Russian President Vladimir Putin's political and military clash with Ukraine has brought about a schism on a spiritual level: The Ukrainian part of the Orthodox Church is on the verge of breaking away from its Russian overseer - a move that would undermine Moscow's central role in eastern Christianity.
The split needn't be a big deal for worshipers: The religious creed would remain the same, and the churches could stay in contact. But it’s hard to overstate the blow to Moscow. It would represent a huge loss of property and influence: Ukraine accounts for about a third of the more than 36,000 parishes under the Moscow Patriarchate. More important, it would further weaken the concept of the "Russian world," a neo-imperialist ideology that both Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill have employed to enhance their authority and counter the West. For Kirill personally, it would be a big political loss.
So far, Russia has taken a hard line. The Moscow Patriarchate has portrayed autocephaly in Ukraine as an unacceptable catastrophe. It has officially condemned Bartholomew's intention to grant Poroshenko's request and has even stopped using Bartholomew's name in prayers. Given the stakes, it's entirely possible that factional violence could break out, much as happened when Russia incited parts of Eastern Ukraine to seek independence. To prevent that from happening, Russian and Ukrainian leaders must display wisdom and restraint.
First, Patriarch Kirill must recognize Ukraine's bid for autocephaly as a legitimate issue. His refusal to even consider it has already lost him the support of Constantinople and a number of other patriarchates. A more constructive approach is in his interest, given that at least 30% of parishes in Ukraine say that they would rather remain part of the Moscow Patriarchate. If Kirill doesn’t engage in the process and stand up for their rights, he will lose nearly everything to the independent Ukrainian church.
Third, the Ukrainian government must declare that it will respect its citizens' choices, whatever they might be. But that alone won't be enough: The government must also guarantee that there will be no overt or covert pressure to join the new Ukrainian church. This will require monitoring, possibly by an international organization.
It's terribly unfortunate for the Russian Orthodox Church that Putin's actions have provoked such a deep rift between nations that used to get along. If and when the churches in Russia and Ukraine split, many might not be happy with the result. But if it can at least be done without losing precious lives, that will be a kind of victory.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners.