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Religious Rift Grows Between Ukraine And Russia


The low-level war that Russia is waging inside Ukraine has divided two nations that share similar cultures. And it has also divided their dominant faith. Many people in both countries observe Orthodox Christianity. The main Orthodox church has been headquartered in Moscow, which Ukrainians say they can no longer tolerate. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: On Sunday, the new head of Ukraine's Orthodox Church celebrated Mass under the golden domes of St Michael's Cathedral in Kiev. Just a day earlier, a council of church officials had established a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church - distinct and autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church. Speaking to believers on Saturday, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said his country would no longer drink Moscow's poison from Moscow's chalice.



KIM: What kind of churches, Poroshenko said - it's a church without Vladimir Putin. For more than three centuries, it was Russia's Orthodox Church that dominated religious affairs in Ukraine. But following Russia's military intervention, which has cost more than 10,000 lives, many Ukrainians see the Moscow-based church as an unacceptable lever of Russian influence in their country.

EDWARD SIECIENSKI: Moscow has always considered Ukraine as historically part of the greater Russian world.

KIM: Edward Siecienski is a professor of Byzantine theology at Stockton University in New Jersey.

SIECIENSKI: In many circles in Ukraine, the idea of the creation of an independent Orthodox Church independent from Moscow is the culmination of Ukraine's political independence. You can't have one without the other.

KIM: The Russian church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox denominations. The Moscow patriarchate says the Ukrainian church's efforts to separate are comparable to the split between Eastern and Western Christianity 1,000 years ago.

ALEXANDER VOLKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Alexander Volkov, a spokesman for the Moscow patriarch, told Russian TV the new Ukrainian Church was nothing but a farce. And President Putin's spokesman accused the Ukrainian president of mixing religion with politics. But the Russian president is deeply involved with the Orthodox faith.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Putin is frequently seen on state television visiting Orthodox churches and monasteries. In September, Putin and the Moscow patriarch laid the cornerstone of a giant new cathedral outside Moscow that will be the main house of worship of the Russian armed forces. Theology professor Siecienski says before the communist revolution a century ago there wasn't any separation between church and state in Russia.

SIECIENSKI: There's always been this idea that the czar was responsible for the maintenance of orthodoxy.

KIM: Now Putin has stepped into that role. And it's the proximity between the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox church and the Russian army that has been driving Ukrainian believers away. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS & MOTION'S "GLACIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.