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USA News

Communities torn as Ukraine turns its back on Moscow-linked church

by Reuters Journalist

As a crowd gathered outside the white-brick Orthodox church in the village of Karyshkiv in western Ukraine, raised voices quickly turned to shouting. Soon old women were crying.

The villagers were quarrelling over the affiliation of their parish church, which belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) that the government in Kyiv accuses of being under the influence of Moscow.

Most of the 30 or so villagers standing by the roadside wanted to switch to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), founded in 2019 and backed by the government, as hundreds of communities have done since Russia's invasion last year.

Some angrily accused Russia of seeking to destroy their nation and said its invading troops were guilty of atrocities. Others said they wanted to worship in their own language, not Church Slavonic - an archaic religious language with similarities to Russian.

But a handful of the villagers strongly disagreed.

"Russia attacked us, kills us, rapes us … Our church must be Ukrainian!" cried a local woman who wanted the parish to switch, angry at her neighbours.

In many villages across Ukraine, tensions have surfaced as authorities have cracked down on the UOC following Russia's invasion. More than 60 criminal cases have been opened against its clergy, many of them suspected of spying and spreading pro-Russian propaganda.

And a legal battle is raging to evict the church from its historic monastery headquarters in Kyiv, one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Church.

The UOC denies being allied to Moscow and says it has seen no evidence of wrongdoing by its clergy. It argues that many of its believers are patriots fighting against Russian forces. Despite that, polls show Ukrainians turning their back on the church in droves.

The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of "illegally attacking" the UOC and has used it as one justification for what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine - to defend Russian-speakers and Russian culture from persecution.

Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss this as a baseless pretext for a war of aggression.

Reuters visited two villages in late April in the western region of Vinnytsia, which has one of the highest numbers of UOC parishes in Ukraine. Dozens of residents said the issue had caused a deep rift in their rural communities, even if most want to shun the Moscow-linked church.

A brief show of hands among the crowd in Karyshiv showed a large majority were in favour of leaving the UOC. A few said now was not the time to be arguing amongst themselves, as battles raged in the east.

At the heart of the dispute are not doctrinal differences but national loyalty.

The OCU was founded four years ago with significant support from then-President Petro Poroshenko to create a church fully independent of Moscow, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. It received recognition from Orthodoxy's Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

The UOC was established in the dying days of the Soviet Union as a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and remained under the direct authority of Patriarch of Moscow until May 2022, three months into the invasion, when it said it was cutting ties with Russia.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has staunchly backed the invasion and supports the Kremlin, deeply angering many Ukrainians.

Polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show the UOC's flock in Ukraine shrank from around 18% of the population before the invasion to around 4% in July 2022.

The same survey showed that followers of the OCU grew from 42% of the population in July last year to 54% in July 2022.

As part of its crackdown, Ukraine's SBU security agency regularly posts images of documents and books which it says it found during searches of UOC churches – many of which glorify Russia or advocate for Russian control of Ukrainian territories.

Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov said in February that some detained clergy had been swapped with Russia for captured Ukrainian soldiers, including one unidentified priest who was exchanged for 28 troops.

Two miles from Karyshkiv, in the neighbouring village of Hrabivtsi, parishioners voted in March for their 300-year-old church to switch from the UOC to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Such referenda have been held in hundreds of towns and villages in the last year or so, as Ukrainian authorities seek to encourage people to sever all ties with Russia - deep-rooted relationships that go back centuries.

"I think it's right that we switched because Russia is the aggressor and it will forever remain the aggressor," said Serhiy Fretsyuk, Hrabivtsi's village librarian. "Ties with them must be severed."

Only one incident of violence had been recorded at a funeral for a Ukrainian soldier between two clergymen, he added.

Nationwide, there are more than 8,000 churches run by the UOC, according to Opendatabot, a Ukrainian public registry browsing tool.

On April 28, the Vinnytsia regional council voted to cease all rental agreements for UOC churches on state-owned land. The move follows similar decisions by authorities in other western Ukrainian regions.

The legal moves come after the government ordered the UOC to leave its 11th Century monastery headquarters on a hilltop in the heart of Kyiv in March - one of the city's biggest tourist attractions and of huge significance to the church's history.

The church has refused to comply and remains on the premises.

One of the main complaints against the UOC by those wanting to switch denominations is that services are usually held in Church Slavonic.

The UOC says it has no objection to holding services in Ukrainian, but in Karyshkiv services were still held in Church Slavonic when Reuters visited. The local priest, Father Volodymyr, said his congregation had not wanted to change.

Hrabivtsi's new priest, the OCU's father Dymytriy, told Reuters shortly before serving his third Sunday service at the church that language was an important part of why people in the village had wanted to switch.

"More and more, people want to pray in the language which they speak all the time - Ukrainian," he said.

In fact Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine, although that, too, is changing fast as a result of people's opposition to the invasion.

Having sung in Church Slavonic for decades, most women in the Hrabivtsi church choir did not want to make the linguistic change. Only one, 68-year-old Olha Hrebenyuk, now comes to services, three residents said.

“The others will realize later and make the switch. It’s hard to switch over. There’s a barrier, like when a man goes to another woman,” Said Hrebenyuk.

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