Kiev

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

I know that this will be hard for many journalists think about the following concepts without their heads exploding, but let’s give it a try. After all, the events unfolding at Orthodox altars in Ukraine are very important and may take years or decades to settle — not that readers would know that from reading mainstream news reports on the schism.

Ready?

First and foremost: There is no Eastern Orthodox pope, no one shepherd who can snap his fingers and make Orthodox disputes vanish.

Yes, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are key players in the current drama. However, this dispute between Moscow and Constantinople transcends politics and enters the world of doctrine and church polity. The ties that bind between Kiev and Moscow are far older than the current politics of Europe and Russia.

Yes, it is true that are are arguments about whether the Ecumenical Patriarch — based at the tiny, embattled Orthodox church in Turkey — has the power to grant “autocephaly” (creating an autonomous national church) in Ukraine. However, these debates are not, ultimately, between Poroshenko and Putin — they are between Patriarch Bartholomew and the rest of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs.

With that in mind, before we turn to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Christianity Today, let’s pause for a recent word from the ancient church of Antioch.

Responding to Patriarch Bartholomew’s request to recognize the results of December 15’s “unification council” and the nationalist Ukrainian church created there, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch urged Pat. Bartholomew to stop the process of granting autocephaly until a pan-Orthodox solution could be found to the Ukrainian crisis. 

In other words, this Ukrainian issue is creating a global Orthodox crisis. Thus, it will require a global Orthodox solution. Repeat: There is no Orthodox pope.

Additional information:

The Patriarch of Constantinople sent letters of appeal to recognize the Ukrainian church to all the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches on December 24. The request has thus far been explicitly denied by the Polish and  Serbian Churches. 

In his response, Pat. John emphasized that the events surrounding the creation of the new church cause concern not only because of the disunion they create in the Orthodox world, but also because the opinion of the Local Orthodox Churches was not taken into account by Constantinople. …

Journalists: Please look for this. The issue here is not what churches remain in Communion with Moscow or the Ecumenical Patriarch. The issue is how many other patriarchs declare themselves to be in Communion with this alleged new church in Kiev. This is what matters to the Orthodox, not whether Kiev is in Communion with the U.S. State Department and the European Union.

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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

Orthodox Christians around the world are waiting to find out what did, or did not, happen in a high-stakes meeting the other day between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Russia.

The issue was one of the most important, and symbolic, landmines in the history of Orthodox Christianity. That would be Kiev, a city that represents the "Baptism of Rus' " in 988 (click here for background), when Orthodox faith entered the world of the Slavs.

For the massive Russian Orthodox Church, everything begins in Kiev. The presence of the great Kiev Pechersk Lavra -- a monastery founded in 1051 -- only raises the stakes in this struggle for control of holy ground.

The Associated Press ran a feature before this showdown that mixed in spies, hackers and a hint of Donald Trump-era craziness. But before we get into all of that, let me offer a sample of the confusing news -- the word "Byzantine" applies here -- that followed the meeting.

KIEV (Sputnik) -- Reports about the decision to grant autocephaly to an Ukrainian church allegedly taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate are false and distort the reality, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) said on Saturday.

On Friday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the parties discussed "issues of mutual interest." Following the meeting, Ukrainian media reported that Patriarch Bartholomew had allegedly informed Patriarch Kirill of Constantinople's decision to grant Ukrainian church with autocephaly.

What, you ask, does "autocephaly" mean? It literally means "self-headed." Thus, the leader of an autocephalous church does not answer to a higher ranking metropolitan or patriarch.

Currently, the church In Ukraine that most Orthodox believers consider canonical (as opposed to two competing flocks, as I discussed in this 2009 column written in Kiev) is linked to Moscow. Back to that news report:


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Dear editors at The New York Times: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia

Dear editors at The New York Times: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia

As you would expect, quite a few GetReligion readers have asked for my take on the recent New York Times analysis piece about Russia and the Orthodox Church that ran under this headline: “In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines With Firepower.”

Now, the editorial powers that be at the Gray Lady did not label this sprawling piece as a work of analysis, but that is what it was.

It was packed with all kinds of material that Orthodox people could argue about for hours (members of my flock, especially Russians, love a good argument). In many crucial passages, the Times team didn’t bother to let readers know who they were quoting — which usually means that they are quoting themselves or quoting beloved advocacy sources over and over and over and they didn't want to point that out with attribution clauses.

Thus, I am not going to try to dissect this piece, in part because (1) I am an Orthodox Christian and (2) I spend quite a bit of time hanging out with Russians and with other Orthodox Christians who hang out with Russians. But I do want to share one big idea.

You see, I hear people talking about Vladimir V. Putin quite a bit. I would divide these people into at least three groups.

* First, there are the people who consider him a corrupt, brutal strongman, at best, and a tyrant at worst. 

* Second, there are people who do not admire Putin at all, but they enjoy the fact that he gets under the skin of liberals and post-liberals here in the West. Putin is, in other words, a Russian and he drives elites in the West a bit mad.

* Third, there are Orthodox people who appreciate the fact that Putin -- for whatever reasons -- is defending some (repeat “SOME”) of the teachings of the Orthodox faith, whether he sincerely believes these moral doctrines or not. Of course, Putin's sins against Orthodoxy on many other issues are perfectly obvious.

Now, the tricky thing is that most of my Orthodox friends who closely follow events in and around Russia are in all three of these camps at the same time.

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Anatevka resurrected? Feature in Foreign Policy Review misses a few Jewish details

Anatevka resurrected? Feature in Foreign Policy Review misses a few Jewish details

How many of us remember the mournful song that appears near the end of "Fiddler on the Roof" when the tzar’s soldiers kick the Jews out of their tiny village?

Hint: It goes like this. You can click here and watch the scene in the classic movie. You may want to have tissues nearby.

Anatevka, Anatevka.
Underfed, overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?

Anatevka, Anatevka.
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone I meet.

Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
From Anatevka.

When Sholom Aleichem wrote the story that inspired the 1964 musical (and 1971 film), Anatevka was a fictional name for a real life village just west of Kiev.

So what should pop up this week in Foreign Policy Review but the story of a real place called Anatevka? It's a fine story, yet it has one major hole, which we'll get to. Yes, we are talking about important religious details.

KIEV -- When the rabbi of Chernobyl, Mordechai Twersky, felt he was dying in 1837, he set out on a long walk from Kiev. He made it about 30 kilometers to the west, where he came upon a rolling green field of wildflowers on the banks of the Irpin River, outside the village of Hnativka.
It was there, he decided, that he would be laid to rest, having chosen the pastoral location, according to local lore, “because there is no house of idol worship, and the sound of impure bells won’t disturb my rest in the grave.”

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Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

If you want to spend a sobering day -- but a fascinating one as well -- then you need to pay a visit to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. I have been there twice and, if I returned a third time, I am sure that I would discover more layers of information and symbolism that I missed the first two times around.

Technically speaking, it's a very simple facility, with few of the multi-media bells and whistles that are now the norm in the museum world.

What hits you is the power of the, literally, the parables, icons and relics on display. The contents are simply overwhelming, for those with the eyes to see.

So if you ever enter the museum, look up at the ceiling above the main staircase and search for an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation. Here's what I described in a 2012 column:

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation.
The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.
In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl."

Didn't see that one coming, right?

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Got news? A Baptist emerges as acting president of Ukraine

The news rolls on in Ukraine, with leaders of the opposition attempting to get some work done after the chaos. As you would expect, the tensions remain highest in the Eastern half of the nation, where cultural and, yes, religious ties to Russia are strongest. However, one of the first things that caught my attention in the following Los Angeles Times piece was a simple question of Associated Press style. Can you catch the problem at the top of the report? Let’s just say that it’s linked to a key element of the headline: “Ukraine’s acting leader still seeking consensus on interim government.”

KIEV, Ukraine – Hoping to reach a consensus that would heal some of Ukraine’s wounds, the country’s acting president on Tuesday delayed the seating of an interim government for at least two days, even as opposition colleagues appealed to the Hague criminal tribunal to try fugitive ex-President Viktor Yanukovich on charges of crimes against humanity.

Reports of mounting discord among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and gunshot wounds suffered by a top aide to Yanukovich further heightened a sense that Ukraine’s stability is threatened as politicians jockey for position before the May 25 presidential election.

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Dear journalists: When in Ukraine, try talking to Ukrainians

Hearing the confessions of soldiers shortly before they go into combat is one of the most important and symbolic duties performed by priests who serve as military chaplains representing Christianity’s ancient churches. After all, the soldiers are going into harm’s way and there is no way to know if they will return. In a way, the priest knows that he could be hearing the penitent’s final confession — turning this encounter into a kind of Last Rites for a person who is not sick unto death, but may be moments from death.

This brings me to the first photo — pictured above — in a remarkable online slideshow produced, using photos from a number of different news sources, by the foreign-affairs desk at The Washington Post.

This particular photo is from Getty Images. There is no way for me to know what kind of information was attached to this photo that could have been used by the copy-editor or editors who produced this feature. There is no way to know if the photographer had any way to talk to the specific priest or this penitent to obtain more information about what was happening in this dramatic scene.

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