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Will Ukraine’s Threatened Ban on Russia-Linked Churches Violate Religious Freedom?

Image: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Ukraine, a bastion of religious freedom, is moving to possibly outlaw a church.

President Volodymyr Zelensky began the month by endorsing a draft law to “make it impossible” for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), canonically linked to Moscow, to operate. His December 1 decree followed raids on several monasteries under the UOC’s jurisdiction.

Security services searched over 350 buildings and investigated 850 people.

“We will ensure complete independence for our state. In particular, spiritual independence,” stated Zelensky. “We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul.”

The reaction from Russia was swift—but also illustrated the issue.

“The current Ukrainian authorities have openly become enemies of Christ and the Orthodox faith,” stated Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, was more specific, accusing Ukraine of “waging a war on the Russian Orthodox Church” (ROC).

His comment prompted a UOC spokesman to assert his church is not Russian.

The raids—centered on the 11th-century Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra complex, known as the Monastery of the Caves—uncovered large amounts of cash, “dubious” Russian citizens, and leaflets calling on people to join the Russian army, according to Ukrainian authorities. Other material cited as evidence included prayer texts of ROC patriarch Kirill and a video of hymn singing that celebrated Russia’s “awakening.”

Kirill has publicly blessed Russia’s invasion of its neighboring nation, even promising forgiveness of sin to soldiers who die in the war. Security services also described finding UOC priests in possession of literature denying Ukraine’s right to exist and contacting Russian intelligence agents.

Sanctions were announced on at least 10 UOC members, including the governor of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a UNESCO heritage site. Another, the archbishop of the Kirovohrad diocese, was accused of subversive activities.

Zelensky stated the government would examine the Lavra’s jurisdiction.

Since then, sanctions have followed on seven additional members, while the UOC stated that local authorities have issued over 70 orders to ban its activities.

In 2019, the newer Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed from a merger of two breakaway jurisdictions from the ROC, after which it was declared an autocephalous (independent) body by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

The new church was rejected by Moscow and accepted by Greece and other national churches, while some in the Orthodox world stayed neutral. The UOC, meanwhile, continued under the leadership of the Moscow patriarchate.

Russia’s invasion in February 2022, however, placed the UOC in a bind. Although it is the largest church in Ukraine with about 12,000 parishes, polls indicate it now receives the support of only 4 percent of the population. As a further sign of its decline in favor, only 13 percent of Ukrainian citizens of Russian ethnicity support the church.

In May, Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the UOC, declared its parishes were no longer subordinate to the ROC, though he maintained Eucharistic communion with Moscow. By then, 387 parishes had already transferred allegiance to the OCU.

Onufriy has consistently spoken out against the war, and last month he deposed three top bishops, two of whom fled to Russia. And following the raids he declared support to UOC chaplains in the Ukrainian army, while the Holy Synod—speaking from the Lavra—reiterated that the church “consistently stands for the preservation of the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

After the draft law’s disclosure this month, Ukraine dismissed Elena Bogdan, state official for ethnopolitics and freedom of conscience, reportedly for her opposition to banning the UOC. She had previously confirmed Onufriy’s statement that the church was no longer governed by the ROC.

Zelensky’s decree tasked her office with the determination of UOC’s continuing ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. “Increasingly as the war grinds on and winter advances, the weaponization of religion will continue,” said Catherine Wanner, professor of history, anthropology, and religious studies at Penn State University. “All of these dynamics conspire to clamp down on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 21, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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