The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has released a letter to its clergy and congregation announcing that they will not recognize the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine and denouncing those who treat the faith as a political tool.
Citing widespread ‘confusion’ and ‘scandal,’ the Holy Synod of Bishops clarified the OCA’s position to their nearly 85,000 adherents in Monday’s letter. The autocephalous American jurisdiction is joining Poland, Serbia and Antioch in refusing to recognize the newly formed ‘Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).’
The Synod declared their “deep sorrow and distress” over how the creation of the Ukrainian government-backed OCU led to a schism in the universal Orthodox faith. The OCU was recognized and declared autocephalous by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople earlier this month. The body itself was formed last year, from two schismatic churches.
Before granting the new church formal independence, Constantinople declared null and void a 1686 letter that acknowledged the Russian Orthodox Church as the religious authority over Kiev and entire Ukraine. Moscow responded by severing diplomatic and spiritual ties with Constantinople, arguing that it marred itself by recognizing as canonical the schismatic priests in Ukraine.
With most other autocephalous Orthodox Churches distancing themselves from the conflict, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), a self-governed part of the Russian Orthodox Church, remains the only universally recognized Church in the country. The leadership of the OCA maintained a tone of pastoral diplomacy, but expressed their continued recognition and support for Metropolitan Onufry, who heads the UOC.
The creation of the OCU is largely a political project of the current government in Kiev, part of its overall effort to break all ties with Russia. As part of his current reelection campaign, President Petro Poroshenko has advertised his role in convincing Constantinople that it should support the schismatic churches. The new church enjoys full support of the secular authorities while the Moscow-connected UOC was targeted by several laws aiming to dictate how it should operate.
One such law demanded that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church change its name to include the word ‘Russian’ in its name – supposedly to show its affiliation. Another one was apparently conceived to legalize the state seizure of church property, but was amended at the last moment under pressure from the EU and other religious organizations in Ukraine.
The American Church indirectly recognized the political aspects of the Ukrainian religious crisis, comparing it to how the OCA gained independence from Moscow in 1970. Becoming autocephalous is “not a declaration of independence, an expression of nationalism, or an excuse for isolationism,” the OCA letter stressed.
The Synod avoided making any explicitly political commentary though, instead offering a generalized criticism of involving the Church in secular matters: “The canonical tradition of Holy Orthodoxy is not a weapon to be wielded for conquest but a remedy to be applied for the healing of human souls.”
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