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Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Church appeals to UN for protection as divisions harden

03 February 2023


Patriarch Kirill (left) and the chairman of the State Duma of Russia, Vyacheslav Volodin, during parliamentary meetings in Washington DC, last month

Patriarch Kirill (left) and the chairman of the State Duma of Russia, Vyacheslav Volodin, during parliamentary meetings in Washington DC,...

THE Primate of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC) has urged the United Nations to help to preserve it from a threatened ban, amid claims that many of its clergy have supported Russia’s invasion.

“At this terrible hour of military calamity and difficult trials, we ask you to pay attention to this gross violation of freedom of conscience and religion,” Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky) wrote to the secretary-general, António Guterres, and the UN Special Adviser on Genocide Prevention, Alice Nderitu.

“We hope our voice will be heard, and that citizens of Ukraine faithful to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will receive necessary support and protection at the international level, with the timely implementation of all necessary measures to counter this incitement to religious enmity and discrimination.”

The appeal was delivered on Monday, as a government-backed draft was finalised in the Verkhovna Rada parliament, outlawing religious communities affiliated with centres “in a state carrying out armed aggression against Ukraine”. It is expected to be adopted in March.

Metropolitan Onufriy said that the UOC had “condemned Russia’s armed aggression” and “stood up to protect Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty”, adding that preserving human rights and the rule of law should be considered “as important as military prowess and economic stability”.

A politician backing the law, however, said that Ukraine’s security service had been right to “expose collaborationism” in the UOC, which remained “one of the largest instruments of Russian influence”, and that a ban on its activities should be considered “in the context not of religious freedoms but of national security”.

“It has always been like this, since the Russian Empire was established in our country; after Ukraine’s independence in 1991, this Church was one of Russia’s most active and effective tools for keeping our state and population within its sphere of influence,” Volodymyr Vyatrovych, from the Committee on Humanitarian Policy, told the National News Agency of Ukraine on Tuesday. “It’s worth understanding how far this Church is from being a religious structure. It is, rather, a political tool to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit.”

The exchanges took place as fresh shelling and missile strikes hit Ukrainian cities, including Kherson and Kharkiv, and as Western governments considered Kyiv’s requests to follow last week’s promise of tanks with a supply of fighter jets.

Pope Francis met Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim representatives from the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations last week. He said that he had been been moved by the war’s “images of immense tragedy”, and would be with religious leaders “in defending the rights of the faithful from every community, especially those who suffer abuse and persecution”.

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, told Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), the head of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church (OCU), who travelled on from Rome to Istanbul, that he was praying for the country’s victory in a “a diabolical war, spawned by untruth”.

Hostility to the UOC has increased since last February’s Russian invasion, and several bishops face prison for collaborating with occupation forces. Sanctions and citizenship bans have been imposed on other senior clergy, as municipal councils push for local prohibitions.

On Monday, prosecutors ordered Metropolitan Iosaf (Gubeny), formerly head of the Church in Kirovohrad, to remain at home, pending his trial for “inciting religious enmity and hatred”. UOC clergy from Kyiv’s historic Pechersk-Lavra monastery said in an appeal that they were being denied access to key buildings.

In a TV interview, however, the UOC’s spokesman, Archpriest Mykolai Danylevich, said that the UOC would maintain ties only with Orthodox Churches refusing to recognise Metropolitan Epiphany’s OCU.

In a Sunday interview with Ukraine’s New Voice radio, Metropolitan Epiphany insisted that his OCU now outnumbered the UOC, with 8000 communities nationwide. Many of the UOC’s 11,000 parishes had now been taken over by the Moscow Patriarchate in Russian-occupied Crimea and the Donbas region.

Preaching last week in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Patriarch Kirill reiterated that his Church’s mission was to “all the peoples of historical Holy Russia”. He called on Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians to seek reconciliation, “so the enemy of the human race, having sowed seeds of enmity, does not make brother rebel against brother, and all attempts at internecine strife are completely stopped and eradicated”.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s newly appointed exarch for Africa, Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachov), said that he and other Russian Orthodox leaders were “not afraid” of new sanctions announced last week by the “Ukrainian fascist regime”, adding that President Zelensky, a “pitiful jester”, had made “a landfill of death” out of his country, and would “cursed by all future generations”.

“You believed it was possible to deceive the Russians and, with the help of the West, solve your problems by force,” Metropolitan Leonid said in a social-media post.

“You are killing the Ukrainian gene pool with enviable constancy, as the German fascists did during World War II. You tell everyone you are a Jew — maybe you are taking revenge on Ukrainians this way for the past extermination of Jews in Ukraine.”

During talks last week with European Union officials, the president of the Conference of European Churches, the Revd Christian Krieger, praised the EU’s “strong commitment and clear position” towards the invasion of Ukraine, “notably regarding economic and military solidarity, the status for refugees, and sanctions”.

He said that the war had caused a “paradigm shift”, requiring the EU “to confirm its values and address its internal challenges”. Ukraine’s future reconstruction would necessitate “safeguarding plurality, religious freedom, and the state of law”.

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