What did Vladimir Zelensky and Patriarch Bartholomew not agree on?

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky. Photo: UOJ

What the Orthodox believers should expect after the visit of the President of Ukraine to Phanar

The visit of President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was most likely planned long ago. True though, it became known just a few days before. But this does not downplay its significance and, moreover, cannot justify statements that the visit was poorly prepared and its results are not important.

There are practically no impromptu and poorly prepared events at such a high level, and any result can be crucial.

What mutual expectations were

Of course, expectations from the upcoming meeting between Zelensky and Patriarch Bartholomew were different. Believers of the canonical Church hoped that the President would continue to move in the direction he had chosen before taking up his presidency, namely, the separation of the Church from the state. There were prerequisites for this.

Firstly, Vladimir Zelensky has never ever allowed himself to speak in the spirit of ex-President Poroshenko about the “Moscow Church”.

Secondly, he defiantly distanced himself from any religious organization, refusing to take part in the celebrations on the occasion of the Baptism of Rus.

Thirdly, Zelensky does not support radicals and local authorities in terms of raider seizures of Orthodox temples, which is why the number of these seizures has significantly decreased.

On the other hand, representatives of the Ukrainian schism, although opposed to the President, to put it mildly, skeptically, also had certain expectations from the upcoming meeting.

They were encouraged, firstly, by the fact that Zelensky had agreed to meet with the patriarch. It was not in vain that the head of the OCU, Epiphany Dumenko, bowed to the American Ambassador in Ukraine, while the spokesman of his organization, Eustraty Zoria, traveled to the United States several times.

Secondly, although the president did not speak out “for” raider actions against the UOC, he is also silent “against”. This means that the schismatics have the hope, albeit weak, that sooner or later everything will resume its natural course.

Zelensky does not support radicals and local authorities in terms of raider seizures of Orthodox temples, which is why the number of these seizures has significantly decreased.

Representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople also had certain expectations from the visit of the President of Ukraine to Phanar.

Firstly, they understood that the failure of Poroshenko in the elections would definitely affect the attitude of Ukrainians towards the Tomos and everything connected with it. Without the support of state power, the approval of the split within Ukraine is almost impossible. It is no secret that even under the strongest pressure on the UOC by the authorities – both information and force – it was not possible to achieve any tangible results.

The transition of just two bishops from almost a hundred and several dozen parishes from 13,000 is nothing – complete zero. Especially in the light of the assurances of both Filaret Denisenko and Epiphanius Dumenko that after the Tomos has been granted, believers will move from the canonical Church to the OCU as entire dioceses. But they do not. Moreover, they oppose to it strongly. So Phanar is well aware of the fact that without the support of the authorities the process will not only stop completely but, most likely, will move in the opposite direction.

The second thing, which, apparently, was counted on in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is the confirmation of the agreements between Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew before the granting of the Tomos. They concerned primarily Stavropegia and real estate, which was supposed to be transferred to Phanar. It is not known whether Poroshenko was going to fulfill his promises in full, since the Phanariots have so far received only St. Andrew's church in Kiev, which used to belong to the UAOC. It is likely that there were plans for other buildings not only in Kiev, but also in Ukraine (for example, by all accounts one of the churches of the UAOC in Lvov could be transferred to Phanar).

However, it is not difficult to guess that Filaret refused point-blank to make gifts to Phanar, and so did the head of the UAOC Makary Maletich. Given this state of things, the ex-President could promise the Patriarchate of Constantinople to give up the temples and monasteries that now belong to the UOC. But Poroshenko was not elected for a second term, thus the Constantinople prospect of owning, for example, the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, almost fell into oblivion.

Therefore, Phanar needed guarantees that cooperation would continue and promises would be kept. Otherwise, the delivery of the Tomos is a complete failure, since Phanar has run foul of the Orthodox around the world and received no dividends from Ukraine. In this sense, the meeting with the new President of Ukraine was supposed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and give Phanariots an answer to the question what awaits them next.

Results – pros and cons

From the point of view of the UOC Orthodox, the outcome of Vladimir Zelensky’s trip to Istanbul turned out to be better than could be expected.

He did not take a single representative of the OCU with him (recall that Poroshenko traveled to Istanbul with a whole retinue of OCU men in robes). Therefore, he went to Patriarch Bartholomew with an already established plan of action, which did not include unconditional support for the Ukrainian schismatics.

In addition, the absence of Ukrainian schismatics in Zelensky’s team says that the President himself and his entourage are well aware that the OCU is another political camp in which Zelensky will never be a “cater-cousin”. To prove the attitude of representatives of the Ukrainian schism to the new president of the country, it is enough to recall the rhetoric of “priests” Alexander Dediukhin and Bogdan Kulik.

The second and most important point: Zelensky did not sign the text of a joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew. Why couldn't they agree?

Unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky did not take a single representative of the OCU to Phanar. It means he was going there with an action plan that did not include the support of schismatics.

This suggests that the parties failed to agree on key issues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine claims that the text of the statement was devoted to the environment. The President’s Office refused to comment on anything, thereby transparently hinting that the statement was not about the environment.

One needs to understand that such documents are not written “on the knee”, but are prepared in advance. All controversial issues are discussed in advance and compromise solutions are found. If Zelensky did not sign a preliminarily prepared document, this means only one thing – no trade-off solutions were found.

Of course, it could not be about insignificant statements about the environment. Moreover, Zelensky could hardly go to Phanar to discuss environmental problems of Ukraine with Patriarch Bartholomew. There are other people and other structures for this task.

From this perspective, we can clearly conclude: Kiev and Phanar could not agree on further prospects for the development of OCU.

We cannot know what really happened in Istanbul. But how emotional the negotiations were can be judged by the photo posted by one of the President’s team members on his Facebook page.

Vladimir Zelensky and Patriarch Bartholomew. Photo: Facebook

The essence and content of the conversation between the President and the Patriarch is also indicated by the communiqué published on the website of the Patriarchate of Constantinople following the meeting. In it, besides meaningless phrases, there is an emphasis on the fact that the "Patriarchate of Constantinople does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ukrainian Church" and that the OCU is an "independent and autocephalous Church".

Apparently, it was the question of real, not virtual independence that was most heatedly discussed at Phanar. And most likely, it was this issue that the parties could not come to any agreement.

Why Zelensky needs an independent OCU

It can be assumed there were several reasons for Zelensky to secure actual independence for the OCU.

1.    The OCU is a political project of former President Poroshenko, who continues to be dependent on it. Political losers from the camp of the so-called "patriots" of Ukraine are also trying to stick to the OCU. For example, not so long ago, Oleg Liashko, who declared his opposition to the new government, prayed in the altar at the services of the OCU and received an award from the hands of Epiphany. Poroshenko, which is not hard to guess, gets on well with Patriarch Bartholomew and other higher hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is through them (as well as through some Ukrainian politicians) that he can exert pressure on the leadership of the OCU. Therefore, the separation of the newly created Church from Phanar is a strategic task that should help Zelensky to depoliticize this structure, if it is possible altogether.

2.    The full and real autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine will, to some extent, help the new president win over those “patriots” who advocate the independence of the OCU from Phanar. This can be done quite simply – it is enough to make changes to the text of the Tomos that the OCU has the right to make myrrh, to have its own parishes abroad and to independently solve its internal issues. 
It seems that Patriarch Bartholomew agreed only with the third thesis, since he understands that for the time being he cannot really influence what is happening inside the newly created structure. In the future, of course, this may change. It is for this purpose that the Phanariots ordained the first Greek bishop for the OCU. It is likely that other Greeks will appear. Representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (the so-called exarchs, the first of whom has already settled in St. Andrew’s church in Kiev) will be appointed to Ukraine. They alongside young personnel from Ukraine, who will be well-trained in Greece, will defend the interests of the Patriarchate of Constantinople inside the OCU.
Yes, it is a matter of time, but Phanar is used to thinking for several years ahead. That is why it is so important now for the Patriarchate of Constantinople to maintain the dependent status of the OCU. From the church point of view, this is possible just by means of myrrh-making and supervising external activities. Zelensky, apparently, demanded a revision of these points. Patriarch Bartholomew did not agree.

3.    Blogger Alexander Voznesensky suggests that Zelensky’s refusal to sign the document is a signal that the new government will support Filaret Denisenko. In his opinion, such a position of the president could be dictated by the desire to repay Denisenko for his support in the elections. It is difficult to say how fair this opinion is, but it can be assumed that if something like this happened, it was most likely dictated by Zelensky’s desire to put an end to the scandal between the OCU and the UOC-KP. For example, Filaret had repeatedly stated that he was ready to make peace with Epiphany, if the latter agreed to his conditions, voiced even before the “Unification Council”.
Why does Zelensky need it? By supporting Filaret, who may return to the OCU as a “patriarch,” the president will receive his supporters within this religious structure, which is very important in light of the confrontation between the old and the new power.

4.    Of course, there remains one more reason why Zelensky refused to sign a joint statement with the Patriarch of Constantinople. This is the president’s real unwillingness to interfere in the affairs of the Church. Zelensky from the very beginning of his election campaign made it clear that he did not intend to involve a religious component in his political activity. According to him, faith in God is an intimate affair, and no one has any right to intervene in it. At least until today, not a single Zelensky’s act, not a single word of his has given reason to think that he has changed his position on this issue. He pointedly distances himself from all Churches and does not participate in any church events.
For the OCU and the UGCC, this is a very alarming and unpleasant signal, especially in light of the fact that both Poroshenko and other Ukrainian politicians are strongly advocating for these religious structures. Moreover, the schismatics and the Uniates themselves existed all the years of independence of Ukraine only in close cooperation with the government. They build all of their teachings and ideology not on Christ and the Gospel, but solely on political factors – nationalism, state independence of Ukraine and the national character of the Church. It is enough to recall that the UOC-KP arose under the slogan "an independent Church to an independent state".
What the OCU and the UGCC will do if they should find themselves without state support is completely incomprehensible. What they will talk about when the need to talk about politics disappears is also not clear. They exist only because there was a request from the state for religious support for the ideas of nationalism. When this request disappears, the dissenters themselves will also vanish.

If this is indeed so and Zelensky did not sign a statement out of reluctance to interfere in the affairs of the Church and support the schismatics, then journalist Yuri Molchanov is right when he said that in this way the President seriously approached the Kingdom of Heaven.

Anyway, after Zelensky’s visit to Phanar we have more reasons for joy than grief. He made no advances in support of the Tomos and schismatics, said nothing that would cast a shadow over the canonical Church and, finally, tried to take Patriarch Bartholomew down a peg.

On the other hand, we are not drawing bright prospects or trying to have unrealistic hopes that the UOC will continue to exist in the most favorable conditions for itself. No, because we remember the words of Christ: “you will be persecuted in the world”, and “if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you”. Therefore, persecution is something that the Church is constantly confronted with. That is why we do not fancy having paradise on earth from the state. We just hope it will prevent hell here.

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