Ukrainians Shun a Church Seen as a Kremlin Tool

For two decades, Ilya Solkan served as the parish priest in a tiny Ukrainian village outside the capital, Kyiv. He baptized babies, blessed marriages and conducted funerals. The Orthodox church stood at the heart of the village and Mr. Solkan was central to its life.

“Being a priest is my God-given calling,” he said in an interview at his house in the village of Blystavytsya, describing the church as his “second home.”

Today, he is unemployed and has been ostracized from the village after parishioners booted him out last October for putting politics into his pastoral care.

The removal of Mr. Solkan, a priest with no public profile beyond his home village, reflects the gradual rejection by much of Ukrainian society of a church that answers to Moscow — a process that has been accelerated by the war. Specifically, it speaks to the division between the two branches of Orthodox Christianity, the most predominant religion in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the Orthodox Church has an independent national arm, which formally gained canonical status from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2018, and an arm, to which Mr. Solkan belongs, that is tied to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. For years, his branch has been a symbol of Russian influence and, since the invasion, it has become a target of Ukraine’s drive to rid itself of Russian cultural influence.

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is an enthusiastic supporter of President Vladimir. V. Putin of Russia. His church has promoted Moscow’s view that Ukraine’s cultural roots are in Russia, a rationale that the Russian leader has used to justify the full-scale invasion.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have denied that they support the invasion and argued that their institution is a victim of persecution — an issue that Russia raised at a U.N. Security Council meeting in late July. Days before the meeting, one of the church’s own vicars lashed out at Patriarch Kirill in an angry letter after Russian missiles badly damaged one of the largest Orthodox churches in the country, the Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral, saying “your bishops and priests consecrate and bless the tanks and rockets that bomb our peaceful cities.”

Villagers say that Mr. Solkan for years had peppered his sermons with expressions of support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy — for example, saying that Moscow was right when it annexed Crimea illegally in 2014 — and that he had regularly spoken to them in the Russian language rather than in Ukrainian.

“Russia was always using the church as a tool of propaganda influence and, as the inhabitants of this village, it was unacceptable for us,” said Zoya Dehtyar, the head of the parish council, which voted him out.

Mr. Solkan declined to comment on his politics, fearing that anything he said would land him in trouble.

His branch of the church is under broad pressure in Ukraine.

A bill is going through Ukraine’s Parliament that would outlaw any religious organization supported by a religious body from a state that has perpetrated aggression against the country. Few doubt the target is Russia, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has spoken in the bill’s favor.

The Ukrainian government has also taken steps to curtail the influence of the church connected to Russia, not least by ordering its priests and monks to vacate the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves. This denies the church access to one of the holiest sites in the Eastern Orthodox faith.

Several regional parliaments and other local authorities have taken steps to prevent the Russian-affiliated church from operating in Ukraine, including by revoking leases to use government-owned church buildings.

More than 1,500 local churches, like the one in Blystavytsya, have switched their allegiance to the Ukrainian national church. The figure amounts to around 13 percent of the churches in parts of Ukraine, according to the Religion Information Service in Ukraine, a nonpartisan organization. Many priests have switched their allegiance while others have lost their jobs.

In a sign of the increasing centrality of the national church, Mr. Zelensky paid a visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader, during a recent visit to Istanbul.

“We have a revolution in Ukraine,” said Taras Antoshevskyi, the director of the Religious Information Service. “The top leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate don’t want change, but the people can’t tolerate it anymore.”

The conflict over religious loyalty came to a head in Blystavytsya at the start of the full-scale invasion 17 months ago. The village sits near a military airport at Hostomel, which Russian forces tried to seize in one of the war’s first battles.

Russian soldiers shelled the village and then occupied it. For more than two weeks villagers cowered in their basements.

Ms. Dehtyar eventually emerged and drove in trepidation with her husband and son to the Ukrainian side of the frontline. She said that the shelling had killed 12 villagers, while 10 others died because they could not get access to medical care. Roughly the same number had gone missing, presumably detained by Russian forces.

For the churchgoers, something had snapped. The occupation, the killings and the national struggle sharpened the parishioners’ sense of patriotism and eroded their tolerance for the priest, Ms. Dehtyar and other villagers said.

Since they voted him out, Mr. Solkan said he rarely leaves his home. Several villagers described him as “timid” even before he lost his position. He still holds services at his house for the few villagers who continue to support him and he has filed a lawsuit to try to win his job back.

“Everything is God’s will. If God allows us to return to our church, it will be a great gift,” he said.

During the occupation last year, he said he had been wounded in the left thigh by shrapnel from a shell while standing in his garden and had almost died. Other villagers attested to the injury, but they also said they had seen him chatting to Russian soldiers and passing their checkpoints — something that raised their suspicions about his political loyalty.

His actions did not escape the notice of Ukraine’s state security agency, the S.B.U., which has opened dozens of criminal cases into suspect clergymen, according to the agency’s head, Vasyl Maliutka, who spoke on Ukrainian television.

The agency’s lead investigator into the Orthodox Church said in an interview that it had conducted an inquiry into Mr. Solkan and concluded that, while he had indeed fraternized with Russian soldiers during the occupation, he had not provided them with material help and so would not be prosecuted for collaboration. The investigator declined to give his name in line with the agency’s protocol.

In Mr. Solkan’s absence, villagers said their church’s vigor has been renewed. They celebrated Easter in April under a new priest from Ukraine’s national church.

“It’s like you come home to your family,” said Ms. Dehtyar.

Mr. Solkan did not attend the Easter services and he has not been back to the church. A representative of the national church who now oversees the parish, Mykola Kryhin, said it would not be easy for Mr. Solkan to regain the village’s trust.

“If you get rid of your Russian mind-set and accept a Ukrainian reality then the doors of the church are open to you,” Mr. Kryhin said. “But if you don’t, then we will not accept you.”

Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.

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