Long ties to Russia stir suspicions about Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, and its priests.


RIVNE, Ukraine — A priest doused in green dye during a Sunday liturgy. Another yanked out of his western Ukrainian church as police stood by watching. A church attacked by vandals, who filled it with foam, plastered the walls with portraits of Stalin and later set it on fire.

For centuries, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been a dominant spiritual force in the country. Now the church is increasingly an object of distrust, largely because its spiritual leadership — at least until May — was in Moscow, rather than Kyiv.

Government officials once courted church leaders. Now they speak openly about suspicions that some priests are collaborating with Moscow and worry that the broader church could be a Trojan horse for pro-Russian views and more.

When it comes to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, “we are not talking about god, faith, or spiritual development,” said Serhiy Kondrachuk, the head of the Rivne regional council in central Ukraine. “We can only talk about the biggest danger to our national security.”

That the Orthodox church is now a focus of official suspicion is another example of how profoundly the war has upended all aspects of life in Ukraine. Even before the war, the issue of relations with Russia was already a fractious one, between those who supported the church loyal to Moscow and those who supported the newer, similarly named Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was based in Kyiv.

Now the churches aligned with Kyiv are actively pressuring priests in the other church to change their allegiance. Violent altercations have broken out. The tensions are so deep that in May, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church amended its bylaws to grant itself “full independence and autonomy” from the church in Moscow, the tectonic rupture of a centuries-old relationship.

Even so, official suspicions remain. In one example, at the end of June, the western city of Lviv held a unanimous but symbolic vote to ban the church.

In Ukraine’s Parliament, Mykyta Poturaiev, a lawmaker, convened an official session on the church’s influence. In an interview, he confirmed that the authorities were investigating priests aligned with the Moscow church for providing targets for Russian artillery; informing on Ukrainian activists; and sending data on the positions of Ukrainian troops.

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