The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine has pushed some priests in the country to call for a break from the Russian Orthodox Church, to which their parishes have belonged for centuries.
Like much of their social and cultural fabric, Ukraine and Russia have been intertwined by their religious beliefs for hundreds of years.
But President Vladimir Putin’s war, which has killed hundreds and forced more than 1.7 million people to flee the country, has changed that too.
“The Russian president is today’s Cain,” says Iov Olshansky, a priest at the Orthodox Resurrection New Athos Monastery in the western city of Lviv. In the Bible, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother Abel.
“The only way for our Church is independence,” he says.
Unified Ukrainian Church
The Russian Orthodox Church was dominant for some 300 years in Ukraine, including during Soviet times, when religion was officially outlawed and believers practiced in secret.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox faith in Ukraine splintered into three branches: one whose clerics pledged loyalty to the Moscow patriarchate; one loyal to a newly established patriarchate in Kyiv; and the smaller Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church.
But this changed after Russia seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed separatists, who carved out two unrecognized breakaway regions in Ukraine’s east. That conflict has since claimed some 13,000 lives.
Four years after the annexation of Crimea, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized Kiev’s religious independence, allowing the creation of a unified Ukrainian Church.
The Russian Church lost many members to the new unified Ukrainian Church but remained the country’s second-largest confession.
According to a poll in 2021, 58 percent of Orthodox believers said they were members of the new unified church, compared with 25 percent who pledged allegiance to the Moscow patriarchate.
But now priests like 33-year-old Olshansky are calling for a split.
“All our prayers are now for the re-establishment of peace in Ukraine and for the victory of our army,” he says.
Priests call for split
The monastery that Olshansky oversees has become a centre for dispensing aid to the masses of people fleeing the fighting in the east.
When he spoke to AFP, a group of some 33 adults and children who had spent the night there, some sleeping on the floor in front of the altar, were eating their breakfast of porridge and buttered bread sandwiches.
“We’re trying to help everyone,” says Olshansky, who wears clerical robes and a black hooded sweatshirt. “We don’t ask who they are.”
Olshansky’s monastery is also helping Ukrainian armed forces, collecting and sending supplies like hygiene products and sleeping bags.
Olshansky is not alone in calling for a break from the Moscow patriarchate, whose head, Patriarch Kirill, has called Russia’s opponents in Ukraine “evil forces” rather than condemning the invasion.
In the Lviv diocese, Kirill’s name is no longer mentioned in the liturgies and several priests from across Ukraine have posted a video calling for a complete break with the Russian Church.
Another group of priests from the Lviv region has called for a national meeting of the Church to formally declare its independence from Moscow.
That text has been posted in front of the Church of Saint George, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church in Lviv, next to another listing the needs of the Ukrainian fighters.
‘Brother killing his own brother’
One such priest is taking refuge at the monastery, after fleeing his parish near Kyiv with his wife and two young children.
“I am 100-percent convinced that we should separate from the Russian patriarchate,” says his wife, Vira Khvust.
“If they consider us brothers, then you can’t have a brother killing his own brother. “A good neighbour will never go to war against his neighbour.”
Western Ukraine — where the vast majority of residents practice the Greek Catholic faith — has been a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism for decades. Anti-Russian sentiment was high in the country even before the Crimea annexation.
So after the Kremlin unleashed its war on the country, Olshansky faced abuse and threats from some local elected officials.
For them, his association with a Moscow-based church meant he was a figure of influence for Russia.
Some Russian Orthodox churches in the west of the country have even been searched, suspected of concealing weapons.
One group of youths hung up a placard insulting the Moscow patriarch at the Church of Saint George.
Despite these tensions, Olshansky says he does not feel threatened.
“They are only emotions. I don’t get angry at these people. I understand them and forgive them,” he says.