The Ukrainian government is threatening to take control of 251 monasteries and over 12,000 Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine, in opposition to the hundreds of thousands of Christians who worship there. Putin and the Russian national security council have discussed the situation, and have made a commitment to protect these Christians from attack.
Russia vowed on Friday to defend Orthodox Christians in Ukraine from any illegal activity against them following Kiev’s moves toward a historic split from the Russian Orthodox Church.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov laid out the Kremlin’s stand.
“In the event that the events which are developing take the course of illegal activities, then of course, just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers - and Putin has spoken about this many times – Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox,” he told reporters. “This is an absolutely grounded and absolutely understandable position.”
Peskov said the defense would consist exclusively of political and diplomatic measures. However, to Kiev, his comments seemed uncomfortably close to the language used in the run-up to the Crimean annexation.
“We have heard similar messages on the ‘protection of the Russian-speaking population’ from the Russian Federation as justification for its aggression against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa tweeted.
Late on Friday, Putin discussed the decision with members of the Russian national security council, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Ukraine secured approval on Thursday from a synod in Istanbul, led by Patriarch Bartholomew, to establish what is known as an “autocephalous”, or independent, church.
The next step is for Ukraine to unite its various strands of separatist churches into a single new church. They want Russian Orthodox parishes to break ties with Russian Orthodox Christianity, and to become a part of this newly created church. This process includes deciding the fate of church buildings and monasteries in Ukraine, over 12,000 of which belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.
“I urge against provocations and speculation,” Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Twitter.
“The Ministry of Internal Affairs will ensure security and law and order. If there is a need to prevent extremism and religious hatred, it (the ministry) will act rigidly - and let it not come as an unexpected surprise for the ‘hotheads’!”