WHEN Volodymyr Zelensky unexpectedly became Ukraine’s president in the 2019 elections, he immediately stated that he did not intend to interfere in the affairs of churches. But that was then. Today Zelensky faces real pressure, not just from the Russians but from political opposition from within Ukraine. As well as consolidating the television platforms under state control and banning opposition political parties, Zelensky is now going after the church.
For the first six months after the war started in February 2022, Zelensky and Ukrainian officials emphasised that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was a Ukrainian denomination standing firmly on the side of its people. That support began to take a U-turn at the end of 2022.
On January 20, 2023, Draft Law 8371 on the de facto ban of the UOC was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. The proposed law would ban the activities of religious organisations affiliated with centres of influence ‘in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine’. The initiator of the law was no humble backbencher but prime minister Denys Shmyhal. On its first reading on October 19, 2023, the proposal passed 267-15. In the middle of this month a second reading of the Bill will come before the Kyiv parliament. This, in effect, is a direct attempt to ban the UOC.
What makes this situation inexplicable is that the UOC is doing everything it can to help the Ukrainian people in this unjust war. Historically the UOC has had the closest of relations within the Russian Orthodox branch of Christianity, but it has been autonomous for more than 30 years and has no administrative links. In May 2022 it further severed all canonical spiritual ties with the ROC in protest at Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. A particular motivation was ROC Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s support for the invasion.
According to official data, since the invasion the church has been unflagging in rendering assistance to the army, internally displaced persons and the needy. It has been described as playing an ‘outsized role raising funds and aid in support of Ukraine’s sovereign defence’. A total of 180 tons of humanitarian aid has been delivered for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Given that most Ukrainians are not wealthy, the UOC’s contribution is impressive. Metropolitan Onufry, the head of the UOC, declared in October 2023 that every believer must defend Ukraine as a ‘sacred duty’.
The UOC’s priests, its leadership and its thousands of followers wholeheartedly support their country against the Russian invasion and have done everything in their power to distance themselves from the ROC. This, however, is not enough to satisfy the Zelensky government who think the breakaway state-approved Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) much more amenable to its purposes.
A government study contested the UOC’s independence proclamation. After reviewing the UOC’s governance documents, the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience argued that structurally the church remains a part of the Russian Orthodox Church and has not severed its ties enough to satisfy the government.
Cathedrals and monasteries were raided by officers of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. They reported that they had found evidence of alleged collaboration between bishops and priests of the UOC and the Russian enemy. The ‘evidence’ of collusion included children’s Bibles, prayer books, archives of old newspapers and magazines which contained the word ‘Russian’, and sermons of the patriarch of the ROC. Not all the evidence was ‘found’. In the church of Hlynsk village, near Rivne, the security services planted ‘enemy’ leaflets while the pastor was away purchasing cars for the Ukrainian army with money raised by his community
Since the war began the SBU has initiated 68 criminal proceedings against UOC representatives. The charges have included treason, collaboration, aiding and abetting an aggressor country, public incitement to religious hatred, sale of firearms and the distribution of child pornography.
Tucker Carlson assessed the situation: ‘Zelenskyy’s secret police have raided monasteries across Ukraine, and even a convent full of nuns, and arrested dozens of priests for no justifiable reasons whatsoever and in clear violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, which no longer matters.’
If enacted, the proposed legislation would deny the Ukrainian people a basic human right: the freedom of religion. It would require people of one church to abandon it and instead worship under the government’s preferred branch of Orthodoxy – the newly established OCU. Telling people how and where they must worship is glaringly inconsistent with international human rights.
Ukraine seeks membership of the EU, but if this legislation is enacted it would create a barrier to accession. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human rights, ratified by Ukraine in 1997, obliges Ukraine to ‘secure to everyone within [its] jurisdiction’ the ‘right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, including the freedom ‘either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance’.
The government of Ukraine may not like it but the UOC is home to Christianity in Ukraine, and has been so for over a thousand years. Any attempt to stamp out the church for political reasons must be resisted.
This article appears in A Grain of Sand and is republished by kind permission.