Time to implement reforms. We must distance ourselves from everything Russian.” – Head of the OCU Epiphanius
November 5, 2023
Voice of America Myroslava Gongadze
“The enemy is trying to disguise themselves as Ukrainian. Many Ukrainians are not aware that they are actually attending the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” said Metropolitan Epiphanius.
Ukraine should legislatively prohibit the aggressor country from using religious organizations for its purposes as a weapon,” said Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and All Ukraine of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in an interview with Voice of America.
According to him, the bill currently in the Verkhovna Rada, aimed at severing church ties with the aggressor country, “will protect Ukraine’s spiritual space.” The head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine also discussed whether there is friction in the church over the transition to a new calendar and shared his thoughts on how Russians in Ukraine camouflage themselves to attract Ukrainian believers to their churches.
Miroslava Gongadze, Voice of America: For the first time this year, Ukraine will celebrate Christmas according to the new calendar. How do you view this event, and how is Ukraine perceiving it today?
Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine: This is indeed a historic event, as this year we’ve implemented a reform of the church calendar. We’ve been discussing this for several years, and I’ve been constantly asked over the past four years when this calendar reform would finally be realized.
We made the historic and resolute decision to transition to the New Julian calendar style starting from September 1 this year. So, this year, we will be celebrating Christmas according to the new style. Even though we celebrate it on December 25, due to the calendar shift, it used to fall on January 7. But this year, we will celebrate December 25 together with most of the local Orthodox churches.
We see that this reform has been well received by Ukrainian society. Personally, I didn’t expect such a positive response. I thought that some part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would remain on the old style, but the absolute majority has transitioned to the new style, with only a few remaining on the old one.
M.G.: Why is this important for Ukrainians and for Ukraine as a whole?
Epiphanius: Overall, now is the time to implement such reforms in our lives. We need to distance ourselves from everything Russian that has been imposed on us for centuries. Society strongly feels the need to move away from the Russian influence and towards the European one, especially in the Orthodox world, as most Orthodox churches already use the New Julian calendar. Therefore, our church made this historic decision.
M.G.: This week, active discussions are also taking place in the parliament regarding the regulation of the Orthodox Church here in Ukraine. A law has already been adopted in the first reading.
Epiphanius: Indeed, there are discussions, first and foremost in society. The parliament reflects the discussions happening in Ukrainian society. Ukrainian society wants to see a true united Ukrainian church.
Unfortunately, there are religious organizations that still maintain institutional connections with the aggressor country. So, in the parliament, a law has passed in the first reading to prohibit religious organizations from having connections with the aggressor country.
The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations recently met with the head of the Verkhovna Rada, and the question arose (we even conducted a vote) whether there are any religious organizations opposing such a law. Everyone unanimously supported this decision, agreeing that such a law is needed to regulate this situation, preventing the aggressor country from using religious organizations for its purposes as a weapon.
Right now, we are defending our information space, language, culture, and thus, the spiritual space is also crucial. The state is doing everything to protect its spiritual space because, as we can see, the enemy skillfully uses the religious sphere and religious organizations for its goals in this hybrid war.
M.G.: We went to the Lavra and saw believers praying on the street. They say, “we also belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Still, many people don’t fully understand the affiliation to a particular church or metropolis. How can believers even know which church they attend?
Epiphanius: Well, you see, some people disguise themselves under the name of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church without being truly Ukrainian and having ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, thus deceiving the faithful.
Many Ukrainians don’t fully realize that they are attending the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
M.G.: It’s called the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church”…
Epiphanius: Yes, because the sign on the church indicates that it’s a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and that’s why it’s dangerous. Sometimes the enemy disguises itself. And now we see the enemy trying to masquerade as Ukrainian in various fields while actually supporting the occupier. That’s why we need to address these issues.
Even if we return to the draft law, it’s not about banning any community or religious organization in Ukraine. It’s about any religious organization in Ukraine not having the right to have connections with the aggressor country.
A similar situation, if I’m not mistaken, occurred in France in 2011 after the terrorist attacks when the French state prohibited certain Muslim Islamic communities from having connections with certain countries to protect their people.
The issue is pressing right now because it’s what Ukrainian society demands. I am convinced that a relevant law will soon be adopted to clearly regulate the affiliation of religious organizations to the center of the aggressor country.
M.G.: How will you enforce the law? Because what I’ve heard over the past year is that the assets of religious organizations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate were transferred to newly created civic organizations, taking them away from the local community. It will be very difficult to trace this entire process. Do you think this will be a very complicated process?
Epifaniy: Not everything will be simple and clear. There are cases where they manipulate and create various organizations, but these are isolated cases throughout Ukraine. The assets belong to the communities, and communities make the appropriate decisions on how to manage their property, be it a church or other facilities near the church. So gradually, we see that over time, nearly two thousand communities have already joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Therefore, we can now say that we are the largest religious organization, the largest religious association in Ukraine.
If we talk about statistics before the war, it was declared that the “Moscow Patriarchate” had about 11,000 parishes on paper, and 2,000 of them joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
At the time of unification, we had approximately 7,000 parishes, and now it’s around 9,000 parishes, but we should consider that they have lost some as well. The Russian Orthodox Church annexed 2,000 communities in the occupied territories. So now they roughly have control over 7,000 communities in Ukraine, which is significantly less than the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
This process is ongoing and irreversible. Communities are joining peacefully, voluntarily, and there is no persecution. Decisions are made in accordance with Ukrainian legislation. Everything is happening within the legal framework, and the Orthodox Church is interested in that.
During this time, we have practically won all the legal cases, moving within the legal framework to create a unified local Ukrainian Orthodox Church for good. So everything must be done correctly, and it is being done correctly because we want the united church to be firmly established. A united church is the spiritual foundation of the Ukrainian state, and without a single strong Ukrainian church, we will never build the state we all dream of.
The church also influences many aspects because it has a soft power that affects society, even two years after the full-scale invasion. This soft power is invisible but influential.
The Ukrainian church is genuine; it influences patriotic education in our society, supports the Ukrainian military with chaplains, and there is a huge need for that right now.
So, we are the soul of the Ukrainian people. The body can be Ukrainian, but the soul should be Ukrainian, not Russian.
Therefore, we are doing everything to unite all Orthodox Ukrainians in the single local Orthodox Church. This process is complex and time-consuming, but it will ultimately be successful. I am confident that all Orthodox Ukrainians will unite around our Kyiv See, and together we will build our shared European future in a single church and a single state.
M.G.: Has this war significantly catalyzed this process, accelerating it? Can we say that?
Epiphanius: Yes, of course, because Ukrainian society now strongly feels the need for a unified Ukrainian church. We are fighting for our freedom, for independence, for the unity of the Ukrainian state, and we are doing everything to continue building our shared future together in one state and one church.
M.G.: So, you’re saying that this issue is more about national security than anything else?
Epiphanius: Yes, we are physically defending ourselves on the frontlines in the southeast. Some pro-Russian TV channels have been banned, as you know, and pro-Russian political parties have been banned in parliament.
We are not talking about banning any religion; it’s about cutting ties. This is to prevent Russia, as an aggressor country, from using religious organizations in Ukraine for its own purposes.
M.G.: It’s a challenging time in Ukraine right now. What pains do the faithful bring to you?
Epiphanius: Right now, people are feeling a bit morally fatigued. It has been two years since the full-scale invasion. We talk about a decade of war, and historically, this war has lasted for centuries. The enemy has tried to destroy us as a distinct people, as a nation, but we have endured, we are strong.
I travel extensively throughout Ukraine, and in the past two months, I’ve visited virtually all regions of Ukraine. As a church, our mission is to inspire and uplift the spirits of Ukrainians during this challenging time. People are indeed exhausted, they feel pain, but we have no right to give up in this difficult test. Because we know our history. If we give up, if we stop fighting, we will not survive.
If the enemy stops shooting, the war will end, of course. But now, our collective future depends on all of us, because the enemy came to destroy us. And a century ago, for a brief time, we had a Ukrainian state, a Ukrainian church, but due to internal disputes and misunderstandings, we lost it all. And what came next? Famine that took tens of millions of lives. The enemy came to destroy us. Therefore, we must continue to unite, encourage one another, and persist in this determined struggle, which will inevitably end with our great Ukrainian victory.
So, we are destined for victory, but we must work, not give up, and continue on the path we have chosen. We have chosen the European development path for our Ukrainian state, and we want to remain an integral part of the European community. We are currently fighting for our freedom and, of course, paying a high price.
But victory will undoubtedly be on our side, because on our side, there is truth, and truth, light, and life always prevail. This is an axiom.