In a striking victory for religious freedom and a defeat for imperial cronyism, the Orthodox Church's supreme council on Thursday approved Ukraine's request for an "autocephalous," or independent, church.
Supported by the ecumenical patriarch and de facto leader of the Orthodox movement, Bartholomew I, the decision gives Ukraine the theological authority to operate outside the commands of the Russian Orthodox Church. This decision is thus a highly powerful physical and symbolic separation of Ukraine from Russian dominion. And for that reason, the Russians are very unhappy about it.
Lobbying actively in public and behind the scenes, the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill, had warned followers of Patriarch Filaret, presumptive leader of the now-authorized Ukrainian autocephalous church, against this action. Their motivation, however, was not motivated by purity of religious spirit. Instead, Vladimir Putin wants to retain Ukrainian submission to Kirill under the belief, quite rationally, that doing so would afford Moscow outsize political influence in Ukraine.
It has certainly worked at home, where Putin has been very clever in his manipulation of the Russian Orthodox Church. Offering his public submission of faith to Kirill in return for the church's political submission, Putin has also gifted Kirill his monetary beneficence (google "Kirill watch"), and a variety of homophobic laws. In doing so, Putin has won the Russian Orthodox Church's official blessing as head of the Russian state. Putin's presidency thus retains a presumptive air of divine value and thus a moral pretense to act robustly against his foreign and domestic adversaries. Indeed, Putin revels in what the church's endorsement affords him: It was likely not coincidental when Putin-critic Boris Nemtsov was assassinated under the shining lights of St. Basil's Cathedral.
That speaks to why Ukraine's freedom of faith is such a significant blow to the Kremlin. Removed from the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukraine is removed from Putin's divine imperialism. More specifically, Ukraine has escaped the theological umbrella that binds Putin's claims of building a greater Russia out of the former Soviet satellite states.
And so, while Russian-orchestrated tensions are now rising in Ukraine, today at least, the U.S. should focus on congratulating the Ukrainian faithful for their hard-won freedom to worship.