immediate ceasefire.
The 233 signatories said they hoped that “everyone, both Russians and Ukrainians, will return unharmed to their families.” In view of “Forgiveness Sunday,” they stressed that “the heaven’s doors will be open for everyone, also for those who have heavily sinned,” but there is “no alternative to reciprocal reconciliation.”
Among the very first to condemn the attack was Bartholomew I of Constantinople. By granting autocephaly, the Ecumenical Patriarch had recognized Ukraine as a nation in its own right, in an act that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also appreciated. In August 2021, Patriarch Bartholomew was a special guest at events marking 30 years of Ukrainian independence.
Not surprisingly, Zelenskyy called Bartholomew to thank him for his words. “Ukrainians feel the spiritual support and strength of your prayers,” the president wrote on his Twitter account, “We hope for the fastest possible peace.”
Therefore, there appears to be a shift in the Orthodox world towards Kyiv and away from Moscow. Previous tensions are being canceled by the common belonging to a people and by the idea of sharing a common destiny. The Orthodox Churches, after all, were all behind the Iron Curtain: they suffered religious persecution and don’t want a return to that experience. They have fought for the independence of their nations and therefore cannot accept that this is being called into question.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church remains active in the background. It celebrates with the Byzantine Rite and recognizes the Patriarchate of Constantinople as its Mother Church, but it is united with Rome and faithful to the pope. Since the “Revolution of Dignity,” it has served as a bridge between Christian confessions. But it is also a guardian of the Ukrainian identity, which it has kept alive even in the diaspora.
This, too, President Zelenskyy knows. On Feb. 8, 2020, while visiting Pope Francis, the president put two topics on the table: the request to the Holy See to mediate for peace in Ukraine and the question of the beatification of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944), who was the first to develop the idea of a global Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not limited to national borders.
In 2015, Pope Francis recognized the metropolitan’s “heroic virtues,” a significant step on the way to beatification. His sainthood cause is very dear to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Zelenskyy underlined the importance of the beatification in a phone call with Pope Francis on June 30, 2021. He also reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Ukraine.
Religious communities, in the end, really matter in Ukraine. For this reason, the idea that St. Sophia’s Cathedral could become a military target has reunited the country’s Christian soul.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox world seems to isolate the Moscow Patriarchate more and more. There is a risk that the Orthodox schism will no longer concern just the granting of autocephaly to a local Church. Instead, new divisions could emerge over political issues. And whoever puts political choices in front of them will risk isolation.
Andrea Gagliarducci is an Italian journalist for Catholic News Agency and Vatican analyst for ACI Stampa. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register.