Did the American Government Create the OCU? Political Ambitions and the Ukrainian Church

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has inspired a number of hypotheses on who initiated the event. Past president Petro Poroshenko, Patriarch Filaret, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are usually identified as the architects of Ukrainian autocephaly. There is also a chorus of voices that attributes the creation of the OCU to the American government. Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, recently claimed that the OCU is an American creation, and that the USA desires to create a schism in global Orthodoxy. Lavrov made his claim immediately after Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s trip to the United States.

Hilarion was scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 22. Coincidentally, Metropolitan Epifaniy (Dumenko), the primate of the OCU, was set to meet Pompeo the next morning. Hilarion’s meeting with Pompeo was cancelled after the secretary assigned a deputy to represent him at the meeting (Hilarion declined). Pompeo’s meeting with Epifaniy took place as planned, and Pompeo expressed America’s support for the new church.

Is this enough evidence to verify that the US government created the OCU? If not, what do these meetings and statements mean, and what are their implications for American ambitions in Ukraine and Russia?

The short answer to this question is that there simply is not enough evidence to substantiate the assertion that America orchestrated the creation of the OCU. The evidence is scant, and the statements issued by the US State Department on the Church in Ukraine are terse. Attributing the creation of the OCU to the US State Department amounts to reading a series of hypothetical events into the text and context to create a discernible pattern of influence. This assertion also assumes that there was no movement for autocephaly among Orthodox Ukrainians, a presupposition that has no basis. However, the absence of additional evidence does not mean that the State Department’s public statements are meaningless.

The meetings between entourages of Ukrainian Church leaders and representatives of the American government provide insight. One meeting in particular seemed to inaugurate the larger series of encounters: the visit of Patriarch Filaret and leaders of the Kyivan Patriarchate to America in September 2018, where they met with members of congress and the State Department.

The Ukrainian delegation informed American officials about the unification council and autocephaly, and the plight of Orthodox Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbas. Throughout history, attempts to unite Orthodox Ukrainians and obtain autocephaly were thwarted by political agents opposed to the Ukrainian initiatives. The Ukrainians complained about the persecution and harassment endured by their clergy and faithful in Crimea, and by the occupiers sponsored by Russia in Donbas. They emphasized the threat of the implementation of a Russian strategy to thwart the process of autocephaly and violate the religious rights of Ukrainian citizens. This visit set the tone for the State Department to establish its position on religious freedom in Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression.

Official statements from the State Department indicate that America is attempting to resume its role as a champion for democracy and religious rights throughout the world. Ukraine presented a golden opportunity for the US because of its struggle to claim self-determination.

The State Department’s statement of September 25, 2018, is the direct outcome of the meetings with Fialret’s entourage. The statement anticipates autocephaly and expressed American support for “the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” The text also mentions respect for the ecumenical patriarch and acknowledges Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. This is a position statement: as the champion of religious rights and democracy, the American government is monitoring the situation and is on the lookout for violations of freedom. The state department’s second announcement of October 19, 2018, reiterates American opposition to external interference and respect for freedom.

The third statement of January 10, 2019, contains a change in tone. While Secretary Pompeo congratulated Epifaniy on his election, he also called upon the new metropolitan to make remarks demonstrating that all are welcome in the OCU, and that the religious freedom of all people will be respected. Pompeo’s statement was issued a few weeks after the Ukrainian Parliament passed two controversial laws, one requiring religious institutions based in Russia to include the word “Russia” in their name, and the second aimed at easing the process for communities that wish to change their affiliation. The American message was the same: America is watching Ukraine, and this time, it is looking for those who pursued autocephaly to practice the very religious freedom they claim to have been denied in Donbas and Crimea.

The situation permits us to posit a hypothesis: the US State Department exploited the event of Ukrainian autocephaly to position America as a champion for religious freedom. The timing was convenient given the escalation of US-Russia polemics in the last five years. Furthermore, the appearance of favoring the OCU was an effort to save face, given the exposure of President Trump’s disdain for Ukraine altogether.

The story is incomplete, however, without returning to the accusations of Lavrov and Hilarion. Lavrov has now made two public statements on the Church situation in Ukraine. In his first statement in October 2018, Lavrov blamed “Washington” for causing the Ukrainian Church crisis while Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, defended Russia’s right to defend their faithful if violence erupted from parish seizures—a hint of intervention. The problem for Russia is that public positions of Lavrov and Hilarion compromise the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. The UOC-MP argues vigorously that they are truly independent, even more so than the OCU. They also have formidable political support among members of the Ukrainian Parliament. Lavrov’s and Hilarion’s statements suggest that the UOC-MP needs Russia’s intervention. In fact, the UOC-MP continues to bitterly complain that they are persecuted at the local level, and have presented their case to the United Nations. Lavrov’s words beg the question: what are the motives of Russian state officials who complain about the conditions of an independent church in a foreign country?

The public positions of the US State Department, Lavrov and Hilarion clarify the picture of Church and state in Ukraine. As external representatives, the Americans and the Russians have much at stake in the Ukrainian Church situation. The American government is attempting to bolster its brand as the global defender of religious rights. The Ukrainian Church crisis provides a convenient opportunity for the State Department to challenge the notion that it ignores and disdains Ukraine. As for the Russians, the potential loss of the UOC-MP to the OCU would nudge Ukraine even further away from Russia’s orbit and towards Europe. The public statements of American and Russian state officials, then, do not verify the identity of the architects of Ukrainian autocephaly. History informs us that millions of Ukrainian clergy and faithful took matters into their own hands and created a new church, together with Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew. The statements remind us that America and Russia will attempt to spin the Church situation in Ukraine to achieve their own strategic geopolitical objectives.

Nicholas Denysenko is the Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.