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(Catholic Culture) – As the threatened Russian invasion of Ukraine becomes a sad reality, take a look behind the headlines about the military campaign, and consider the religious dimension of the crisis: The leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow have denounced the Russian invasion.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. Ukraine is a mostly Orthodox nation (albeit with a heavy Byzantine Catholic presence, particularly in the west). But the Orthodox Church there has been split since the country gained its independence, with a newly autocephalous (that is, self-governing) Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) to rival the larger faction affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

Not surprisingly, the UOC has strongly favored the Kiev government, and denounced Russian expansionism. But the UOC-MP has been quiet, no doubt loath to cause tensions with its brothers in Moscow—until the invasion began.

Now the UOC-MP leadership has denounced Russian belligerence. And even the Moscow Patriarchate itself is choosing its words carefully. Ukraine is a religious country, and Putin has alienated the largest religious bloc.

The results could be long-lasting for the Orthodox community in Ukraine. A new poll shows that roughly two-thirds of all Ukrainian Orthodox, including those of the UOC-MP, side with the OCU in its support the Kiev government. As patriotic feelings grow stronger, support for the UOC-MP weakens, and the poll shows a strong trend away from the Moscow-linked UOC-MP.

That trend must worry the Moscow Patriarchate, because it seriously undermines the claims of the Russian Church to leadership in the Orthodox world. Moscow’s claim to leadership is based on the size of its Orthodox population, which dwarfs that of any other Orthodox body. But many of the faithful claimed by Moscow actually live in Ukraine.

And whereas the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is vigorous, in Russia the churches are often empty; the number of active church-going Russian Orthodox is a mere fraction of what the census figures suggest.

To that, add the significance of Kiev as the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, which proudly traces its lineage to the Baptisms of the Rus’ in 988, and you can understand why the growth of the autonomous Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a major concern for the Moscow Patriarchate.

There is a remedy for Moscow’s fears, of course. A Russian-backed regime could outlaw the upstart Orthodox body in Ukraine—as the Russian-backed regime in the occupied eastern region of the country has already done. The Catholic Church, too, has been effectively shut down since 2018 in the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Bear in mind that the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was brutally suppressed the last time Moscow gained control over Ukraine, during the bloody Stalin years. Western observers might have thought that a Putin-led Russian regime would govern with a gentler hand; this week’s developments suggest otherwise.

Why did Pope Francis take the unprecedented step of visiting the Russian ambassador? Obviously the Pontiff wanted to make a plea for peace. But why couldn’t he, as a head of state, contact Putin directly? According to one unconfirmed report, the Pope did reach out to Putin, and the Russian leader refused to take the call!

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Culture