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26 February, 2018  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

When church and country clash

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is expanding its influence and propaganda in Donbas

People in the liberated parts of Donetsk Oblast are observing, not only the obvious comeback of political forces that changed their names but remain anti-Ukrainian, but growing efforts in this direction by Moscow Patriarchate churches. Nor is this a surprise: these two forces have always marched in step in the Donbas as they had common goals. Right now, however, residents of the region are beginning to feel a worrisome trend as the UOP-MP once again gains power over the government and, even more disturbingly, over the school system.

Just as they did prior to the start of the “Russian spring,” public schools in the oblast are once again eagerly opening their doors to individuals who support Russia and its aggression. Organizations that are affiliated with Moscow-based entities and are funded exclusively by the Moscow church have begun working on textbooks and holding large-scale meetings and events for teachers and pupils. Worse, Ukrainian officials are not responding to this controversial trend.

Indoctrination starts with the young

“In Kostiantynivka County, an Orthodox youth center called Stretenie [The Visitation] similar to the one in Kislovodsk, Russia, was set up in 2011,” says Oksana Proselkova, a teacher at the Kramatorsk school. “That’s already a concerning turn of events. Of course, I’m not trying to blame anyone; what I’d like to have is facts. All the more so because I taught Christian ethics prior to the war and was then a parishioner of the Moscow Patriarchate. But I was disillusioned and stopped going there after a conversation with the parish priest at the Kramatorsk church who is now in charge of the eparchy in occupied Horlivka in which he expressed nothing but suspicion and accusations.

“The essence of my conversation with him was that, since I had visited Lviv once again in December 2014—I was presenting our project, the first series of 2014 Winter Readings at the Center for Literary Research for children and teenagers—, I was told to come to him and make my confession and clearly tell him what people THERE were teaching me. Right now, I believe that we need to avoid any kind of relationship whatsoever with the Moscow Patriarchate. I suppose there are MP priests who are Ukrainian patriots, but my own experience has shown that they are controlled from the center.”

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Ms. Proselkova offers an example of how the Moscow Patriarchate in Donetsk Oblast works closely with state institutions in setting educational policy. In late fall 2017, the First Pokrova Pedagogical Sessions took place in the village of Serhiyivka on the topic of strengthening the institute of the family. The event was sponsored by the Donetsk Oblast Post-Secondary Education Institute and the Horlivka and Sloviansk eparchies, the Stretenia center, and the Sviato-Serhiyivska Nunnery. Teachers from all over Donetsk Oblast were invited to the seminar and they were addressed by Metropolitan Mitrophan, the archbishop of Horlivka and Sloviansk. Yet no one was told in advance that the cleric would be speaking at the event. Nor did the Department of Education know about the participation of its teachers, as they were invited personally by their principals.

With the new Law on Education, it will be even more difficult to control such things centrally because principals and parents can, at their own discretion, invite anyone they want to teach their children. This is supposedly very good, because people are quite tired of the ministry forcing everyone to toe the same line. On the other hand, there’s the real risk that Ukrainian children will become hostages to the hegemony of pro-Moscow priests. It is starting to look that way. For instance, it turns out that the religious association mentioned above is now promoting methodological projects in pre-schools and has started to work in the oblast’s kindergartens. Indeed, its promotional brochures even announced that they would be getting the Education Ministry’s seal of approval in 2018. But a wave of angry protest on the internet led to the next lecture, which had been scheduled for Kramatorsk, to be postponed.

Ms. Proselkova found herself under mounting pressure, but she found support among pro-Ukrainian activists who were very clear about their position: even if they are under the guise of secular organizations, members of a religious community have no business interfering in the work of state institutions—especially if their church has already shown itself to be one of the driving forces behind a military conflict and continues to deny both the nature of the conflict and its own role in fanning its flames.

Using Peter to influence Paul

On the other hand, standing up to this situation with the help of the SBU or through political means is unlikely to work. This very delicate situation requires an ability to analyze and to collectively recognize the need for self-preservation. That requires a certain amount of political will, as well. In Donetsk Oblast, the tradition of churches using government offices to strengthen their influence is strong and generally seen as natural. Nor is it limited to the public appearance of those in office at church events or feasts. It extends to the allocation of valuable land, the construction of churches using funds from the Mayor or local deputies as a demonstration of mutual loyalty. At open sessions that were organized during religious holidays by town or county administrators, priests openly demanded the right to use administrative leverage to force businesses, farmers and entrepreneurs to provide “voluntary” assistance. The answer was: “We’ll take care of everything.”

“The clergy don’t shy away from the opportunities offered by those in power when they lobby their own interests,” says Maksym Potapchuk, director of Liberi Liberati, a cultural and education al foundation and one of the community activists who supported the understandably angry Kramatorsk teacher. “This includes getting permission to use land, free access to a young audience, and using public platforms for all kinds of propaganda, from public speeches to the dissemination of pamphlets. When all this takes place next to officialdom, it’s seen as correct, popular and recognized. But most of all, it’s part of the state. The government promotes such people like Metropolitan Mitrophan, showing that this person can be trusted.”

During the armed conflict, the influence of the most widely represented church in Donbas on the government seemed to fade somewhat. But that was perhaps simply because the local administration itself was lost and weak for a time. At that point both the UOC-MP and those in office tried to survive independently: even humanitarian aid began to come in from other confessions. Now, however, its influence has returned to pre-war levels, albeit its quality has somewhat changed. Today, various other confessions can also use public offices to strengthen their positions and it’s not just the UOC-MP that is actively delegating representatives to all kinds of institutions that influence public opinion. The Greek Catholics and Protestants are also busy at it. Moreover, the appearance of orthodox centers of the Kyiv Patriarchate has become synonymous with the consolidation of the pro-Ukrainian community.

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Not long ago, a number of cities in Donetsk supported a flashmob protest when a priest of the UOC-MP refused to hold a funeral service for a child in Zaporizhzhia. The two year-old had been killed when an unrelated man threw himself out of the window of their apartment building. When told that the child had been christened in the Kyiv Patriarchate, the “The Batiushka [the Russian name for parish priests, meaning Little Father] told us that our child was not christened and our church was false,” the toddler’s father later reported. This incident caused outrage in Ukraine that only grew stronger when the Moscow Patriarchate began to defend its priest. And so there was a call for a flashmob in social networks: people in various cities began to carry dolls to MP churches whose priests support the Russian proxies.

Many humanitarian missions also have a clear religious connection and the government has to take that into account as well. For instance, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which were the first cities to be occupied back in mid 2014, have a strong and active Protestant community today. Among others, it has had a significant impact on the process of rebuilding and assisting the towns materially through global religious foundations—and is slowly having an impact on the local government as well. Unsurprisingly, they are also gradually joining various state educational programs, not so much to be paid for their services as to expand their circle of supporters on a completely legitimate basis—provided by the government. For instance, not long ago the Donetsk Oblast Youth Administration requested that Protestants be added to its roster, since, they claimed, there were simply no secular specialists in this area.

Laser beams and brainwashing

Pressure is not always so directly applied. The most bizarre attempt by the UOC-MP to influence Ukrainian society as a whole and the government in particular was the dissemination of information among its parishioners claiming that biometric passports were dangerous. For a time there were even rallies and campaigns under this slogan. The first time this came to anyone’s attention was in a small town near the front when a woman asked lawyers how her child might acquire an ordinary passport rather than an ID card. The woman was a believer and her Batiushka had told her that Orthodox faithful should not accept documents with chips because the laser beam directed into the brain during photographing would alter the person forever. When she heard that the option of receiving a paper passport was no longer available for technical reasons, she said that in that case her child would be without any documents at all.

The question is, why is the Moscow Church so adamantly against about a purely technical matter? With biometric passports, of course, it’s much easier to go to developed countries—and this, like the fictive laser beam, is very dangerous for the mind of an orthodox person.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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