US State Department on Ukraine: ‘Any Decision on Autocephaly Is an Internal Church Matter’


Last week the website of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko posted an account of his meeting in Kiev with Ambassador Sam Brownback, former US Senator and Governor of Kansas, currently Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. According to the posting, “President Poroshenko outlined the measures taken to establish the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Head of State thanked the American party [i.e., Brownback] for an active support in this process.” Moreover, according to Kiev, Brownback assured Poroshenko that the United States would further support Ukraine in its struggle for “the right to have the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.”

Poroshenko’s administration thus claimed explicit and public American official endorsement for his quest for the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople to grant autocephaly (complete self-rule among the various member Churches of the Orthodox Christian communion) to a schismatic body headed by self-styled “Patriarch Filaret” Denysenko – an entity recognized as canonical by no local Orthodox church in the world, including (as of this writing) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself. As noted in this space two months ago when hardly anyone was paying attention, this effort by Poroshenko, Denysenko, and their supporters is part of a two-pronged attack against Russia and against the Holy Orthodox Church itself, in part to further the agenda of academic purveyors of moral/sexual LGBT and “genderqueer” theology like “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” and the hardly less revolutionary “Orthodox Christian Studies Center” at Fordham University – both, unsurprisingly, staunch supporters of Constantinople’s neo-papal pretensions.

Kiev’s account of the Brownback-Poroshenko meeting immediately seemed suspicious when it was first noticed by this analyst. Brownback is a careful and principled advocate for religious freedom. While as a State Department official he is bound by administration policy – which is overtly anti-Russian, whatever President Donald Trump’s preferences may be – Brownback would know better than to wade into the internal canonical affairs of Orthodoxy, in which he has no particular authority. Upon investigation it seems he said nothing of the sort attributed to him concerning Poroshenko’s claimed “right to have the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.”

Support for that suspicion is found in the words of a high State Department official, Ambassador Michael Kozak, speaking at the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe, who stated on September 13: “… the United States is a staunch supporter of religious freedom, including the freedom of members of religious groups to govern their religion according to their tenets. We therefore believe any decision on autocephaly is an internal church matter.” (video at 2:52:29; -12:21) Granted, Kozak introduced and concluded his short remarks with the standard anti-Russian rhetoric, but the point is clear: contra Poroshenko, the US government hasnot taken an overt official stand in support of Ukrainian autocephaly.

One would hardly know that from the behavior of Poroshenko and Denysenko, who seem to think that the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is not only a matter to be decided from on high by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (about which more below) but by western geopolitical “experts” who wouldn’t know Orthodoxy from orthodontia. Like mushrooms in Ukraine’s forests, analyses of the Ukrainian church situation have popped up in learned Orthodox theological journals like The Economist and NewsweekTaras Kuzio, writing for the Atlantic Council, a top establishment think tank funded heavily by US and foreign government agencies and their corporate contractors (at page 64) but not particularly renowned for its spiritual perspicacity, weighed in with what clearly are the real goals of the push for autocephaly, which are entirely political and directed at Russia:

‘It’s no exaggeration to write that the granting of autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church to Ukraine’s millions of Orthodox believers is as significant as the disintegration of the USSR for Ukraine. Granting Ukraine’s Orthodox Church a Tomos [from Orthowiki: a small book that contains a major announcement or similar text promulgated by a holy synod, such as a recognition of autocephaly] is the last step Ukraine needs to take in order to become truly independent. [ … ]

‘With the Russian Orthodox Church as the last source of Putin’s soft power now gone, Ukraine’s movement out of Russia’s orbit is irreversible. The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is Ukraine’s ultimate answer to Putin’s aggression.’

Not surprisingly Denysenko was reverently received in Washington by the Atlantic Council on September 19, which also by pure coincidence was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. In an address (video) heavy on politics and hostility to Russia and meager on anything relevant to tradition or spirituality, Denysenko confirmed that his own “church” is currently illicit in the eyes of the whole Orthodox world and would (he contended with no supporting authority) be legitimated by a Tomos, absent which many people would remain hesitant to join it. He also confirmed it would up to the Ukrainian government to decide upon the seizure from their rightful owners, the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, of major centers like the Kiev Pechersk (Caves) Lavra and the Holy Dormition Pochaev Lavra – all “peacefully,” of course, and in accordance with law.

The abbot of Pechersk reports that violent threats have already begun. If and when fighting breaks out, we can be sure that western governments, think tanks, and media will with one voice rush to blame it all solely on Russian meddling, not on militant nationalist supporters of autocephaly, many of whom are not even believers:

‘“Soon there will be one unified national church,” says Crimean Tatar journalist Aider Mudzhabayev in his videoblog, “I see this as a big step forward. God willing….hmmm, I’m an atheist, but God willing it’ll go that way”.

‘For many “church passers-by” [i.e., occasional or nominal] and atheists like Mudzhabayev, “our” “Ukrainian” church should be recognised and receive a Tomos on autocephaly. [ . . . ]

‘The main thing, after all, is to create a symbol: an Independent United National Ukrainian Church – patriotic and recognised by Orthodoxy around the world.

‘In the circumstances, however, this united church is very unlikely to be genuinely united. Practicing believers, who mostly belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, will not join it. This will be for various reasons: their conservatism, their conception of the unity of the Russian Church and their reputation in the eyes of the public. In this sense, the united national church – if it receives its Tomos – will be merely a symbolic victory for Ukraine’s patriotic “church passers-by”.’

Poroshenko, who hopes achievement of a united national church will be his ticket to reelection next year, is also making his pitch to the DC Swamp’s powerbrokers. Via a Washington Post interview with Lally Weymouth, whose lack of interest in the issue is palpable even through the medium of print, once the important stuff like Ukraine’s becoming a “full member of the European Union and of NATO” has been dealt with, it’s evident that Poroshenko’s case is entirely a political one against Russia:

‘We have another topic — the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia.

‘Q: I hear that you’re the architect of an imminent deal regarding the orthodox church.

‘A: I am proud of that. I hate the idea that the Ukrainian church is manipulated from Moscow.

‘Q: Has it been manipulated by Moscow?

‘A: Yes, because the formal patriarch of part of our church is Russian, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. We hate to accept that. We asked the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to give us independence. Shortly, we will have an independent Ukrainian church as part of an independent Ukraine. This will create a spiritual independence from Russia.’

Now the next step is up to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his purported “exarchs” sent from North America to Kiev without agreement from Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, who heads the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine.Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Moscow Patriarchate suggests they may be planning to reconsecrate Denysenko’s schismatic “hierarchs” to “at least give them the appearance of legitimacy,” as “at least two bishops are needed to celebrate an episcopal consecration.” Such an action, which would be the equivalent of a declaration of war against Moscow, is itself a tacit admission that the priestly orders of Denysenko’s “church” are invalid, and that in Ukraine the only canonical hierarchy recognized by the entire world – including Constantinople! – is the one led by Metropolitan Onufry, who has not asked for autocephaly.

Almost ignored in western accounts of the dispute is the fact that Constantinople has no lawful power to reach into the territory of another autocephalous church to consecrate bishops and confer canonical status on schismatics. The contrast is painfully apparent between Patriarch Bartholomew’s increasingly extravagant claims of papal or even imperial authority (for example, in his failed bid, after decades of preparation, to convene an “Eighth” Ecumenical Council, a modernizing Orthodox “Vatican II” in 2016) and the virtual absence of an organic flock within his own home area. If it were not for administration of the Greek Diaspora (including this analyst) in places like the Americas, Australia, and parts of Western Europe – which Constantinople has only by virtue of its status of the once-great capital of the Christian East Roman Empire, Constantine’s “New Rome,” Царьград (Tsargrad) to the Slavs, Miklagard (Great City) to the Vikings – the Constantinopolitan synod is revealed as a group of bishops almost without any people, a rotten borough able to count perhaps only a few hundred mostly elderly Greeks left huddled in Istanbul’s Fener district. As Saint John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco observed decades ago, Constantinople had even then become in truth only a “pitiful spectacle,” a sorry shadow of its former glory, even while “in theory embracing almost the whole universe.” If the Ecumenical Patriarch imprudently unleashes the worldwide schism now looming, forcing other autocephalous Churches to choose sides, it cannot be excluded that one casualty may be his own See’s fictional and anachronistic standing.

Returning to the official position of the US government, Kozak at least is correct in stating that the status of Ukraine’s church is an internal Orthodox affair. Whether that can be relied on is another matter, in light of Denysenko’s open appeal for American support during his Atlantic Council talk. It should also be noted that the Greek government, which has been moving towards closer cooperation with NATO in light of growing discord between Washington and Ankara, has undertaken a campaign of harassment against Russian clergy seeking visas to Greece and specifically to enter as pilgrims en route to Mount Athos. A few months ago, as the church controversy was building, Ernst Reichel, the German Ambassador in Kiev, openly endorsed autocephaly for Ukraine.

In short, given the level of political interest in sowing havoc in the Orthodox Church and taking a jab at Russia, a hands-off approach from Washington, Brussels, Berlin, etc. cannot be taken for granted – whatever the pro forma stated position of the State Department. All Orthodox believers, as well as anyone genuinely dedicated to freedom of conscience, should join in inviting the US and NATO governments to just butt out of where they don’t belong.