Leap of faith: Ukraine Church gives president re-election boost

Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP) –


A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko clutching the decree that granted Kiev an independent Church features on billboards across the country, and a campaign slogan reads "Army! Language! Faith!"

Poroshenko, in power since a 2014 popular uprising forced his predecessor from office, faces an uphill battle for re-election when Ukrainians head to the polls at the end of March.

While promises to stamp out corruption and improve living standards have yet to materialise, the president has at least followed through on a vow to create an independent Ukrainian Church.

The achievement has become a key focus of his campaign, to the consternation of some.

"Poroshenko did the right thing in unifying the churches," says Sergiy, a Ukrainian soldier, as he crosses himself outside the cathedral in the Western city of Lviv.

Until a recent injury, Sergiy was fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, in a conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives.

Kiev said the violence, along with Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, is a reason why the Ukrainian Church can no longer maintain ties with Russia.

For more than 300 years, the Patriarch of Moscow controlled part of the Ukrainian Church.

But last year the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople said it would recognise Kiev's religious independence, allowing for the creation of a unified Ukrainian Church.

"God is one. God is neither Russian nor Ukrainian," says Sergiy, who nonetheless highlights an independent Church as a major factor in his support for Poroshenko.

"If he isn't president, I won't fight for Ukraine anymore."

- Political resurrection -

Poroshenko has put himself front and centre at all events connected to the creation of the new Church.

He attended a ceremony in Istanbul for the signing of the independence decree and was at a three-hour enthronement ceremony for Ukrainian Church leader Metropolitan Yepifaniy.

Yepifaniy has in turn highlighted Poroshenko's role in the Church's creation, without calling directly for the faithful to vote for him.

Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives foundation, told AFP that Poroshenko's approval ratings got a direct boost from the Istanbul decree at the end of last year.

"We're talking about four percent," she said, adding that the biggest increase was in the west of the country, which is less likely to be sympathetic to Moscow.

But Poroshenko is still flagging in the polls ahead of the March 31 vote.

The frontrunner is Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian whose only political experience is playing the role of president in a popular TV show.

Zelensky is set to win more than 25 percent of the vote, according to several recent polls, which put Poroshenko in second place on around 16 to 18 percent.

Ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, once herself favourite but now in third place, has criticised Poroshenko for his focus on religious affairs.

"United, indivisible, independent Ukraine is my faith, my religion, my declaration," she said during her presidential nomination.

- Preaching to the converted -

The incumbent has also come in for criticism elsewhere.

Archbishop Kliment, spokesman for the Moscow-aligned Church in Ukraine, called Poroshenko's actions "brutal interference" in church life.

Faith is being abused for political ends, he told AFP in Kiev.

"The creation of this so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church happened in a completely artificial way," Kliment said.

Andriy Bychenko of the Ukrainian Razumkov Centre thinktank said that religion had boosted Poroshenko but would not prove decisive in the election.

"People's political orientation determines their attitude towards the Church, and not vice versa," Bychenko said.

Those firmly against Poroshenko, like a woman washing the steps near the Lviv cathedral, will not be converted.

"Poroshenko wanted to go down in history and he will," said the 70-year-old, who declined to give her name.

"Leave us alone, don't force us. Everything he does, he does for the elections, he simply wants to be elected again."