(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's political and military clash with Ukraine has brought about a schism on a spiritual level: The Ukrainian part of the Orthodox Church is on the verge of breaking away from its Russian overseer -- a move that would undermine Moscow's central role in eastern Christianity.
There's a real danger that the rift could lead to bloodshed, an outcome that all sides must act decisively to prevent.
For several centuries, since the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Moscow has pretended to the role of a "Third Rome" -- a political and religious capital that would unite the Orthodox world, or at least its Slavic part. To that end, in the 17th Century, the Russian church subsumed its Ukrainian neighbor. Even after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, most Orthodox believers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus remained united under one spiritual leader, the Patriarch of Moscow. In 2016, Putin inaugurated a colossal statue of St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev who established Russian Orthodoxy, next to the Kremlin -- indicating that Russia aspires to be his true heir.
That said, a rift has long been developing. In 1992, the charismatic former leader of the Russian church in Kiev, Filaret, sought to establish an independent, "autocephalous" church -- one that that would answer only to God, not to Moscow. At the time, Russia enjoyed the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, still considered first among equals in the Orthodox world, in opposing and ultimately excommunicating Filaret. Yet some 6,000 parishes remain loyal to the self-proclaimed patriarch, a threat that the Russian church, to its own detriment, has largely ignored.
Now, Putin's military incursions into Eastern Ukraine have altered the balance of power. Ukraine's leaders can't allow its largest religious group, comprising some 12,000 parishes, to answer to a higher authority in an aggressor state. So President Petro Poroshenko, with the support of the parliament and a large portion of his country's believers, has personally asked Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian church. This time around, Constantinople is amenable. Diminishing the Russian church would enhance Bartholomew's influence, helping him pursue his goal of forging closer ties with Western Christianity.
The split needn't be a big deal for worshipers: The religious creed would remain the same, and the churches could stay in contact. But it’s hard to overstate the blow to Moscow. It would represent a huge loss of property and influence: Ukraine accounts for about a third of the more than 36,000 parishes under the Moscow Patriarchate. More important, it would further weaken the concept of the "Russian world," a neo-imperialist ideology that both Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill have employed to enhance their authority and counter the West. For Kirill personally, it would be a big political loss.
So far, Russia has taken a hard line. The Moscow Patriarchate has portrayed autocephaly in Ukraine as an unacceptable catastrophe. It has officially condemned Bartholomew's intention to grant Poroshenko's request, and has even stopped using Bartholomew's name in prayers. Given the stakes, it's entirely possible that factional violence could break out, much as happened when Russia incited parts of Eastern Ukraine to seek independence. To prevent that from happening, Russian and Ukrainian leaders must display wisdom and restraint.
First, Patriarch Kirill must recognize Ukraine's bid for autocephaly as a legitimate issue. His refusal to even consider it has already lost him the support of Constantinople and a number of other patriarchates. A more constructive approach is in his interest, given that at least 30 percent of parishes in Ukraine say that they would rather remain part of the Moscow Patriarchate. If Kirill doesn’t engage in the process and stand up for their rights, he will lose nearly everything to the independent Ukrainian church.
Second, everyone must refrain from hate speech and any talk of violence. Both churches must set an example -- particularly the Moscow patriarchate, which has been referring ominously to the possibility of a civil war on religious grounds. It would be all too easy to incite people who choose to stay with Russia to attack those who want their own church, or vice versa. All sides must promise publicly not to do so.
Third, the Ukrainian government must declare that it will respect its citizens' choices, whatever they may be. But that alone won't be enough: The government must also guarantee that there will be no overt or covert pressure to join the new Ukrainian church. This will require monitoring, possibly by an international organization.
It's terribly unfortunate for the Russian Orthodox Church that Putin's actions have provoked such a deep rift between nations that used to get along. If and when the churches in Russia and Ukraine split, many might not be happy with the result. But if it can at least be done without losing precious lives, that will be a kind of victory.
To contact the author of this story: Sergey Chapnin at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Whitehouse at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sergei Chapnin is a theologian and journalist. He is the co-founder and chairman of the Artos Creative Fellowship, which promotes contemporary Christian art, and publisher of "Dary," an almanac of Christian culture.
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