Ukraine’s Unholy War

Ukrainians have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in Kiev; protesting the regime’s eviction of the clergy and monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra cathedral and monastery — the most revered Orthodox Christian site in the country. On Saturday (1 April 2023), a Kiev court sentenced Metropolitan Pavel of Vyshgorod and Chornobyl, the abbot of the monastery, to a period of house arrest. The Ukrainian government has accused him and many of the priests and monks of supporting Russian aggression; charges the Metropolitan and clergy strenuously deny.

This move by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has sent shockwaves over the country. Orthodox Christians have come out to protest the decision, Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines have expressed their outrage, Orthodox churches around the world have made statements of alarm, and — in Rome — Pope Francis (accepted by Orthodox Christians as the ‘Patriarch of the West’) has made a special plea for the Ukrainian government to respect the freedom of religious sites and the neutrality of Orthodox clergy and religious (consecrated persons such as monks and nuns).

Yet, this is not the Kiev regime’s first assault on the Orthodox Church. Since the beginning of hostilities with Russia a year ago, the SBU — the Ukrainian state security service — and a number of extreme far-right paramilitary organisations aligned to the government have been waging a systematic terror campaign against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Priests have been abducted — often in broad daylight and during Sunday services, tortured, and ‘disappeared.’

Other than reporting on the developing situation at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery, western media outlets have been loath to discuss this religious conflict for fear of confusing the overly simplistic narrative favoured by NATO and the European Union that Ukraine — a wholly innocent victim — is existentially threatened by aggressive Russian expansionism. But religious sectarian conflict within Ukraine, a conflict which has been festering from the early 1920s, is a crucial element of the Ukrainian conflict and an understanding of it is essential if we are to appreciate something of the broader conflict between Russia and post-Maidan Ukraine.

At the heart of the far-right Maidan agenda — the 2014 coup d’état supported by openly Nazi paramilitary groups and political organisations — is the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Kulturkampf against the Orthodox Church; a struggle with its roots in the country’s Nazi era past. Ukrainian nationalists describe the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as the ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ because of its relationship to the Patriarchate of Moscow; claiming for their own national orthodox churches an independent Kiev Patriarchate — an entirely modern nationalistic invention unrecognised by the Orthodox churches around the world. There is no Kiev Patriarchate.

So, what is a Patriarchate? Before the Great Schism of the Christian Church in 1054 the Christian world was governed by five leading bishoprics across the Roman Empire — Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome — each headed by a patriarch or ‘pope.’ Each Patriarchate is headed by a Patriarch; a pope in his own right, mutually recognised by the other Christian patriarchates. From the Great Schism the Patriarch of Rome has typically been styled ‘Pope’ while the Eastern Orthodox churches have retained the ‘Patriarch’ title, but both terms are derived from the word Patris/Papa (‘father’). Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the city became part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the Patriarchate of Moscow was established in 1589 — becoming the ecclesial governing authority of all the Rus; that is both the Kievan Rus (modern Ukraine) and what would eventually become Tsarist and modern Russia. This Patriarchate was recognised as a canonical Patriarchate by the other Orthodox churches.

Since then, a small number of new patriarchates have been established and recognised as valid and canonical; Romania, Serbia, Georgia, and Bulgaria. Kiev’s Orthodox history began with the conversion of the Kievan Rus under Volodymyr I, but not as a Patriarchal See (the seat of an Orthodox Patriarch). The idea of the Patriarchate of Kiev — which no Orthodox church recognises — emerged in the 1920s after the founding of the non-canonical and unrecognised Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and later with the schismatic Orthodox Church of Ukraine (also non-canonical and unrecognised) that broke away from the canonical and recognised Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev, Metropolitan Filaret, attempted to break the Ukrainian Orthodox Church away from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Hierarchical Council, the governing council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, convened a synod in Kharkiv at which Filaret was formally stripped of his title and ecclesiastical powers by the majority of Ukraine’s bishops. But with the support of just three bishops and ultra-nationalist paramilitaries he declared himself ‘Patriarch of Kiev’ — the head of his very own ‘orthodox’ church.

At a unification conference in December 2018 these unrecognised and non-canonical ‘national churches’ — the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Filaret’s schismatic Kiev Patriarchy merged to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (as opposed to the ancient and canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church). This new ecclesial entity was viewed as a phyletism — the belief that each nation should have its own church; a ‘heresy’ condemned by all Orthodox churches — by all the canonical Orthodox churches. Not only was the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine (a minority church) seen as schismatic and hence unorthodox, it was heretical.

Historically too, it is a deeply problematic state-aligned ‘church’ — not entirely dissimilar to the German Nazi regime’s Deutsche Evangelische Kirche from 1933 to 1945. In October 2018, the self-proclaimed Patriarch of Kiev, Filaret, visited Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in western Ukraine to bless a strange icon of St George; a blasphemous icon covered in Nazi symbolism with the dragon replaced by a double-headed eagle — the symbol of Russia. In April 2019, the schismatic Metropolitan of Kiev, Epiphany Dumenko (now the ‘Patriarch of Kiev’), praised Stepan Bandera as a ‘genius who created the Ukrainian nation and spirit.’ Bandera was a Nazi collaborator whose Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists assisted the SS-Einsatzgruppen in numerous massacres of Ukrainian Jews in the early 1940s — including at Lvov and Babi Yar.

During the Nazi occupation of Ukraine (1941-44) bishops and priests of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church called from their pulpits — in the name of the ‘nation and spirit’ of Ukraine — for the murder of Jews and ethnic Poles. Between one and one-point-six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust in Ukraine and over one hundred thousand Poles and Czechs were slaughtered by Ukrainian nationalists during the Volyn massacres (1943-45).

Interviewed recently on Sky News Australia, Tim Andrews, a columnist for The American Conservative, noted before he was cut short by the anchor:

Elements in the Ukrainian government have launched a crackdown against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — the largest church by far in the country, a Christian church — trying to evict them from the headquarters of their most holy site … they are being evicted as part of a campaign by elements in the government who seem to have some sort of anti-religious agenda.

In his article for The American Conservative, ‘Showdown at the Lavra’ (22 March 2023), he quoted the fear of Archbishop Victor Kotsaba of Baryshivka, a Ukrainian Orthodox prelate, that ‘independent radicals’ from the government-backed ultra-nationalist church (the minority Orthodox Church of Ukraine) ‘will descend on the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra cathedral.’ Certainly, this does seem to be the plan. The Kiev regime, already in the midst of a cultural genocide of the Russian language in the country (including book burnings), hopes to replace the ancient Ukrainian Orthodox Church — because of its ecclesiastical relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church — with a state-sponsored and radical right-wing and ethno-nationalist organisation masquerading as an Orthodox church. These are not the actions of a government defending ‘western values.’

Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (an Orthodox church that has been self-governing since 1990), condemned the Russian invasion, stating unequivocally: that is has ‘no justification either with God or with men’ and has ‘brought death and destruction to the Ukrainian land.’ Last year the monks of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Monastery of the Dormition donated 180 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the Armed Forces of Ukraine — not exactly the behaviour of a Russia-aligned fifth columnist institution.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, recognised the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 — and, interestingly, this is the only Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate in a NATO member state (Türkiye). While His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople has the right to sign such a tomo (recognition), he has meddled in the religious affairs of another Patriarchate — much like Patriarch Kirill of Moscow making canonical decisions for the Roman Catholic Church or for the Holy See. It’s an overreach that has now caused a further breach between Constantinople and all the other Orthodox churches.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.


Andrews, Tim. “Showdown at the Lavra.” The American Conservative, March 22, 2023.

Australia, Sky News. “Ukraine Cracks down on Orthodox Church Headquarters in ‘Anti-Religious Agenda.’” Video. YouTube, March 26, 2023.

BBC News. “Ukraine Accuses Orthodox Church Leader Pavel of Pro-Russian Stance.” BBC News, April 1, 2023.

Bremer, Thomas. “Which Orthodox Church in Ukraine Is the Largest?” Public Orthodoxy, November 9, 2022.

Orthodox Christianity. “Confusion Surrounds Incident with Ukrainian Priest Being Dragged out of Church,” March 23, 2022.

Dettmer, Jamie. “Ukraine Hunts Collaborators in Its Divided Church.” POLITICO, December 9, 2022.

Konstantinova, Elena. “OCU ‘Priest’: Bandera Carried out God’s Mission on Earth.” Spzh.News, January 3, 2022.–svyashhennik-pcu.

KyivPost. “Why Ukraine Has Two Rival Orthodox Churches (Honest History. Episode 9).” Video. YouTube, September 1, 2018.

Orthodox Christianity. “False Patriarch Philaret Blesses a Nationalist Mural with Nazi Symbolism.” Orthodox Christianity. Accessed April 4, 2023.

———. “Ukrainian Nationalist Church Proud to Follow in Nazi Bandera’s Footsteps, Primate Says.” Orthodox Christianity, April 15, 2019.

Orthodox Church. “Ukrainian Nationalists Kidnap the Orthodox Priest.” Video. YouTube, March 28, 2022.

Reuters. “Russian Orthodox Head Appeals against Eviction of Church from Kyiv.” Reuters, March 11, 2023.

Ritter, Karl. “Ukrainian Court Puts an Orthodox Leader under House Arrest.” Associated Press, April 1, 2023.