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Ukrainian Orthodox Churches Face Own Crisis

Archbishop Clement of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, center, walks past a pro-Russian armored vehicle, soldiers, Ukrainian military base, Perevalne, March 15, 2014.

Archbishop Clement of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, center, walks past a pro-Russian armored vehicle, soldiers, Ukrainian military base, Perevalne, March 15, 2014.

It is a relatively quiet Sunday and adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate are praying at St. Michael's Golden Domed Cathedral.

Last month, the grounds of this picturesque monastic complex sheltered a field hospital and morgue for Maidan protesters battling to oust president Viktor Yanukovych.

The clergy of the Kyiv Patriarchate blessed the anti-government protesters and rolled up their cassock sleeves to help build barricades themselves.

But now, openly critical of Russia's Crimean takeover, Archbishop Yevstraty talks with visitors in the gardens where bird song has replaced the rage and pain of revolution.

While most of the world saw the dramatic ouster of the Moscow-allied Yanukovych as purely a political event, there was a powerful religious undertone that was setting the stage for a major realignment of Orthodox Christianity throughout the country.

As the archbishop recalls the street brawls and retort of sniper fire, he says the church defied Yanukovych and barred Special Forces from deploying on church grounds.

The larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is an autonomous church that is a subordinate of the Russian Orthodox Church - positioned itself above the Maidan protests, praying for reconciliation and urging dialogue.

But some senior figures were openly critical, with one bishop saying Maidan protesters had "evil in their hearts." The Moscow Patriarch himself has adopted also a more neutral position on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, issuing generic pleas for peace.

The Moscow Patriarchate's Father Georgy Kovalenko says his church is with the people of Ukraine and its focus has been on bringing Ukrainian people together and avoiding the conflicts of the past that gave rise to foundation of the Kyiv Patriarchate.

The strategy appears to be failing. The politics of revolution and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine have widened a religious rupture that first emerged during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Primate Filaret broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. He argued that an independent Ukraine deserved a national church truly independent of Moscow.

Now some of the Moscow Patriarch's parishes are rebelling and threatening to defect to the rival Kyiv Patriarch.

Archbishop Yevstraty says rebel churches in western Ukraine have dropped from the liturgy a prayer for the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, an ally of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Of the two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate has more parishes - 12,000 to the Kyiv Patriarchate's 5,000. But buildings don't translate into followers. Before the Maidan protests, polls suggested the Kyiv Patriarch commanded the loyalty of 30 percent of Ukrainians with 20 percent aligning with the Moscow Patriarch.

Cultural historian Vladyslava Osmak suspects more of Ukraine's faithful now will switch allegiance to the Kyiv Patriarch.

"Because they greatly helped to [the] participants of Maidan campaign, to those people who needed protection and shelter. Priests of this church were always together with people on barricades praying and fighting with them," said Osmak.

And she argues a weakening of the Moscow Patriarchate will further reshape the cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia. That would undermine President Putin's claim that Kyiv is "the mother of Russian cities," a description based on the fact that Russian civilization and Orthodoxy were birthed in Ukraine's capital city.

"Having no Kyiv makes a lot of difficulties to Russian ideology in general. Kyiv is seen as the root of Russian culture," she said.

The city is also at the root of Ukrainian culture and so Kyiv seems destined to remain in dispute for some time.

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