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A Memorandum to the Orthodox Christian Clergy and Laity regarding Unity In Ukraine

Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ:

Many of you have been following the recent events regarding the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the actions of His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  In order to help you with an accurate understanding of the issues involved, we convey to you a brief memorandum.  This memorandum is the product of the pertinent research of leading scholars and fellow archons.  

The Current State of the Church in Ukraine

The Orthodox population in Ukraine is divided into three groups: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (“UOC-KP”) (25%/~11,000,000 adherents); Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (“UOC-MP”) (15%/~6,600,000 adherents); and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (“UAOC”) (1.8%/~ 790,000 adherents)[1].  This division started in the 1920s and was greatly complicated by powerful geo-political events. The twentieth century was a brutal era for the Ukrainian people.  During the Soviet period millions of Ukrainians perished under a ruthless regime. Historians estimate that in 1932-33, three to five million Ukrainians starved to death in the Holodomor(in Ukrainian, literally “death by starvation”). This genocide was orchestrated by Stalin to enforce collectivization in Ukraine. This catastrophe was followed by the heinous Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II.  Ukraine was the epicenter of what is referred to as the “Bloodlands” — the territory which both the Russians and the Germans fought to integrate into their empires.  In the last 15 years Ukraine has experienced renewed strife with Russia.  In 2014 an international crisis arose when the Russian Federation, ignoring fundamental principles of international law and recognized tenets of national sovereignty, militarily occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and fomented civil war.

The division of the Orthodox population arises out of the Ukrainian people seeking an autocephalous church and their desire for “Ukrainianization” of their local church (i.e.,use of Ukrainian in church services and respect for local church customs).  To understand how these rifts have deepened and solidified in the last several years, a brief chronology of the relevant events during the late/post-Soviet period will be helpful.

  • 1989 – the UAOC receives legal status by the Ukraine government.  A few bishops and clergy from the Moscow Patriarchate form the UAOC and elect Metropolitan Mstyslav Skrypnyk as the Patriarch – he is enthroned in 1990. Metropolitan Mstyslav was ordained by bishops from the canonical Orthodox Church in Poland in 1942.  
  • 1990 – The Ukrainian Exarchate receives the canonical status of “broad autonomy and independence of self-governing” – (but neither autonomy nor autocephaly).  The Ukrainian Exarchate is now known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).  
  • 1991 – Ukraine is recognized as an independent nation and adopts a democratic constitution.
  • 1991 – all of the bishops of the UOC-MP, including then Bishop Onufriy – currently Metropolitan of the UOC-MP, make written appeal to the Moscow Patriarchate for its support of the UOC-MP’s autocephaly, under the leadership of (then) Metropolitan Filaret. 
  • 1992 – The Moscow Patriarchate declines to support the appeal for autocephaly and charges Metropolitan Filaret with leading the Church into schism. It is alleged that Metropolitan Filaret promises to retire (in April 1992), but changes his mind when he returns to Kyiv.
  • 1992 May – The UOC-MP convenes a synod in Kharkiv – without Metropolitan Filaret (arguably in violation of canonical law) – and elects Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan as the new primate of UOC-MP. The council of clergy of the UOC-MP declares its firm commitment to obtaining canonical autocephaly. The Moscow Patriarchate deposes Metropolitan Filaret from holy orders on the charge of leading the Church into schism. Metropolitan Filaret appeals this deposition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and to other Autocephalous Orthodox Churches.  To date, his appeal has not been decided.
  • 1992 June – under the assumption that there was broad-based consensus among the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine, the UAOC convenes a unification council with the UOC-MP; however, only one UOC-MP bishop and Metropolitan Filaret attend.  This council receives Metropolitan Filaret into its ranks and appoints him deputy to Patriarch Mstyslav. This council changes the name of the Church to the UOC-Kyivan Patriarchate. Patriarch Mstyslav does not accept the name change. The Church divides into the UOC-KP (much larger) and the UAOC. 
  • 1993 – Patriarch Mstyslav dies. The UOC-KP elects Archbishop Volodymyr Romaniuk as the new patriarch.
  •  1995 – Patriarch Volodymyr dies under suspicious circumstances. In June, the UOC-KP elects Metropolitan Filaret as Patriarch.
  • 1996 – Vladimir Putin appointed Deputy Chief of Presidential Property Management Directorate in charge of relations with former Soviet states and the transfer of assets. 
  • 1997 – UOC-MP ceases to reaffirm its commitment to Ukraine autocephaly.  As a result of irredentist foreign policy, Russian Federation demonstrates it desire to control Ukraine in spite of its national sovereignty.  The Moscow Patriarchate anathematizes Patriarch Filaret.  Metropolitan Filaret makes a compelling defense that his deposition and subsequent anathematization were politically motivated and provoked by the Russian government and therefore in violation of canon law.
  • 1998-2012 – Tensions between Ukraine and Russia increase over Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and build stronger economic ties with the European Union.
  • 2014 – Maidan protests begin leading to the ouster of pro-Russian president who leaves Ukraine under accusations of corruption and flees to Russia.  Russian Federation supports civil war in Donbass region of Ukraine.  Russia invades and militarily annexes Crimea.  Representatives of Moscow Patriarchate attend Vladimir Putin’s announcement to Russian Dumas that Crimea is “holy land” that belongs to Russia.  
  • 2014 to date – Ukraine civil and ecclesial representatives renew and reaffirm their petitions for autocephaly with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Canonical Status of the Three Ukraine Churches

The entire Church structure in Ukraine has fractured into a desperate condition.  As the above diagram indicates, the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine—from its inception to this day—has been part of the canonical territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  The claims of canonical jurisdiction by the Moscow Patriarchate are based on an incorrect reading of a 1686 transfer of administrative authority where only the right to confirm and enthrone the Metropolitan of Kyiv was transferred, subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate maintaining its canonical jurisdiction including its authority granted through the Ecumenical Councils to create autocephalous churches. The document that the Moscow Patriarchate relies upon for its jurisdictional claim is belied by the very document itself which states that the then Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysios IV, only made a limited transfer of authority with three critical points:

  1. The Moscow Patriarchate could only ordain legally elected Metropolitans of Kyiv;
  2. All future Metropolitans of Kyiv would continue commemorating the canonical name of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as exarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and 
  3. Following the commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, then the Moscow Patriarch would be commemorated.

Ukraine Autocephaly

Ukraine is a mature independent nation-state.  It is a country of over 44 million people and the largest country in Europe proper, with a landmass of more than 223,000 square miles – roughly the size of the States of Colorado and New Mexico combined.  According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Razumkov Centre, 65.4% of the population of the Ukraine identified as being Orthodox (over 28 million people) – multiples larger than the combined Orthodox populations living in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America.    

In the modern era, the Orthodox Church has consistently fostered and supported autocephalous churches on the model of the mature independent nation-state.


Modern Examples of the Ecumenical Patriarchate granting status of Autocephaly, Self Governing or Autonomous 
Church Year Tomos Granted by Ecumencal Patriarchate Recognition by Orthodox Churches
Orthodox Church of Greece 1850
Orthodox Church of Serbia 1879
Orthodox Church of Romania 1885
Orthodox Church of Finland 1923
Orthodox Church of Poland 1924
Orthodox Church of Albania 1937
Orthodox Church of Bulgaria 1945
Orthodox Church of Georgia 1990
Orthodox Church of Estonia 1993
Orthodox Church of Czech Lands 1998


It is important to remember that the institution of autocephaly is a unique Orthodox process deployed by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to reinforce the unity of the Church.  It is an institution that highlights both the local church and our ecclesial unity across national and cultural borders.  Although it may seem counter-intuitive (i.e., how can localization of Church authority create greater unity), ecclesial unity has been preserved by granting mature local churches hierarchical independence and, thereby, preventing the hegemonic designs of others.  

Canon law makes clear that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Mother Church of all autocephalous churches, with the exception of the four ancient churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. The Patriarchates of Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia, as well as the Churches of Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech lands, Finland, and Estonia, were separated from the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which granted them the right of autocephaly or autonomy, and even the status of patriarchate in some instances. It is within the duties of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to determine when it is time for a Church to become autocephalous. When making this determination in the post-Byzantine era, the same criteria are always applied: 

  1. The Church must be based in an independent state; and,
  2. The petition for autocephaly must be made by the local church and state

It cannot be disputed that these criteria are met in granting Ukraine autocephaly.

We conclude with a quote from Archbishop Daniel of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, dated September 24, 2018:

In the past few weeks I have reviewed numerous articles, thoughts and opinions about the prayerful decision of the Mother Church of Constantinople to take appropriate action in order to resolve the anomaly of ecclesiastical division in Ukraine. It is interesting to observe how conveniently some of us tend to interpret the Sacred Canons and history of the Church without truly studying the reasons for the Canons coming into existence and historical events developing in different ages of the Church’s growth and development. …  In my opinion, at this particular time of history, the only individual who has exhibited the will to imitate Christ and act with His intentions and through His teachings is His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  The call from the Patriarch has consistently been to prayer, reflection, reconciliation and now to action that is based on the Sacred Scriptures and pure pastoral care… so, I would encourage people to pray, reflect, speak and work for the glory of God … .

Respectfully, on behalf of the Archons of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,

Anthony J. Limberakis, MD

National Commander 

[1] 23.2% identified as “just Orthodox” or “other Orthodox”, See 2016 Survey-Razumkov Centre.

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