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Patriarch Kirill accuses Ukrainians of religious persecution

03 May 2024

Alamy

Palm Sunday, which fell last weekend in the Orthodox calendar, was celebrated in Kyiv, Ukraine

Palm Sunday, which fell last weekend in the Orthodox calendar, was celebrated in Kyiv, Ukraine

PATRIARCH Kirill of Moscow has urged Orthodox leaders abroad to help prevent a projected Ukrainian ban on religious communities linked with Russia, as Christians in both countries prepared to celebrate Easter (according to the Julian calendar) against a backdrop of missile strikes and front-line fighting.

“The ever-increasing pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [UOC] has acquired the character of open religious persecution, forcing me to turn to you again for support,” Patriarch Kirill said in the weekend letter, which was also sent to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as officials at the United Nations and Council of Europe.

“It is acquiring the features of total anti-religious terror — closure of churches and monasteries, illegal persecution of clergy and laity, and extra-judicial killings, as well as suppression of information sources revealing the truth.”

The Patriarch sent the appeal as Ukrainian parliamentarians prepared to renew debate on a long-planned law banning Moscow-affiliated church groups in their country.

In his latest clampdown on Russian Orthodox dissent, Patriarch Kirill also issued a decree unfrocking the Revd Dimitry Safronov, a Moscow priest, for conducting a brief memorial service in March for the deceased opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

The Patriarch said that the Ukrainian security service, the SBU, had made several arrests during recent searches of premises belonging to the Moscow-linked UOC, in a series of “punitive measures” designed to “suppress any public testimony about religious persecution”.

In a Russian Orthodox Palm Sunday sermon, however, the Primate of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said that his countrymen should feel confident that Christ would free them from suffering, and preserve their culture and identity against Moscow’s campaign of “conquest and assimilation”.

“Far from respecting the sanctity of fasting, this enemy desecrates our holy days with bloodshed, as the Russian aggressors sow death across our land,” the Metropolitan told a Kyiv congregation.

“But we believe the evil will be overcome, and the Kremlin tyranny fall ingloriously like so many tyrannies before. Truth will triumph, and a just peace be established by the power of Christ the Saviour.”

The exchanges took place as efforts were made to secure Christian sites and gatherings against attack this weekend, after the Russian government’s rejection of an Easter ceasefire was echoed by Vakhtang Kipshidze, from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department, who told Russian media that a temporary truce would “fuel misunderstandings”.

Fresh civilian deaths and injuries were reported during missile strikes against Kharkiv and Odesa, amid continued warnings of a large-scale Russian summer offensive to take advantage of faltering Ukrainian defences.

As the revised Draft Law 8371, banning religious organisations “affiliated with the centres of influence in a country carrying out aggression against Ukraine”, neared its Second Reading in the Ukrainian parliament, the abbot of the UOC’s Sviatohirsk monastery, near Donetsk, Metropolitan Arseny (Yakovenko), was arrested during a raid by the security services last week for allegedly assisting Russian occupiers.

Ukraine’s Religious Information Service said that another UOC Metropolitan, Ionafan (Yeletsky), who is appealing against a five-year sentence imposed on similar charges last August (News, 11 August 2023), had asked to be put on a list of possible POW exchanges with Russia.

A leader of the Union of Baptist Churches, Pastor Anatoly Kushnirchuk, said on Tuesday that he had signed a co-operation agreement with a charity in the United States which provides prosthetics and rehabilitation for amputees, and reminded Ukrainians to treat the mounting number of adult and child victims as “fully fledged and respected members of society”.

The Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, appealed on Monday for a pre-Easter exchange of prisoners and detainees, prioritising women, medical workers, and clergy, and put the number of Ukrainians held by Russian forces at 9600.

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