Religious mobilization in Ukraine: an on-the-ground perspective on how religious leaders are shaping the conflict’s trajectory

Even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, religious relations between the two countries have often mirrored the long-simmering geopolitical tensions surrounding Ukrainian independence and autonomy. Russia’s previous annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Donbas had already provoked the creation of a united Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) by uniting the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. The newly created OCU represented a direct threat to Russia’s official domination of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine via the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

And in the current crisis, leaders on both sides have invoked religion to rally their respective populations — with Russian President Vladimir Putin misconstruing the countries’ shared Orthodox history to justify the assault and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling upon every religious leader in Ukraine to pray for the country and unite in preserving its independence. 

With the war now in its second month, the role of religion has only increased further as humanitarian needs have skyrocketed and the spiritual consequences of the conflict begin to take shape. From the ground in Ukraine, we’ve witnessed firsthand how religious leaders and organizations have mobilized and tailored their efforts to the needs of the Ukrainian people while working across faiths and internationally to bring a swift end to the bloodshed. 

Religious Leaders on the Ground

Almost all religious organizations in Ukraine have taken strong pro-Ukrainian positions since the beginning of the conflict. Ministers and religious leaders of all faiths have coordinated systematic assistance to victims of the war, built personal connections with government leaders, established humanitarian corridors for evacuation, accommodated refugees, delivered in-kind humanitarian aid and more. 

Organizations of various Christian denominations have been facilitating evacuations, humanitarian aid and the hosting refugees. For example, Protestant churches have proven to be extremely effective in organizing civilian evacuations, including from areas experiencing direct hostile action.

Even the UOC-MP — which is aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church — is actively providing assistance to the victims, with UOC-MP leadership offering their assistance in delivering humanitarian aid to Mariupol after other attempts ended in the destruction of the cargo.

However, several cases of clergy affiliated with the UOC-MP cooperating with the Russian authorities have also been noted. For example, reports suggest one priest in Borodyanka claimed to be evacuating local inhabitants of Kyiv, but instead had them sent over the border into Belarus, Ukraine’s Russian-aligned neighbor to the north.

When it comes to Ukraine’s non-Christian organizations, Muslim leaders opened the Mosque of Kyiv as a refuge for residents of nearby areas and Muslim refugees from affected regions throughout the country (about half of the communities included in the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (RAMU) are located in the occupied districts of the Kherson region). Various other Muslim groups are also actively helping the victims of the war. 

Meanwhile, ecumenical and interfaith organizations such as the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) — which unites 95 percent of religious organizations in Ukraine — are playing quite a visible role. The council has been in contact with President Zelenskyy and is working closely with the national government, releasing several public statements condemning Russia’s aggression, calling for a “no-fly zone” and advocating for the establishment of humanitarian corridors in conflict areas. 

They have also addressed Belarusian religious leaders, calling upon them not to allow their army to be involved in the war against Ukraine. And on March 2, when the Ukrainian authorities expected the bombing the Cathedral of St. Sophia, the premier religious site in Ukraine, the members of the UCCRO held a joint prayer inside the cathedral.

The Precarious Position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate 

The UOC-MP has been viewed by some Ukrainians in recent years as an agent of influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian influence more broadly. As such, the head of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Onuphryy, was forced to take a clear position on the war and made an early appeal to believers in which he acknowledged Russian aggression and called for unity in order to protect the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine. 

However, Metropolitan Onuphryy has also been trying to avoid leading the UOC-MP into direct conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader Patriarch Cyrill. This has led to a serious crisis within the UOC-MP, with clergy reacting in three different ways:

Some UOC-MP priests, shocked by the hardline and pro-invasion position of the Russian Orthodox Church and the deaths of some clergymen at the hands of the Russian military, seem inclined to join the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. But, relative to the total number of communities of the UOC-MP, at present this is a very small group.

The second group, which includes some of the high-ranking priests in the UOC-MP, primarily those based in Kyiv, retains a pro-Moscow orientation, but has not publicly declared it.

The third group, which includes a significant number of priests, is not ready to move to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine but also does not want to remain part of the Russian Orthodox Church. This last group are those who have advocated for the convening of the Holy Council of Bishops of the UOC-MP to withdraw from their canonical subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church.

This internal crisis has only been exacerbated by pressure from the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the outside, with OCU leader Metropolitan Epiphany actively urging UOC-MP priests to move to the OCU. Cases of forcible transfer of parishes have become more frequent, primarily in the western regions of Ukraine, sometimes accompanied by the abduction of UOC-MP priests. 

In the long-run, it’s possible that the UOC-MP will be split into two groups: Those who break away entirely and join the independent OCU and those who will sever relations with the Russian Orthodox Church but decline to join the OCU. This could lead to a collapse of the UOC-MP. 

The Role of Religious Leaders Going Forward

In addition to supporting civilians and military personnel in-country, Ukrainian religious organizations are playing an important role in consolidating Ukrainian society in the face of Russia’s invasion. 

They’ve also served as an important channel for conveying information about what is happening in Ukraine among their co-religionists around the world — helping to foment international pressure on the leadership of Russia. In fact, the religious organizations of Ukraine are now playing the role of stirring both “soft” and “sharp” power aimed at preserving Ukraine’s independence in the face of Russian aggression.

In particular, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (and Roman Catholic communities in Ukraine) are lobbying Pope Francis directly. Meanwhile, the UOC-MP has garnered support from the Polish and Romanian Orthodox Churches. In addition to providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians affected by Russian aggression, those churches have publicly condemned the Russian invasion. 

Mufti Akhmed Tamim, the head of RAMU, received a response from the European Muslim Leaders Council. And Cholil Staquf, the leader of one of the biggest international Muslim networks, and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb both issued calls to stop violence in Ukraine.

Such a well-coordinated inter-religious network will only strengthen the soft power influence of religion on the future in Ukraine. And the grassroots religious humanitarian work that we’ve seen proves that even if official religious leaders are not involved, there is an alternative for mobilizing faith communities for peace. In particular, as part of the Dialogue in Action initiative, we have started to coordinate with individual trusted ministers who care about ending this war, and we look forward to the development of such a movement.

Denis Brylov is an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University in Kyiv, Ukraine. 

Tetiana Kalenychenko, PhD, is a dialogue facilitator with the European Centre for Strategic Analytics.