Simferopol – On the day of the Crimean referendum, a Russian-speaking Orthodox priest, flanked by two soldiers in unmarked uniforms, walked into a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the military town of Perevalnoye, Crimea.
The Russian priest had made a 100km trip from Sevastopol to ask for proof that the Ukrainian church was properly registered. An hour-long theological debate ensued before soldiers and their accompanying priest left, according to the Ukrainian priest, Father Ivan Protoirey, 58.
Father Ivan said the priest from Sevastopol’s message was clear: The Ukrainian church that aligns with the Kiev Patriarch, Filaret, rather than the Moscow Patriarch, Kiril, would have no place in the new, Russian-controlled Crimea.
Three days later, on March 19, one of Father Ivan’s sons found a video clip of his father online that showed Ivan standing in front of his church, saying Russian soldiers should be shot. Ivan said he never uttered those words.
The clip had aired on a Crimean TV channel with close ties to the new Kremlin-backed Crimean government. With Russian troops and loosely organised militiamen camped outside the nearby Ukrainian military base at Perevalnoye which is located less than a 20 minute-drive away from his home, Father Ivan decided to leave.
That evening, the priest and his wife, along with their four children and their spouses, packed their belongings and drove across the Crimean border into Ukraine.
“Nobody is able to ensure the safety of Ukrainian Orthodox priests,” said Kliment, the Metropolitan (bishop in Orthodox church) of Simferopol and Crimea, referring to priests aligned with the Kiev Patriarchate. “The church in Kiev can’t protect us and Ukraine’s new government isn’t in a position to either.” Kliment said that most priests had taken their families out of Crimea.
About 600,000 Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who align with the Kiev Patriarchate live in Crimea, out of a total population of two million Crimeans.
“The Ukrainian Church in Crimea is a threat to Russian power,” said Maksym Vasin, a lawyer in Kiev who works with religious rights organisations. The presence of a separate church with stronger ties to Kiev rather than to Moscow undermines Russia’s presence in the region and could serve as a future rallying point for pro-Ukrainian Crimeans, Vasin told Al Jazeera during a phone interview from Kiev.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church headed by the Kiev Patriarchate broke away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1990s after Filaret appointed himself the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Moscow Patriarch's claim of primacy over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a way for Russia to proselytise the idea of a Russian world.
The two churches have nearly identical liturgies, though the Kiev Patriarchate sometimes carries out services in Ukrainian, rather than Old Church Slavonic.
Though Filaret was officially excommunicated from the Orthodox Church in 1997, the two camps have held intermittent meetings to discuss a reunification. However, this process would involve the Kiev Patriarchate submitting to the authority of the Moscow Patriarch and acknowledging its wrongdoings, said Lydmila Aleksandrovna, a religious scholar at the National Institute of Philosophy in Kiev, Ukraine.
“The Moscow Patriarch’s claim of primacy over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a way for Russia to proselytise the idea of a Russian world,” said Aleksandrovna.
Throughout Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speeches on the Ukraine crisis as well as the Crimean annexation, he has used phrases such as “Russian world,” and referred to Ukraine as Russia’s brothers, appealing to the idea of a shared Orthodox, Slavic heritage.
Moscow Patriarch Kirill has used similar phrasing, referring to the importance of the a united Russian world and civilisation, joined together in one church.
However, as Ukraine continues to struggle to separate itself from Moscow, the Moscow Patriarch’s links to a Kremlin-backed, Russian patriarch could work against the Kremlin’s cause.
Winning Crimea, losing Ukraine
While Russia gained a peninsula of the faithful, the Moscow Patriarch lost standing with many Ukrainians, said Dmitry Uzianer, an associate professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
Even within the Moscow Patriarchate, there were mixed receptions of the EuroMaidan protests and the new government in Kiev, said Father Cyril Hovorun, a lecturer at Yale University and member of the church.
Some priests within the Moscow Patriarchate even participated in the EuroMaidan protests, while others kept quiet, or toed a more pro-Russian, pro-Yanukovich line.
The revolution in Ukraine threatened the Russian government’s power in the region, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church’s sway in Ukrainian religious affairs. The Orthodox Church, according to some analysts, will have a more difficult time winning the hearts and minds of Ukrainians, after the annexation of Crimea, as it’s increasingly seen too close to the Kremlin.
“Kirill did not support the Crimean affair,” Uzianer told Al Jazeera during a phone interview from Moscow. In the case of Crimea, the goal of the Russian Church and the Russian government contradict one another. “It’s one story when you want to influence a region. It’s another when you take part of its territory.”