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Patriarch Kirill calls for help to save legal status of Moscow-linked Orthodox Church in Ukraine

27 October 2023


Patriarch Kirill

Patriarch Kirill

PATRIARCH KIRILL of Moscow has appealed for international help to save the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church in Ukraine, after a Bill to deny the Church’s legal status was overwhelmingly passed on its First Reading.

“The Ukrainian authorities are continuing their policy to liquidate this religious community, increasing the suffering of millions of believers,” the Patriarch told the UN, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

“I ask you to take all possible measures to prevent this continuing mass violation of religious rights, by discussing the current situation within the agenda framework of the organisation you head, by preparing specialised reports, and sending special missions to establish the facts.”

The message was dispatched as Bill no. 8371 was approved by 267 to 15 in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. If enacted, the Bill will ban religious organisations “affiliated with the centres of influence in a country carrying out aggression against Ukraine”.

Patriarch Kirill said that the draft law was intentionally “directed against the largest religious community in Ukraine”, and was being “pushed by religious extremists with the connivance of the authorities”.

The charge was rejected, however, by the spokesman for Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Yevstratiy (Zorya), who said that UOC clergy and laity needed to “understand their own responsibility” rather than leave decisions to their bishops. He said that his independent OCU had “opened its doors to everyone” since its establishment in 2019.

“They’ve waited and hoped that nothing would be done — that everyone would be blind, deaf, and dumb to the pro-Russian activities covered up by their leadership,” Metropolitan Yevstratiy told NV Radio on Monday.

“This is a deep defeat for the ideology of the Russian world, and yet they are simply not ready to admit that the structure in which they served and worked, sometimes for decades, is responsible.”

Voting on the Bill, tabled last January, took place against a background of continuing fierce fighting and shelling in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, recaptured by Kyiv’s forces a year ago, as well as around Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Avdiivka.

If given final parliamentary approval and signed into law by President Zelensky, the Bill will empower Ukrainian officials to investigate the Russian links of UOC communities, and intensify pressure on them to join the new OCU.

Although the UOC’s governing synod claimed full autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate in May 2022, this has been questioned by Ukrainian officials, and is not recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has taken over UOC dioceses in occupied areas of Ukraine.

At least 60 UOC clergy have faced charges relating to their support for Russia’s February 2022 invasion, including the Father-General of the Pechersk-Lavra monastery in Kyiv, Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebed), who was arrested this year while resisting a state repossession order (News, 6 April). He was officially indicted last week for justifying Russian attacks and denying Ukrainian sovereignty.

Some experts have warned, however, that the new draft law lacks precision and infringes domestic and international law. They warn that a blanket ban on UOC activities could fuel accusations of religious persecution.

Reacting to last week’s parliamentary vote, the UOC’s information director, Metropolitan Klyment (Vecheria), said that the “scandalous draft law” contained unconstitutional “provocative provisions”, but still had a “long way to go” before enforcement.

Metropolitan Yevlohiy of Sumy and Okhtyrka told the Glavcom agency that the UOC faced having its canonical status determined by “atheists”, and urged Orthodox Ukrainians to “go to the catacombs” if their places of worship were seized.

The Bill was defended, however, by a parliamentary backer, Kateryna Shtokina, who said that it sought to “reduce, preferably to zero, the possibility of Russian influence through church channels”, and bar “delusions poisoning the consciousness of Ukrainian citizens”.

The head of the Verkhovna Rada’s committee on humanitarian and information policy, Nikita Poturaev, told journalists that he feared that the law could still be diluted by “several thousand unconstructive amendments”.

The UOC said that it was barred from a meeting last week between the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal, and members of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, during which the government leader praised the part played by churches in “strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities” and promoting “a better future for the Ukrainian people”.

In a statement on Monday, the UOC said that it was still “officially registered and legally operating” in Ukraine, and that its exclusion had been discriminatory and unlawful.

In a separate message to Orthodox Primates abroad, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, Patriarch Kirill said that the draft law had been preceded by “a slanderous anti-Church campaign in the national media, seizures of churches with brutal violence, and the initiation of numerous falsified criminal cases”, and would put the Ukrainian state “on a par with the most sinister atheistic regimes of the past”.

Addressing a festival on 18 October at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, the Patriarch said that Russia’s nuclear weapons had been created “under the protection of St Seraphim of Sarov” as a “wonderful feat by our scientists”, and had enabled his country to remain “independent and free”.

Russia’s “special military operation” had highlighted “the moral transformation of Russian society” and its freedom from “the values of modern consumer society”, he said, in a speech posted on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website.

“While the persecutors of the Ukrainian Church accuse her of not wanting to renounce Russian Orthodoxy, which is connected with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, we in our native country are also blamed for not speaking out against military actions.

“We observe with sadness how, in many countries of the world, our Church’s children have become objects of oppression and bullying, simply because they are bearers of a centuries-old Russian culture which is inseparable from the heritage of Russian statehood.

“The so-called abolition of Russian culture, the shameless slander and unpunished destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are ways of setting those linked to this single spiritual and cultural heritage in opposition and discord.”

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