Genuine fear brewing over post-invasion civil war in Ukraine

Retired US General thinks Ukraine could regain territory in 2023

The Orthodox Church and its religious believers celebrated Easter this weekend, the event always happening after the Jewish festival of Passover unlike in the Catholic and Protestant churches. Worshippers in both Ukraine and Russia, as well as other Orthodox countries, flooded into their grand churches to remember the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. But for those two countries in particular, the celebrations are bittersweet. While the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches have been separate since 2018, as the war in Ukraine intensifies, so too does the gap between the two faiths.

Now, has been told that such is the gulf that a civil war could well emerge in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion — a civil war based on a growing religious divide.

Ever since he ordered his troops’ invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to frame the war as a holy one. Only late last year did he say he was helping Ukraine to defend itself from Western “satanism”. It is but one in a long list of reasons, many regarded as bogus, Putin has given.

For decades, Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated branch of the Orthodox Church was the country’s only recognised church. But in 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a separate body with no ties to Russia, was given self-governing status by the head of the Orthodox church in Constantinople in Istanbul.

It meant that Ukraine’s estimated 30 million Orthodox believers were divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) and two other Orthodox Churches, one of which is the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

This is something Dr Katherine Kelaidis, Director of Research and Content at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, said could in the future lead to domestic unrest.

The Russia expert, who has recently written a book about Putin’s holy war, said there may be portions of the Orthodox population who come out the other side of the war hurt and angry with decisions made — noting how Orthodoxy in the region has for years been tied up with politics.

Since the war began, reports have emerged of Russian Orthodox sermons in Russia condemning Ukraine and the West. Patriarch Kirill, the controversial head of the Russian Orthodox Church and former KGB agent, has backed Putin’s war and told his followers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”

When asked whether this sentiment might seep into the Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine and farther afield, Dr Kelaidis said: “I think there is a genuine fear of a civil war in a post-war Ukraine.”

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She continued: “That even if Ukraine wins, even if they drive the Russians out [something may happen].

“Russia’s ability to wage this war is fairly tenuous. I don’t know what tricks Putin has up his sleeve, but if Ukraine is successful in expelling Russia from its territory, I think they could also be facing a civil war, because are there these [divisive] elements there.

“Is it the whole of the Orthodox Church of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? Is it everyone who goes to those churches? Certainly not, because you’re talking about a huge chunk of the Ukrainian population. Is it the old Russian speakers in Ukraine? Certainly not.

“But are there enough pockets of pro-Russian sentiment and of the agitators within the church, and other institutions, that you could have a civil war? Maybe.”

This month, Ukrainian investigators searched the home of Metropolitan Pavel Lebed, the leader of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that was previously loyal to the Moscow clergy.

Prosecutors in Kyiv say he is suspected of inciting national and religious hatred in Ukraine, and the city has tried to evict him and his followers from the monastery. It isn’t the first time he has faced such charges, having had a criminal case opened against him in 2018 “for inciting inter-faith hatred”.

Metropolitan Pavel has denied the allegations and says the Kyiv authorities have no legal grounds for evicting the monastery’s monks and staff.

Appearing in court in early April, he hit out at the investigation, calling it a “political case” and said, “I’ve never been on the side of aggression”.

“I’m against aggression. And now I’m in Ukraine – this is my land,” he added, before describing his current status as “house arrest”.

After the news broke, hundreds of worshippers gathered at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery to protest against the eviction and in support of the monks.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) claimed in a Telegram post that Metropolitan Pavel is suspected of “violating citizens’ equality” based on their racial, national and religious ties and that he has “repeatedly insulted the religious feelings of Ukrainians”, “humiliated” other faith groups and “tried to create hostile attitudes towards them”.

It posted recordings which it believes are phone intercepts of Metropolitan Pavel in which a male voice is heard saying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a “war between the Russian Federation and America until the last Ukrainian is killed”, claiming Ukrainian aggression provoked Russia.

The case is but one of many, and something that Dr Kelaidis warned about.

“There are these conservative, reactionary forces within the Orthodox Church, and there are these more modernising forces within the Orthodox Church,” she said. “[But this war] is a dangerous game for the church as a whole.”

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