For Ukrainians in a Russia-tied church, war brings a crisis of faith

Georgii, a Ukrainian soldier praying with wet boots and dirty trousers, is the embodiment of the challenges facing this Orthodox church in eastern Ukraine, for centuries officially loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Indeed, despite the destruction wrought by Russia’s invasion, the service includes a request to pray for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, who has unabashedly backed President Vladimir Putin and supported the war as a “metaphysical struggle.”

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For its sheer destructiveness and unpredictability, war can challenge faith. How much more so when the fault lines of a conflict cut directly through a religion that for centuries was synonymous with identity?

The historic attachment to Russia has led critics – including Ukraine’s Security Service – to consider such churches and their adherents to be a pro-Russian fifth column.

The concerns are echoed by the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which since the invasion has seen a surge of priests and congregations eager to join. “I can’t trust a person who says they are pro-Ukrainian and still goes to the Moscow church,” says the independent church’s Father Vitalii.

Yet Georgii, who recently lost a friend in fighting in Bakhmut, says, “Russia has shown its other face, and people see it now.”

“This church is praying for the Ukrainian Army … for the Ukrainian state, and for peace in Ukraine,” says Georgii. “I am a believer in this church. And I fight [for Ukraine] in this war.”

Inside the 16th-century Orthodox Christian monastery’s cavernous cathedral – where the ornate gilt interior is hung with religious icons, and the air is thickly scented with burning candles and incense – a crisis of faith swirls among black-clad monks and parishioners standing for an hourslong service.

For centuries, Sviatohirsk Monastery and nearly all Orthodox churches in eastern Ukraine have been officially loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Indeed, despite the widespread destruction of Ukraine wrought by Russia’s 15-month-old invasion, this service includes a traditional request to pray for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, who has unabashedly backed President Vladimir Putin and supported the war as a “metaphysical struggle.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

For its sheer destructiveness and unpredictability, war can challenge faith. How much more so when the fault lines of a conflict cut directly through a religion that for centuries was synonymous with identity?

The historic attachment to Russia has led critics – which include the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) – to consider such Orthodox churches and their adherents in Ukraine to be a pro-Russian fifth column that is especially dangerous in wartime.

So it is a surprise to find the slight, bearded Ukrainian soldier among the believers here, standing in prayer with his boots soaked and camouflage trousers dirty from fighting Russian troops in muddy trenches.