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The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth retained Ruthenian lands west of the Dnieper River. To wipe out any potential Russian influence among the Ruthenian populace, the Poles suppressed the Orthodox Church and advanced the interests of the Greek Catholic Church, which grew especially in Galicia, the heartland of the modern Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. By the 18th century, two-thirds of Poland’s Ruthenian Orthodox population (in what is now western Ukraine) had become Greek Catholic.

Imperial Russia’s increasing influence in Polish-Lithuanian affairs enabled those Ruthenians who somehow retained their Orthodox identity to regain legal protection after 1767. (By 1795, Russia and her Austrian and Prussian allies dismembered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.)

A resurgent church. The Greek Catholic Church prospered in the areas of Poland absorbed by Austria. In 1803, the pope moved the seat of the Greek Catholic metropolitan of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ to the Galician city of Lviv. In this cosmopolitan city, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church flourished, ultimately nurturing the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

At first, Greek Catholics living in those areas of Poland annexed by imperial Russia were tolerated by the tsar. This ended when Greek Catholics supported a Polish uprising. By 1839, the “autocrat of all the Rus” abolished the church in areas under his rule and turned over Greek Catholic parishes and monasteries to the Russian Orthodox Church, which became the tsar’s primary instrument of assimilation. The tsar closed Catholic schools while requiring state schools to teach the Orthodox catechism.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of the enmity between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia was the erection of a huge Orthodox cathedral – dedicated to the Russian military hero, St. Alexander Nevsky – in the heart of Warsaw.

At its dedication in 1912, the Orthodox archbishop of Warsaw reminded the congregation that the “creators of this cathedral had nothing hostile in their thoughts toward the unorthodoxy that surrounds us: Coercion is not in the nature of the Orthodox Church.”

In 1924, the government of the nascent Polish republic ordered the destruction of this “symbol of Russian oppression.” It took engineers two years to dismantle the edifice.

Postwar church. Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland in 1939 reintegrated into the Moscow Patriarchate most of Poland’s Orthodox citizens, reducing their number to less than 300,000 people in Poland.

Following the Soviet takeover of Poland in 1948, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church asserted their authority over the much-reduced Orthodox Church of Poland, substituting the decrees of the ecumenical patriarchate with decrees of their own. In 1951, Patriarch Alexei I of Moscow appointed a new metropolitan archbishop of Warsaw, none other than Archbishop Makary Oksaniuk of Lviv, who presided over the suppression – ordered by Stalin – of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946.

Relations between Poland’s Orthodox Church and the country’s post-Communist democratic government have thawed since the government brokered the return of the important Monastery of the Annunciation in Supraśl to the Orthodox Church.

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Tags: Ukraine Russia Russian Orthodox Church Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Carpatho-Rusyn