In April, it was announced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has petitioned Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to recognise an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is said to be considering the request, and there are high hopes in Kiev that a “Tomos of autocephaly” – meaning that Ukrainian Orthodox will be canonically free of oversight from Moscow – will be granted by July 28, the 1,030th anniversary of the baptism of Prince Volodymyr of Kievan Rus in 988.

Both Ukraine and Russia see themselves as successors of the new Christian polity which emerged from that event. But that common inheritance today serves as much to divide them as to unite them.

Ukraine’s independence in 1991 led to the resurgence of desire for ecclesiastical liberation from Moscow. The “EuroMaidan Revolution” of 2014, and the resulting conflict over eastern Ukraine and Crimea, have led to that simmering discontent erupting into an open split. So Poroschenko’s role in sponsoring such a development in Church affairs is no surprise.

At present Ukraine is a religiously fractured nation. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is the only one recognised as canonical by the other Orthodox churches worldwide. The request for recognition comes from two breakaway groups. The smaller of the two, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), formed after the 1917 revolution, was disbanded under Stalin before re-emerging after 1991. The following year a new group broke away from Moscow. After an unsuccessful attempt to unite with the UAOC, its members founded a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), led since 1995 by Patriarch Filaret Denisenko.

Information about the numbers invoved is sketchy. What is certain is that conflict with Russia since 2014 has boosted Filaret’s Church. Since then, at least 60 parishes have switched jurisdictions. Events like the refusal of a Moscow Patriarchate priest to celebrate funeral rites for a child baptised in the UOC-KP, and reports of violence and intimidation against clergy and faithful in Russian-controlled territory, have further alienated many citizens from clergy loyal to Moscow.

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