Russian threat to Ukraine exposes fault lines in Eastern Orthodoxy

Patriarch Epiphanius
Patriarch Epiphanius SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
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Eastern Orthodox Church leaders are weighing in on tensions between Russia and Ukraine as the two majority-Orthodox countries, divided by geopolitical and religious disputes, prepare for war.

Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a plea Sunday for the "preservation of peace in Ukraine," Vatican News reported.

Bartholomew, the archbishop of Constantinople, does not have the same power over Orthodox Christians that Pope Francis has over Roman Catholics, but is instead considered first among equals.

After the Soviet Union fell, Ukrainian Orthodoxy split between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which remained under the authority of the patriarch of Moscow, and factions that, with Bartholomew's support, sought total independence, creating the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The Russian Orthodox Church responded by severing communion with Constantinople. The schism has not yet been resolved.

According to data from 2018, over 67 percent of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox. Of those, 19 percent belonged to the Russian-aligned church, while 44 percent belonged to the bodies that later merged into the OCU. An additional 38 percent identified as "just Orthodox" or said they weren't sure to which faction they belonged.

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Epiphanius, who heads the OCU, took the anti-Russian sentiment even further.

"We have all heard and know about the challenges facing Ukraine in the face of the threat from Russia," he said Sunday. "This threat should not be underestimated, and therefore we, as a nation, must be ready to repel the enemy, if he still dares, violating the laws of God and man, to increase [his] crimes" by engaging in "open war."

The OCU also published a prayer guide that includes prayers for "when the fatherland is in danger" and for "liberation from the invasion of foreigners."

The latter asks God to remind would-be invaders of "Your commandment: Blessed are the peacemakers" and, if they continue in their aggression, to send "angels of fury, who will instill in them fear and the memory of what they call themselves — Christians."

The UOC-MP's website makes no mention of the Russian threat to Ukraine.

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