KYIV—Vladimir Putin’s onslaught has pushed Tatiana Bondarenko, a 53-year-old Ukrainian Orthodox Christian, to her breaking point. First, she was forced to flee her hometown of Donetsk during the 2014 war. Then, in March, she had to leave Mariupol after her husband was killed in the crossfire and the city was virtually wiped out by Putin’s army. Her life, she says, is ruined and her heart broken.
On Thursday, Bondarenko wept on the steps of kyiv’s Pokrovsky Monastery, one of 12,000 Ukrainian Orthodox parishes still in operation under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) led by Russian Patriarch Kirill. She told the Daily Beast that she still finds solace near the monastery, but her feelings about the institution and church leaders have changed dramatically since the war began.
Bondarenko says she no longer wants her church to have anything to do with Russian Orthodox leader Kirill. “Please God, Patriarch Kirill has blessed this war, he’s not the one who has the moral right to tell us ‘God is love,'” she said. “He blessed Putin’s friend Commander Zolotov and Russian soldiers to kill us Orthodox believers in Ukraine,” Bondarenko added with tears in his eyes.
She was referring to a recent ceremony in which the Russian patriarch prayed with President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard, Victor Zolotov, who is now the commander of the Russian National Guard fighting in Ukraine. “Let this inspire young warriors who take the oath, embark on the path of defending the fatherland,” the patriarch said at the ceremony in Moscow last month. Zolotov, in turn, complained to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church that “everything is not going as fast as we would like.” The commander then expressed his wish that the prayer protect the Russian army “and hasten our victory”.
The Russian Orthodox Church and its leader have played a huge role in public support for Putin’s war in Ukraine, where an estimated 10 million Orthodox believers still pray in churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. Ukrainian Orthodox Christians whose lives have been turned upside down by the war must grapple with the fact that the leader has virtually condoned the killing of thousands of innocent civilians.
Now the cracks are starting to show: over 400 Ukrainian priests have spoken out against Patriarch Kirill for his support of the war, demanding that he be tried by the Council of Eastern Patriarchs. Additionally, dozens of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine that have long been loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have begun to withdraw from the UOC-MP, changing their jurisdictional affiliations to join the Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church instead.
“Kirill committed a crime: he blessed the killing of innocent people,” Metropolitan Oleksandr, one of the highest clerics of the Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kyiv, told The Daily Beast. He was traveling to a parish that recently declared independence from the UOC-MP.
“I understand their decision, the Russian criminal army has killed thousands of innocent Ukrainian women, children, men, my own parents are in occupied Mariupol, I don’t know if my godfather is alive. Last I heard he and his family were cooking food on the fire outside their ruined house. His voice cracked when he talked about his family members.
A Ukrainian priest and his wife, who belonged to a church in the breakaway Luhansk region that follows the Moscow Patriarchate, told The Daily Beast that the church’s guidelines were so shocking that they made the decision to leave it completely.
“We were allowed to pray for Ukraine for eight years when Luhansk was a breakaway republic but in February when the war started we were told we could no longer pray for Ukraine, which was simply contrary to our beliefs,” said the priest’s wife. told the Daily Beast while on a bus to Lviv. “The Russian Orthodox Church made us take the decision to flee with our three children. There are more and more priests who disagree with the Moscow Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
So far, at least 16 dioceses out of 53 parishes loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have stopped praying for Patriarch Cyril. Many are unhappy that the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, continues to pray for the holy Russian leader at kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra, the oldest monastery in Ukrainian territory built in 1051.
“It is time for all parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become independent from Moscow.”
“It’s hard to imagine how Father Onufriy or other priests still pray for Patriarch Kirill… My 91-year-old grandmother, who lived under German occupation during World War II and now under the Russian occupation, tells me that Russian soldiers looted houses, shops and killed three of its neighbours,” Metropolitan Oleksandr told the Daily Beast. “Moscow accuses us and other Orthodox believers of hatred but we do not feel hatred, we feel righteous anger…every priest who rejects the subordination of the Moscow Patriarchate is condemned by them and forbidden to serve, soon they will forbid us to breathe.”
On Thursday evening, four parishes in the Chernihiv and Cherkassy regions petitioned Metropolitan Oleksandr to allow them to join the Autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
“Just in one day today, four parishes made the decision to leave the Moscow Patriarchate Church,” Metropolitan Oleksandr told The Daily Beast. “It is time for all parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become independent from Moscow.”