The Trump Administration, Ukrainian Autocephaly, and Secular Governments


Many critics of the Moscow Patriarchate are quick to point out concerns about the influence of the secular government of Russia on church matters. These concerns are legitimate. However, the same concerns can be voiced with respect to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and, in particular, the situation in Ukraine. Much of the haste with which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has acted in this matter can be explained by the influence of secular governments —  most especially the Trump Administration in the United States, the Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko, and the Erdogan regime in Turkey.

What follows is a partial timeline of the recent activity of secular governments and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in connection with the Ukraine situation. This timeline is not exhaustive. It raises several questions, perhaps the most important of which is this: If the Church of Russia is demonized because of its close ties to the state, why is it legitimate to create a new Church of Ukraine that has close ties to the state by design, and was created at the behest of the state?

22 April 2018. Although Ukrainian autocephaly has been a major topic for nearly 30 years, the current series of events was set in motion following a visit of the President of Ukraine to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 9 April. Following that meeting, on 22 April, the EP announced that, as the “true Mother Church” of Ukraine, it “received from ecclesiastical and civil authorities—representing millions of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians—a petition that requests the bestowal of autocephaly.” In response, the EP “decided to closely communicate and coordinate with its sister Orthodox Churches concerning this matter.” This 22 April announcement appears on the website of the EP’s Permanent Delegation to the World Council of Churches as an addendum to the article about the visit of the President of Ukraine.

10 September 2018. Sam Brownback, representing the Trump Administration as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, visited Ukraine. According to an official release by the office of the President of Ukraine, “President Poroshenko outlined the measures taken to establish the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Head of State thanked the American party for an active support in this process. […] Ambassador Brownback assured that the United States would further support Ukraine in its struggle for the restoration of sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right to have the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.”

18 September 2018. BBC Ukraine published an interview with Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. The interview included the following exchange:

Question: There is information that the Crimean Tatars also spoke with the authorities of Turkey regarding the receipt of autocephaly by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is known that President Erdogan may have some influence on Bartholomew…

Dzhemilev: Yes, in this direction we had very serious work. We systematically worked and explained to Erdogan how important it was for Ukraine and the Crimean Tatars to have an independent local Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

I told Erdogan in such popular terms, they say, now Mecca for the Orthodox is Moscow, and after Tomos and the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, it will become Istanbul, and this is of political significance for you.

Question: Did you personally talk to him about this too?

Dzhemilev: I talked about the autocephaly with Erdogan, and with the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Turkey – Ed. ). First Erdogan wondered why it was me – a Muslim – worried about the issue of Orthodoxy.

I replied that it is very important for the independence of our country, and accordingly, for the Crimean Tatars. He replied: “I understood you”.

We had very intense work in this direction. And now, with such joy and pleasure, I watch how the Kremlin fades from what we get Tomos.

25 September 2018. The U.S. State Department issued an official release expressing support for the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine, directly linking autocephaly with resistance to “Russian aggression”: “The United States respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs. We respect the Ecumenical Patriarch as a voice of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The United States maintains unwavering support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea. We also support Ukraine as it charts its own path and makes its own decisions and associations, free of external interference.”

19 October 2018. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued an official statement expressing support for “the move towards the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

3 November 2018. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine signed an “Agreement on Cooperation and Coordination.” (See also the official release from the President of Ukraine.) The Ecumenical Patriarch stated, “We have just signed the Cooperation Agreement between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ukraine. This Treaty will help accelerate the provision of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.” President Poroshenko explained, “The Agreement we signed today provides all the conditions for the process of preparing for the Council, the process of giving the Tomos to be brought to a strict conformity with the canons of the Orthodox Church.” To date, the text of this agreement has not been made public.

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