Ecumenical Patriarch in Kyiv? What to expect from Zelensky’s visit to Fanar
Zelensky visited Phanar and invited Patriarch Bartholomew to Kyiv. What is it – "diplomacy of courtesy" or a dramatic change in the religious policy of the President?
On October 16, 2020, during his official visit to Turkey, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky visited the residence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, met with Patriarch Bartholomew and invited him to Ukraine. The parties agreed that the possible visit of the head of Phanar to Ukraine will take place in 2021 – as part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the country's independence.
Naturally, the question arises of what the believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church should expect from Zelensky's visit to Phanar and the possible arrival of Patriarch Bartholomew in Ukraine.
Zelensky at Phanar
It should be noted that Zelensky's visit to Phanar began with a prayer service in the church of St. George, which was performed by Metropolitan Emmanuel of Gaul, who’d arrived in Istanbul especially for this purpose. As we remember, in 2018 it was the hierarch who took the most active part in the negotiations, conducted between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the UOC-KP. In addition, the Metropolitan of Gaul actually presided over the so-called “unification council” in St. Sophia of Kyiv.
This fact later gave Filaret Denisenko the right to assert that the above "council" should be considered an event of the Constantinople Church rather than Ukrainian. Therefore, the choice of Metropolitan Emmanuel who attended the meeting with Zelensky is far from accidental – in this way Phanar once again demonstrated that it does not intend to give up its tactics regarding Ukraine and indicated to the President of the country that the same hierarch, through whom the Tomos was received, is “working” in this direction.
After the prayer service and wishes of long life to Zelensky, the President of Ukraine and his wife met with Patriarch Bartholomew.
The rhetoric of the head of Phanar at the meeting once again amazed with its complete divorce from reality. He stated that he perceives the visit of the Ukrainian president as a manifestation of “the feeling of love, respect and devotion of the entire Ukrainian people to the Constantinople Mother Church”, that the autocephaly of the OCU “is burgeoning and flourishing”, and he is proud of it.
The head of Phanar can be proud of anything, but the love, respect and devotion of the entire Ukrainian nation to him is an outright lie, as well as the fact that the autocephaly of the OCU is burgeoning and flourishing. Recall that on the eve of the creation of this structure, the Phanar Bishop Job (Getcha) confidently declared that even at the time of the creation of the OCU, it would be recognized by the majority of Local Churches. Dumenko's structure will soon be two years old, and in its asset only a very weird recognition from the Greek Church with sudden betrayal of the UOC on the part of the Alexandrian Patriarch.
Love, respect and devotion from the entire Ukrainian nation to the head of Phanar is an outright lie, as well as the fact that the autocephaly of the OCU is burgeoning and flourishing.
However, Vladimir Zelensky did not argue with Patriarch Bartholomew but thanked him for “the support that the patriarch provides to Ukraine” and invited him to visit our country, noting that “we will all be very happy about your arrival”. True, the President did not specify who these "we all" are. There is no doubt that the believers of the UOC, the largest confession in the country, will definitely not be happy. After everything Patriarch Bartholomew did to destroy the canonical Church in Ukraine, the reaction to his arrival will surely be exactly the opposite.
Nevertheless, it seems that Bartholomew in Ukraine is already a settled issue. A specific date for the visit was even named – the Day of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, i.e. August 24, 2021.
Zelensky and the Church: Changing Course?
At the very beginning of his presidential term, Vladimir Zelensky ostentatiously distanced himself from ecclesiastic issues.
For example, the President of the country did not take part in prayers on the Day of the celebration of the memory of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir, nor did he show his commitment to any church structure during Easter or Christmas holidays. He emphasized his religious neutrality in every possible way and repeatedly declared that faith in God is something intimate and personal.
This feature of Zelensky was fundamentally different from the position of the former president of the country Poroshenko, the actual creator of the OCU. While under Poroshenko local officials, as well as members of right-wing radical organizations and the OCU felt their impunity for attacks on churches or believers of the UOC, then under Zelensky they realized that aggression can be punishable, and the law must be honored.
As a result, over the period from the end of 2018 to mid-2019, about 500 churches were “transferred” to the OCU from the UOC (almost 400 of which were actually seized), while from the end of 2019 to the present day, the “transfers” almost stopped.
True though, conflicts, albeit on a smaller scale, continue. But against the backdrop of everything that happened a year ago, we can say that the religious situation in Ukraine has more or less stabilized. Naturally, this fact cannot make Sergei (Epiphany) Dumenko happy. After all, when representatives of the then UOC-KP were negotiating with the head of Phanar, one of the arguments for obtaining the Tomos was the desire of “all” the people of Ukraine to join the structure created by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In other words, Patriarch Bartholomew was constantly told that the Ukrainian people yearned for autocephaly, and the faithful of the UOC would join the OCU as whole dioceses.
The picture with the development of the OCU and the unification of “all Ukrainian Orthodoxy” in it drastically runs counter to the one that could justify the bestowal of the Tomos.
However, no “unification” of Churches, no mass transitions happened. Moreover, out of a hundred Ukrainian bishops, only two left for the new religious structure, and most of the communities of the UOC from which were deprived of their temples have not disappeared but are even building new ones. Therefore, the picture that is currently emerging in Ukraine drastically runs counter to the one fancied by Bartholomew and which could justify the bestowal of the Tomos.
Moreover, such a vision is the case not only in Ukraine. For example, back in January 2019, the clergy of the Piraeus Metropolitanate in their statement following the meeting noted that the granting of the Tomos led to the fact that “instead of healing, the schism is growing even more”, and “after the uncanonical granting of autocephaly to Ukraine, an unprecedented persecution of the canonical Orthodox Church under the leadership of Metropolitan Onuphry was initiated." Therefore, Phanar needs new "transitions" like air in order to somehow reason to World Orthodoxy its actions in Ukraine.
In this context, it is no coincidence that recently the US State Department has moved from words about its support to the OCU to actions, thereby demonstrating the "correct" position for the Ukrainian leadership. It is also no coincidence that in September of this year, Dumenko complained that under the new government, the “transitions” to the OCU had practically stopped and “certain local officials” were to blame for this. Therefore, Zelensky's visit to Phanar may mean a change in the course of the current government from pointed neutrality to support for the new religious structure. In addition, the very fact of the visit, and even more so, the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew to Ukraine, can be perceived by opponents of the canonical Church as a signal for resuming persecutions and takeovers of the UOC temples.
Phanar, Zelensky and politics
It should be said that a political component is clearly visible in Zelensky's visit to Phanar. There is no doubt that this decision was made by the headquarters of the President so that the Servant of the People party received the support of the nationalist electorate in the upcoming elections. However, this position is clearly a losing one.
Firstly, because the nationalists have long been determined in their preferences and are unlikely to change their views just because Zelensky invited the head of Phanar to Ukraine.
Secondly, the Servant of the People party, due to Zelensky's attempt to improve relations with Phanar, may lose a huge number of votes from those who supported the current president during the presidential elections. It's no secret that a huge number of such people are believers of the UOC.
This vision of the problem is also confirmed by the spokesman of our Church, Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich. According to him, ““the very fact of a meeting between President Vladimir Zelensky and Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul today, regardless of its results, may adversely affect the personal rating of the President and his 'Servant of the People' party,” because “people fear that Poroshenko’s politicy and ideology will return."
And it should be noted that, taking into account modern Ukrainian realities, the fears of believers are not groundless. For example, the publication "Strana" published a material according to which Zelensky is trying to demonstrate to the West his adherence to the "previous course" by his visit to Phanar.
On the other hand, it is hardly expedient to assert that the president was advised to change his position towards the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the light of the upcoming elections in the United States. After all, the State Department had previously unambiguously showed its support for the OCU, but this did not affect Zelensky in any way.
It can be recalled that during the previous meeting of Zelensky and Patriarch Bartholomew in August 2019, there was even a diplomatic mini-scandal when the President refused to sign the document that our diplomats and Phanariotes had prepared and landed to him.
In addition, not only Biden, but also Trump, whose team assured the Patriarchate of Constantinople of unwavering support and friendship, admits his affinities for Phanar. Therefore, in our opinion, Zelensky's change of course is explained not so much by the elections in the United States as by an attempt to assure the "Western partners" that the current leadership of Ukraine is ready to continue the course embarked by the previous government – to re-focus the country to the geopolitical interests of the West.
Phanar Exarchate in Ukraine
Naturally, the visit of Patriarch Bartholomew to Ukraine will put before the OCU and the country's leadership the issues that arose during the negotiations on the Tomos with renewed vigor. We are talking about the church interests of Phanar in Ukraine.
On November 3, 2018, the then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew signed the "Agreement on Cooperation and Interaction between Ukraine and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople" in Istanbul. The details of this agreement were not disclosed, but later it became known that in exchange for the Tomos, Phanar demanded from the Ukrainian authorities to transfer ownership of a number of churches and monasteries.
Poroshenko lost the presidential election, and Phanar tried to switch to the new President. However, as we already recalled, Vladimir Zelensky refused to sign a joint document with Phanar. Now the situation may change.
The point is that for the visit of the President of Ukraine to Istanbul coincided with the ordination of Phanar Exarch, Archimandrite Mikhail (Onishchenko), as bishop for Ukraine. It is clear that the ordination of the exarch on the territory that Phanariots consider to be within the jurisdiction of the OCU indicates the actual absence of "autocephaly" in this structure. Nevertheless, in exactly the same way, it means that since there is an exarch in the episcopal rank, there must be an episcopal see and an exarchate. Not nominal but real. At the moment, only the St. Andrew church in Kyiv is under the Phanar control and there is no doubt that by the time Patriarch Bartholomew arrives in Ukraine, the Phanariots will have received several more churches from the list that was announced under Poroshenko.
Summing up, we can say that the invitation of the head of Phanar to Ukraine does not bode well for the believers of the UOC. It can only mean a new round of persecution of the canonical Church with the use of violence, raider seizures of churches, and everything that exhausted us during the years of Poroshenko's rule. In addition, even Zelensky's simple visit to Phanar and an exchange of courtesies with Patriarch Bartholomew, whom the President of Ukraine thanked for supporting the territorial integrity and independence of the country, can be perceived as a signal for local officials to “change course” from neutrality to open support of the OCU and persecution against the UOC.
In addition, both representatives of the OCU and those of the Patriarchate of Constantinople are genuinely interested in an increase in the number of "transitions" (read – seizures) of churches: the former will increase the number of their parishes, while the latter will be able to justify their illegal actions on the territory of Ukraine in the eyes of World Orthodoxy.
Naturally, a return to the church policy of Poroshenko will lead to a surge of aggression and tension in Ukrainian society. The believers of our Church will defend their shrines, which, most likely, will cause tensions in relations with the authorities and those measures that have already been tried by the previous leadership of the country – summons for interrogations, fake lawsuits, searches of the SBU, etc.
It is possible that in order to increase the representation of the Patriarch of Constantinople in Ukraine, questions will also be raised about the "transfer" to Phanar not only of individual churches, but also Lavras, in particular the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv ones. After all, if talk about the possible transfer of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra to schismatics aroused harsh criticism with most Local Churches, then the possibility of its transition to the "Mother Church" can be taken more tolerantly.
Therefore, we cannot expect anything good from Patriarch Bartholomew's visit to Ukraine inasmuch as we cannot prevent it. The only thing we can do is use a tried and true weapon – prayer.
The last "soft" year, quite a noble position of Vladimir Zelensky on the church issue and a sharp contrast with Poroshenko's actions relaxed many of us. We decided that now everything will be different and we can hope for a young, unbiased and fair president. But this is a mistake. The Lord once again tells us that we cannot lay our hope on earthly princes. Our only hope is Christ. It was, it is and it will be.