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Don’t outlaw pro-Russian church, says Ukrainian Primate  

27 January 2023


A man is sprinkled with water in a pond in the Luhansk Region of Ukraine, on Thursday of last week, to mark the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

A man is sprinkled with water in a pond in the Luhansk Region of Ukraine, on Thursday of last week, to mark the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

THE Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has expressed concerns about government moves to outlaw the country’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, in response to alleged pro-Russian attitudes among its clergy.

“You shouldn’t be persecuted for belonging to some Church, but for crimes against our country — and here we are all equal,” he said.

“A Church isn’t just a religious structure — it’s also people with constitutional rights. While there are people in Ukraine orientated towards Moscow’s Orthodoxy, this Church will exist even if declared illegal under state law.”

The Kyiv-based Archbishop made the comments to the online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, as legislation was tabled by President Zelensky’s government to prohibit “activities by religious organisations” affiliated with centres “in a state carrying out armed aggression against Ukraine”.

He said that the State had a right to safeguard national security by identifying and acting against “dangerous traitors”, but cautioned that banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) could also give it “the palm of martyrdom”.

Meanwhile, a senior United Nations official deplored the destruction inflicted by Russia’s assault on Ukraine, but described recent raids on UOC properties carried out by the security services as “worrying developments”, and said that moves to ban the Church risked undermining religious freedom.

“Under international human rights law, any limitations to the right to manifest religion or belief must be prescribed by law as necessary and proportionate”, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, told a Security Council meeting last week, convened by Russia’s delegation.

“We urge the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that any searches of premises and places of worship are in full compliance with international law, that fair trial rights are given to those facing criminal charges, and that any criminal sanctions are compatible with the rights of freedom of opinion, expression, and religion”.

The UOC has been losing clergy and parishes to Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the OCU, founded in December 2018 under Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), whose existence is not recognised by UOC and Russian Orthodox leaders.

In May, the UOC revised its charter and declared itself independent, although Russian Orthodox statutes stipulate that the Ukrainian Church remains bound by Moscow Patriarchate decisions.

Hostility to the UOC increased after last February’s invasion was ordered by President Putin, and at least two bishops face prison for collaborating with occupation forces, while sanctions and citizenship bans have been imposed on other senior clergy.

Receiving the government Bill on 19 January, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, said that society was “ready for radical decisions”, and predicted that the ban would be approved unanimously “in the very near future”.

Meanwhile, a member of the parliament’s Defence and Intelligence Committee, Fedir Venislavsky, told Ukrainian TV that the measure was “a priority in terms of national security”, adding that “issues of state sovereignty and territorial integrity” should prevail over “negative assessments”.

Critics have warned, however, of a lack of precision in the draft law, and say that a blanket ban on UOC activities could fuel accusations of religious persecution.

In a weekend analysis, Ukraine’s Union of Orthodox Journalists said that uncertain terms such as “affiliation” could “give a green light to bureaucratic arbitrariness”, and warned that some UOC communities could be forced “into hiding” if branded illegal.

Speaking to Russia’s Radio Vira, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Relations with Society and Media, Vladimir Legoyda, said the proposed UOC ban would deal “a general blow to religiosity in Ukraine”, adding that there had been “no meaningful dialogue” during last week’s Security Council debate.

Meanwhile, the UOC’s chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich) of Boryspil and Brovary, told journalists on Tuesday that his Church had provided help and shelter to needy citizens since the war began, and was “praying daily” for Ukraine’s “government, people and those who protect us at the front”.

Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council confirmed the same day, however, that a further 21 Russian Orthodox leaders had been placed under sanctions by presidential decree for “supporting terror and genocidal policy under the guise of spirituality”, including Legoyda and Metropolitan Antony (Sevryuk), the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign relations director.

In his Ukrainska Pravda interview, Archbishop Shevchuk said that Russia’s Orthodox Church had been turned into an “instrument of the state” under Soviet rule, but added that he also feared Ukraine could become a “wounded society”, characterised by “aggressiveness and conflict”.

“Ukrainians naturally see Russians as foreigners and murderers, who came to take everything from us,” the Greek Catholic leader said. “On the other hand, we also wish, in a Christian way, to give everyone a chance to repent.”

Speaking on Tuesday in the Vatican, however, during a four-day visit with members of Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, Metropolitan Epiphany said that Russia had launched the war “with the lie that Ukraine does not exist”. He went on to say that “spreading the truth” offered the best route to peace against Moscow’s attempts to “justify aggression and genocide”.

The OCU’s spokesman, Archbishop Yevstratiy (Zoria), said that concepts of good and evil had been distorted “in those poisoned by the ideology of a Russian sphere”, adding that the conflict would not have erupted “if people did not agree with Putin’s rule”.

“It isn’t Putin who drops bombs and fires hundreds of rockets, who organised a torture chamber for children in Kherson, shot civilians in Bucha, and is now destroying Bakhmut and Soledar,” Archbishop Yevstratiy told Ukrainian TV on Tuesday.

“This is being done by military personnel who carry out orders, and specifically by war criminals. If they refused, what could this Kremlin dwarf do by himself?”

Preaching on Sunday in Ephiphany Cathedral, Moscow, Patriarch Kirill called for national unity, and urged his priests and parishes to do more to help and strengthen soldiers fighting against Ukraine.

“Even today, when Russia is a superpower with powerful weapons, we must maintain internal strength, and be united and truly strong both economically and politically”, Patriarch Kirill said.

“The Western world has turned against us, because we offer a highly attractive alternative; Russia, which rejects the worst manifestations of globalisation, has become a beacon for the world, a country exemplifying loyalty to traditional values such as family, duty and patriotism.”

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