The leaders of the central branch of the Orthodox church in Ukraine made a formal break with the hierarchy in Moscow in April, widening a schism in a church that was already divided before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said at the time that it disagreed with the position of Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has been a strong backer of President Vladimir V. Putin and the invasion, repeatedly blessing Russian military forces and avoided condemning attacks on civilians.
The church in Ukraine had been under the wing of the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries, and its departure markedly decreased the size of the patriarch’s flock because Ukrainians attend church in greater numbers than Russians.
But it is unclear how many of the bishops and parishes in Ukraine followed the lead of the council, or how many have tried to stick with Moscow. The church is increasingly an object of distrust in Ukraine, with government officials who once courted church leaders speaking openly about suspicions that some priests are collaborating with Moscow.
Before the announcement of the break with the hierarchy in Moscow, about half the 45 dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had already stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill in their prayer services, the first step toward a formal rupture. Hundreds of Orthodox priests in Ukraine had signed an open letter demanding that Patriarch Kirill face a religious tribunal over the war.
Disputes within the church, which can last for centuries, revolve around complicated questions of doctrine and authority.
Each of the 15 branches of the Orthodox church enjoys significant sovereignty. The main spiritual guide for Eastern Orthodoxy, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople — Patriarch Bartholomew — holds much less authority than the pope, for example. The Moscow Patriarchate has sought to anoint itself as the true seat of Orthodoxy ever since Constantinople, now Istanbul, fell to Islamic invaders in 1453.
Ukraine has been a particular source of antagonism between the two hierarchs. In 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew granted independence, to a previously unsanctioned church in Ukraine, which had been subordinate to Moscow since 1686.
Afterward, the Russian church severed contacts with Bartholomew. More than half Ukraine’s parishes rejected the decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian church. Those parishes remained loyal to Moscow.