By Evangelos Venizelos*

In the wake of the Russian attack and the war in Ukraine, the arguments heard in 2018-2019 regarding the granting of autocephaly [independence from the Moscow Patriarchate] to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine came to the surface once more, mainly due to a speech by Vladimir Putin.

In this speech, the justification for the war, from the Russian vantage point, was provided.

The questioning of Ukraine’s ecclesiastical identity is linked to the questioning of the country’s national identity, its national language and its national sovereignty.

The Russian side does not recognise any of these. The theory of diminished sovereignty is also connected to the non-recognition of an autocephalous Church, as is the case with all other national autocephalous Churches.

Moscow Patriarch blesses attack on Ukraine

Additionally, a shocking event has now taken place: the Patriarch of Moscow has “blessed” the attack, offering a “theological”, and in any case ecclesiastical, legitimacy to a war of aggression accompanied by acts which fall under the jurisdiction International Criminal Court as war crimes.

It is also obvious that the Russian Church in Ukraine, the Church under Metropolitan Onufriy, is in an extremely difficult position, since it is in a conflict between its ecclesiastical affiliation on the one hand and its national consciousness, the need for national defence, and national dignity on the other.

Moreover, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate” itself has been suffering attacks on its churches and its property and, above all, there are casualties among its flock. So this is a radically different situation.

Orthodox Churches that do not recognise Ukrainian autocephaly

I assume that the Orthodox Churches, primarily the non-Slavic ones (the patriarchates of Jerusalem and Romania and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Albania), but also the Slavic ones that have not recognised Epiphanius I as leader of an autocephalous Church, have not commemorated him from the diptychs [the list of the leaders of all autocephalous Churches in hierarchical order] during church services [a solemn act that underlines the unity of all autocephalous Churches], and remain cautious in the name of Orthodox unity and the need for reconciliation between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, are watching a difficult situation unfold.

That is because it now seems that the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly is being challenged because the national identity, national sovereignty, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine is being challenged.

I am sure that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in its ministry, because of its primacy and concern for unity – the doctrinal and ecclesiological unity of Orthodoxy – takes all of this into account. The current dramatic circumstances mandate it.

Putin’s pretexts

Vladimir Putin did not invoke the “tomos”, or patriarchal act granting autocephaly, issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate [which alone has always had the authority to do so], in order to invade. He invoked the fact that Ukraine “would join NATO”, that “the West was arming it”, that it was “not maintaining neutrality”, and that it was working on and preparing to “acquire nuclear weapons” that pose a threat to Russia.

In addition, he claimed that Nazis were ruling in Ukraine, and that Russia was therefore organising an operation to “de-Nazify” and “neutralise” Ukraine militarily.

The ecclesiastical aspect, however, seeps into the ideological construct of the «Russian world» and the ideology of questioning the autonomous identity of Ukraine.

Let us imagine, in a burst of optimism, that we reach a post-war era at some point – either through an agreement or through a de facto situation, even though the new Cold War has already begun and it will be global and especially harsh – and that the moment comes when Ukraine still exists, Kiev still stands, President Volodymyr Zelensky is still there, and the war ends or comes to a halt.

Is it feasible in this Ukraine to have a second Church, dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate, which is to say on Russia? Would the Orthodox canonical and ecclesiological order accept the existence of a second entity, even one without any allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate? Could the Unification Council be repeated so that the two entities would now form a single autocephalous entity?

Unifying Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine

There will be, in my opinion, a reconciliation of the Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine, but this will take place within the framework of an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine that will be a Church of shelters and catacombs.

That is because, unfortunately, Ukrainians are going to spend a lot more time in bunkers, and here I am drawing a parallel between bunkers and the early Christian catacombs. Under such conditions of defence, slaughters, brutalities, rapes, murders, captivity, and hostage-taking, a Church in quasi-captivity will certainly be unified, because one cannot claim that it belongs to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

It is thus a very heavy burden that the Ukrainian Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate has to carry.

The theological stigma – when you have «blessed», supported and legitimised a war, acts of brutality, and acts that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court – is very heavy.

The geopolitics of Orthodoxy, recognition of Ukraine’s autocephaly

We are ineluctably confronted with the geopolitics of Orthodoxy.

There are Churches which have not recognised Epiphanius so far, have opposed the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and have actually sided with Moscow even before the war, or at least have shown a neutrality which is, however, essentially favourable to Moscow.

These are the Churches of countries that for the most part belong to NATO, belong to the West, with the exception of the Serbian Church and of course with the exception of the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Georgia (the last has also suffered the events in Abkhazia and Ossetia).

This is also the stance of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro, which is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Serbia, because Montenegro is a NATO member-state, unlike Serbia, which does not want to be a NATO member and is clearly a pro-Russian country.

The Orthodox Churches of Albania, Romania (with the open wounds of Moldova and Transnistria), Bulgaria, and of course the Churches of Central Europe – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – are Churches of NATO countries that are at the forefront of the confrontation with the Russian threat, which could very easily turn nuclear.

An Eastern Orthodox-style Westphalia

Autocephaly is a sort of «Orthodox Westphalia», in the manner of the Treaty of Westphalia, cuius regio, eius religio. The local Church de facto cooperates with the local regime, with a local authority, which also has a foreign policy agenda.

For their part, the Churches of both Antioch and Jerusalem, which are two of the five initial, oldest patriarchates, are naturally affected by the situation in Syria.

Russo-Ukrainian war shifts the ecclesiastical terrain

Thus, the geopolitics of war intersects with the geopolitics of Orthodoxy and with the situation that was created by the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019.

Only a minority of Orthodox churches have recognised Metropolitan Epiphanius and commemorate him -with the internal resistance of some Metropolitan bishops in the autocephalous archdioceses of Cyprus and Greece which do so – while the majority that have refused to recognise him now cannot keep doing so, because they now clash with the geopolitics of war.

I think this is the great breakthrough that this war has brought on. I suppose they are all reconsidering their stance, because they have the wisdom to do so, and the insight and diplomacy without distinction, as the Church says, to deal with these issues.

This is because they survive historically within a state and a governmental system, within the contradictions and often within the violence of the governmental system – as the experience of communist countries demonstrated – which puts Orthodoxy to a great test in every country.

Orthodoxy and the West

What is critically significant is that Orthodoxy needs to examine its position within the West, in the sense of a great strategic entity that at this moment has to defend an acquis that includes liberal democracy, religious freedom, human dignity, and the value of the human person.

Thus, to link the theological, historical, and political aspects of our discussion, Orthodoxy has to consider itself a Church of democracy and the rule of law.

The Orthodoxy that stands with democracy and the rule of law cannot turn a blind eye to another, different “Orthodoxy”, of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

*Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. Professor at the Faculty of Law, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.