What Religion is Ukraine?

What Religion is Ukraine? May 22, 2023

According to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey in August of 2022, 72% of Ukrainians identify with some variant of Orthodoxy. Their results were not likely to be significantly affected by the war due to the similarity of Ukrainian religious identity across occupied and unoccupied regions. Another 10% identify with atheism, 8% with Greek or Byzantine Rite Catholicism, and the other ten percent identify with Protestantism or Latin Rite Catholicism. 

Lviv, Ukraine, the city closest to the Polish-Ukrainian border, is a stronghold of Catholicism, with the vast majority of Catholics in Ukraine living in the west. There is a Catholic and Orthodox pilgrimage site called Zarvanytsia which houses an icon of Mary, Mother of Jesus. This icon is said to heal people. My parents are Catholics, and they brought home a copy of this icon in the hope that praying to Mary through this icon would help bring about peace. (ukrarchparchy)

Most Ukrainians practice Eastern Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy as a religion, patriarchs rule their own segments of the church. In Ukraine, they worship under the separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The patriarch of Constantinople recognized its independence in 2019(Encyclopedia Brittanica). After the Russian invasion, the number of Ukrainians who still adhered to the Russian Orthodox Church plummeted from 18% all the way to 4%. The Ukrainian government “banned the activities of religious organizations ‘affiliated with centers of influence in Russia.'” (ABC News)

Because of these moves, the state of religious liberty in Ukraine concerns many people in the West. However, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian State entwine together to such a degree that Russian Orthodoxy is deeply pro-war. The Russian Orthodox Church references a religious doctrine called “symphonia.” Symphonia teaches that the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church ought to cooperate to create laws that govern their citizens morally. (Antonov) They believe the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crusade against the evils of the West, attempting to turn it into yet another holy war. (ABC News) So I understand why Ukraine did it, but is this dangerously crossing the line?

So, I may go deeper into this question on a later date. But right now, I’m wondering: where does the line exist between a violation of religious liberty and protecting a citizenry from an authoritarian regime that seeks to impose its will on a citizenry it doesn’t legitimately govern? It’s an important question for our day and age, for those of us who seek to preserve the liberties we consider crucial to the functioning of our American society.

On a lighter note, Christmas is traditionally celebrated in Orthodox circles on January 6, not December 25, the day Western Catholics and Protestants celebrate it. On Christmas Eve, families prepare a twelve-course meal. The main dish is called “kutia,” which is a wheat-based dish. A Ukrainian originally composed the Christmas song, “Carol of the Bells,” popular around the world. Ukrainian Christian people, like Christians around the world, go to church services. They sing Christmas carols in church about the birth of Jesus and the coming of Jesus onto the Earth, known as the Incarnation. (ukraine.ua)

As an American with Polish descent, many Easter traditions in Ukraine by Catholic and Orthodox people are similar to those practiced by my own family. Easter takes up a lot of time and energy for about a week. Evidently, many Ukrainian people spend Holy Week cleaning, cooking, baking, and going to religious services. Ukrainian people clean the house in order to have it pure and clean for Christ’s resurrection, as well as simply to clean the house for any company coming over. I will say as someone with similar practices, Holy Week is very stressful and chaotic. We welcome Easter with joy and gratitude not only that “Jesus Christ is risen today, hallelujah!” but also to say, “Hallelujah! We finished all that work!” In Ukraine, most families finish their work on Holy Thursday, focusing more on religious services.

All the food that’s made is in preparation for the Easter basket blessing on Holy Saturday. Locals decorate easter eggs, known in the Ukrainian language as pysanky. Other countries decorate eggs too, with slight lingual differences, but in Ukraine they are very widespread. Easter Sunday is a feast! It’s a time to get together with relatives and enjoy the hard work from earlier in the week. (Learn Religions)

Jewish people are an extremely small minority in Ukraine. There have been Jewish people forming communities within Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general for over a thousand years. Many Jewish people fled to Ukraine as refugees after Poland was invaded in September 1939, starting off World War II. Sadly, during the war, thousands of people died in pogroms, or massacres, ran by the Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators such as Stepan Bandera. 

The most notorious pogrom happened just outside of the borders of Kyiv, in a ravine known as Babyn Yar. The Nazis shot over 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children to death in trenches they dug for this purpose. There were a few survivors. Many Russians use Babyn Yar and similar massacres of the Jewish people, as well as similar massacres targeting the Polish people, during World War II as a reason for the current “special operation.” But the Soviet Union suppressed all knowledge of Babyn Yar until the 1960s, to the point the Ukrainian people nearly lost memory of it. Holocaust education in the former Soviet countries seems to be badly lacking, with Soviet and Russian histories focusing mostly on the tragedy of the heavy numbers of both civilian and military deaths of Soviet citizens. 

Jewish Ukrainians, including the current President Zelenskyy, have sought to bring awareness of this lost history. A Holocaust museum is being erected in the area of Babyn Yar. The site has luckily gone mostly unscathed by the war, though the Russians struck in area in the opening act of the war. Luckily there was little damage to the actual memorial. (BBC News)

I learned about it when I read the book, “The Holocaust: A history of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War.” It covers all aspects of the tragedies that befell the Jewish people due to Nazi Germany, including at least one full chapter on Ukraine. I highly recommend it. 

In the modern day, many Jewish people who lived in Ukraine after the war have fled to Israel. Those numbers have increased in 2022, as a result of Russia’s invasion and the subsequent war. (Los Angeles Times)

There aren’t large numbers of Ukrainian Protestants. As far as I can tell, Protestantism somewhat dribbled throughout Ukraine throughout the hundreds of years after the Protestant Reformation swept through Western Europe. There has been no mass movement towards any form of Protestantism, though many denominations exist. Most Protestants in Ukraine lean conservative, as few progressive denominations have been established within the country. (Wikipedia)

There is also a religious minority of Muslims within Ukraine. The majority of Muslims come from Crimea, where about 13% of the population practice Islam. Many Crimean Muslims fled to the mainline in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea, settling either in Kyiv or the regions of southern Ukraine surrounding Crimea such as the city of Kherson. (Religious Media Service)

Ukraine has such a rich religious culture. I hope anyone reading this now understands better the religions complexities of the country of Ukraine!


For more information, and there is much more, the best sources I could find were:

Dynamics of Religious Self-Identification of the Population of Ukraine: Results of a Telephone Survey Conducted on July 6-20, 2022. Kyiv International Institute of Sociology

Things to Know about the Catholic Church in Ukraine – Catholic News Agency

Zarvanytsia: The Most Important Pilgrimage Center in Ukraine – Ukrarchparchy

Orthodox Church of Ukraine – Encyclopedia Brittanica online.

Church-State Symphonia: Its Historical Development and its Applications by the Russian Orthodox Church, by Mikael Antonov. Published in the Journal of Law and Religion. December 2020.

Ukraine bans religious organizations with links to Russia – ABC News.

Ukrainian Christmas Traditions – ukraine.ua

How Ukrainians Celebrate Easter – learnreligions.org

Babyn Yar: Anger as Kyiv’s Holocaust Memorial is Damaged – BBC News.

Book: The Holocaust: A history of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. By Martin Gilbert.

Protestantism in Ukraine – Wikipedia

Factsheet: Crimean Tatar Muslims in Ukraine – Religious Media Center.

Ukrainian Jews Escape to Israel: Los Angeles Times.

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