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Religious Tensions between Russia and Ukraine Continue to Rise Following Conflict in Kerch Strait

Following rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait last week, there has been additional religious friction. Last week, Ukraine declared martial law following the standoff between the two countries. Subsequently, Ukraine announced that all Russian men in Ukraine will be banned from joining Ukrainian fighting forces in an attempt to prevent Russia from interfering and weakening Ukraine’s defenses.

Within the past few months, Ukraine has received permission to detach itself from the Russian Orthodox Church and create its own official Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The official Ukrainian Orthodox Church would not have to answer to the Patriarchate in Moscow, which politicians in Kiev see as a step towards freedom from Moscow’s influence. Russia proceeded to break ties with Constantinople to relay its disapproval. Ukraine’s religious independence proved to damage Russia’s authority in the realm of Orthodoxy.

Monastery of Caves in Kiev, Ukraine. Credit:  Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky

Monastery of Caves in Kiev, Ukraine. Credit: Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky

Ukraine views this independence seriously. There has been ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church and its involvement in religious matters in Ukraine have often been viewed as a tool of the Kremlin.

On Monday, Dec. 3, Ukrainian police searched three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine that remain loyal to the Russian Orthodox branch. They also searched the homes of priests who remain aligned to the Russian branch. In addition, 20 priests will be brought in for questioning.

Ukrainian police carried out the searches on grounds of a criminal investigation for “inciting hatred and violence.” These searches were carried out soon after the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, promised Ukrainian citizens the freedom to choose between the Russian branch and the Ukrainian branch, once the latter is officially established.

The Russian Orthodox Church fears that Ukrainian officials will take their religious independence too far. They have warned the Russian branches in Ukraine that the police may use violence to acquire complete control of Orthodox Churches that continue to remain loyal to Moscow.

Following the recent conflict in the Kerch Strait and ongoing religious tensions, relations between Russia and Ukraine have continued to worsen since 2014. The conflict on Dec. 3 is a manifestation of the sour history between the two nations and each country’s discontent with the other.