Public expressions of piety at civic events may tell us something about a culture, but they rarely disclose geopolitical ambitions or strategic designs. One exception to that general rule of religion and public life took place this past February, in Kiev, capital of Ukraine”an exercise in hardball politics under the veil of public piety that was, in fact, a harbinger of danger for religious freedom, for Ukrainian democracy, and for the future of Europe.

Prior to Ukraine’s two previous presidential inaugurations, an ecumenical and interreligious prayer service had been held at the Church of Holy Wisdom in the Ukrainian capital, with all confessional leaders invited to participate and pray for the country and its about-to-be-inaugurated leader. In a country as fractious as Ukraine, with an underdeveloped political culture and little experience of the tolerance essential to democratic civil society, these two prayer services were important indicators of a national intention to build a political community in which Ukrainians of all ethnic and religious persuasions would have a place in the public square. Indeed, Ukrainians of all parties seemed sufficiently impressed with what the pre-inaugural prayer service symbolized for their future that provisions for such an ecumenical and interreligious service were legally codified, in a presidential decree, as an integral part of presidential inaugurations.

That protocol was ignored in February at the inauguration of President Viktor Yanukovych. There was no ecumenical and interreligious service at the Church of Holy Wisdom. Rather, at Yanukovych’s invitation, pre-inaugural prayers were offered at Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves by Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. No other religious leader was invited to participate.

For that matter, no religious leaders other than those affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church“Moscow Patriarchate”one of three contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine”have been invited to meet with President Yanukovych since he assumed power. The UOC“MP is, for all intents and purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, which means, in effect, that the principal interlocutor of the Ukrainian government on religious affairs is not a Ukrainian, but a Russian: Patriarch Kirill.

Those who detect in these maneuvers echoes of the geopolitical aspirations of Vladimir Putin, prime minister of Russia and the true center of power in that country, cannot be accused of paranoid speculation. Putin has long made it clear that he is determined to restore Russian influence”and possibly Russian control”over the old “near abroad,” including Belarus, Moldova, the post-Soviet states of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and, of course, Ukraine.

That this intention, fulfilled, would have serious consequences for the nascent democracies of the former Soviet Union should be obvious, as should the geopolitical and strategic consequences for the West”although what seems obvious to others is often not-so-obvious to the present American administration. Be that as it may, the Russian Orthodox Church is making a tacit claim to spiritual jurisdiction in Ukraine; that claim threatens both religious freedom and the ecumenical future.

This tangled web of history, ethnicity, and theology is one of the world’s most striking examples of an intersection of religion and public life with real, on-the-ground consequences.

The Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with Rome since the 1596 Union of Brest, was the repository of Ukrainian national identity and aspiration throughout the Soviet period. Knowing this, Stalin used his control over the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow to attempt a canonical liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. In the so-called L’viv Sobor of 1946, “representatives” of the Greek Catholic Church (under the watchful eye of the secret police) dissolved the Union of Brest and placed themselves under the canonical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Those who accepted the L’viv Sobor became Russian Orthodox. Those who did not became members of the largest illegal religious body in the world. From 1946 until 1991, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine lived underground: clandestinely worshipping in the woods, clandestinely training and ordaining clergy, with most of its hierarchy dying martyrs’ death in the camps of the Gulag or by outright execution.

One of the crucial figures in the modern life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Iosyf Slipyi, spent almost two decades in the Gulag before being released to Pope John XXIII in 1963 (and becoming the model for the Ukrainian pope in Morris West’s novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman ). In his Roman exile, Slipyi worked to sustain the life of the Greek Catholic Church within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, not least by recreating in Rome the L’viv Theological Academy. The academy had been banned in Soviet Ukraine, but Slipyi imagined it as the seed from which might eventually grow the Ukrainian Catholic University that was one of the great dreams of his noble predecessor, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptyts’kyi. (The university would indeed be born in L’viv in the aftermath of the Soviet crack-up of 1991, and is now the only Catholic institution of higher education in the former Soviet Union.)

Pope John Paul II admired and protected Slipyi, despite frequent and sometimes volatile tensions caused, on the one hand, by the Ukrainian prelate’s tenacity and determination, and on the other by the conviction of the Vatican’s diplomats and ecumenists that Rome principal interests ad orientem lay in a rapprochement with Russian Orthodoxy, largest of the Orthodox communions. The latter did not, of course, acknowledge that Slipyi’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church existed; the Greek Catholics, for their part, not infrequently denounced what they regarded as a naive and potentially dangerous Vatican dialogue with Russian Orthodox leaders who were tools of the KGB.

The choice of Lubomyr Husar as major archbishop of L’viv and head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in January 2001, and his elevation to the cardinalate a month later, meant that two men of high intelligence and considerable political sophistication”Husar and Karol Wojtyla”were now the senior figures in the dialogue between Rome and Ukraine, and positive results were not long in coming. John Paul II’s June 2001 pilgrimage to Kiev and L’viv was a triumph for both the Pope and for Ukraine: a visit respectfully and, in some cases, enthusiastically received by those parts of Ukrainian Orthodoxy not allied with the Moscow patriarchate.

Throughout the pilgrimage, John Paul, speaking fluent Ukrainian, lifted up a compelling vision of the Ukraine of the future: an independent country living out its distinctive cultural and linguistic reality while integrating itself into Europe, its various Christian communities working together to rebuild a shattered civil society and to carry out the Christian missions of education and charity. The only churlish comments on the pope’s Ukrainian visit came, predictably, from the Patriarchate of Moscow and its Ukrainian adherents.

Under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, those golden days now seem rather distant. The flourishing Ukrainian Catholic University, led by Father Borys Gudziak (a Ukrainian“American priest with a Harvard doctorate in history), continues to be one of the most impressive educational institutions in the lands of the former Soviet Union, drawing support from all responsible sectors of Ukrainian society. Its students played a not-insignificant role in the 2005 Orange Revolution that reversed Viktor Yanokovych’s fraudulent victory in Ukraine’s previous presidential election. But Fr. Gudziak now believes himself to be under regular surveillance by the SBU, the successor to the Ukrainian KGB, and was recently visited by an SBU officer for a lengthy conversation redolent of old KGB recruitment and intimidation tactics (see this document for Gudziak’s memorandum on the encounter.) As Edward Lucas of the Economist suggested while posting lengthy excerpts of the Gudziak memorandum, “it is a good thought experiment to ask oneself in which European countries this sort of thing would be inconceivable, in which it would be possible but outrageous, and it which it would be all too likely.”

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has been working hard to create a new image of itself in the West. Patriarch Kirill’s successor as the Church’s chief of “external affairs” (the patriarchate’s curious name for ecumenism), Metropolitan Hilarion, has spoken publicly of the Russian Orthodox Church’s need for deep internal reform, and Hilarion was recently in Rome for several days, participating in Vatican events highlighting the glories (and they are many) of Russian Orthodox culture. Russian Orthodox leaders have spoken of the possibility of a papal visit to Russia”a courtesy they cruelly and obstinately refused to extend to John Paul II.

Under other circumstances, these might be regarded as welcome signs of a new realism in Russian Orthodoxy about its need for both internal renewal and for a genuine ecumenical engagement with the Catholic Church.

But then one comes back to the image of Patriarch Kirill, alone, come from Moscow to Kiev to bless President Yanukovych’s inauguration.

Kirill is far too intelligent and sophisticated to think that such an act could be passed off as simply a pastoral response to an innocuous invitation.

Given contemporary recent Ukrainian history , the internal tensions between Ukrainian citizens who remember fondly the old Russophone Soviet order and those determined to forge a new, democratic, path, as well as Putin’s Great Russian revanchism, Kirill’s presence at Yanukovych’s inauguration, and the Yanukovych administration’s freezing-out of religious communities other than the Orthodox allied with Moscow, could indicate that the Patriarchate of Moscow is prepared to work in tandem with, or at least parallel to, the Russian state in order to diminish, eviscerate, or even end Ukrainian independence.

If that is not the case, it would be helpful if the Patriarchate of Moscow would publicly affirm the legitimacy of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and foreswear any intention to involve itself in internal Ukrainian political affairs.

A quiet nudge toward that statement and that posture from the diplomatic and ecumenical leadership of the Holy See might be helpful. Meanwhile, those who admire what has been built out of the rubble of Soviet totalitarianism in Ukraine will want to do whatever they can publicly to support Fr. Gudziak, the Ukrainian Catholic University, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, and others in the Ukrainian Christian community who have been laboring to build an ecumenical and religious civil society capable of sustaining Ukrainian democracy.

Those men and women, and the Ukrainian democratic project, are in danger.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center , where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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