When State And Church Unite

14 January 2011, 09:35

No matter what a person thinks about religion and churches, modern European societies are based on religious tolerance. Without it, people could not live comfortably next to each other in a multi-faith society. In Ukraine, relations between the current Administration and the church these days give some cause for concern.

On Jan. 6, Christmas Eve by the Julian calendar, the leaders of the two largest Eastern Churches in Ukraine, Kyiv Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, issued a series of statements that amounted to a warning to the government against systematic interference with the country’s churches in favor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. On Dec. 30, 2010, Filaret, Patriarch of Kyiv and All Rus, announced that a “widespread plan to split and destroy the Kyiv Patriarchate, had been designed in Moscow by the Russian Patriarch, Kirill, and his people, for implementation in Ukraine.” 

On Jan. 5, Filaret and Cardinal Liubomyr Huzar, the leader of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, spoke against plans to change the status of Sofia Kyivska, better known as St. Sofia, the holiest Christian shrine in Ukraine, saying this was the first step to handing the church to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). On January 5 and 6, L’viv and Ternopil City Councils sent a letter to the President asking Mr. Yanukovych to prevent the Government from giving preferential treatment to the Moscow Patriarchate. 

First we take the treasures

Yet these concerns are very much founded. At the end of 2010, reports floated in the press that the President’s Humanitarian Council had discussed transferring St. Sofia to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, which is already de facto under the ROC. The President’s spokesperson Hanna Herman responded that this was all “speculation, distorted information and intentionally or unintentionally misleading.” Meanwhile, the Moscow Church Synod confirmed what Filaret and Huzar feared: it has set up a special commission to “celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Sofia Cathedral.” Shortly afterwards, the press secretary of the ROC leader, Archpriest Georgiy Kovalenko announced that the Moscow Patriarch was going to request government approval to celebrate Holy Mass at St. Sofia’s. 

This story had been going on for more than half a year. Back in June, the leader of the ROC in Ukraine, Vladimir, had already talked to the Government about serving Mass at St. Sofia. Patriarch Filaret announced that the Kyiv Patriarchate supported the idea, but on condition that all Orthodox confessions take turns in doing so. According to Filaret, there was “no visible reaction” to this proposal on Bankova. Since then, the response has become much more evident. 

The Government’s support for one particular church grew much stronger in the second half of 2010. According to media reports and Ukrainian Week, the Moscow Patriarchate is waiting for the green light to de jure take over the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, the second biggest shrine, and to take over the Khersones Reserve, the institute built near the remains of an ancient Greek colony known far beyond Ukraine and the territory the equally renowned Desiatynna Church [see sidebar], and to build the highest church in Europe on Moskovska Ploshcha in Kyiv. This and other, lesser churches under the Moscow Patriarchate are moreover being subsidized significantly by the State. 

Then we attack the pilgrims

Last year, the other Eastern Christian churches began complaining about pressure from their Russian counterpart. On July 30, Patriarch Filaret asked the President and the Minister of Internal Affairs to look into an incident in which faithful from the Kyiv Patriarchate were prevented from participating in a procession to celebrate the anniversary of the christening of Kyivan Rus (988). It all started when buses began to widely refuse to carry pilgrims due to “pressure from unknown individuals.” In private conversations, the drivers said that the police threatened to withdraw their carrier licenses and otherwise hinder their work. So, buses from Chernivtsi and Ternopil Oblasts, Kharkiv and Odesa either never left or never reached Kyiv, while buses in Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, L’viv, Rivne, Sumy, and other oblasts were prevented from leaving. Meanwhile, local officials paid for pilgrims from Moscow Patriarchate churches to travel to places in Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk where ROC Patriarch Kirill was serving Mass. 

On Sept. 2-9, the Synod of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishops called on Mr. Yanukovych to not allow the incitement of religious feuds, inter-faith intolerance and discrimination against the constitutional right to freedom of conscience. On Sept. 13, Cardinal Huzar, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, asked the President, on behalf of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Synod, to intervene in the conflict between the Greek Catholic Church and the ROC Metropolitan of Odesa and Ismail, Agafangel. The Metropolitan was actively blocking the construction of a Greek Catholic church in Odesa. His argument was that “most people in Odesa are the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Presidential Spokesperson Hanna Herman addressed the matter thus: “This is a matter of inter-faith relations and should be solved by the churches and confessions themselves. They know better how many followers they have in a certain region.” 

Next we press the clergy

On Oct. 21, Simferopol City Council refused the Crimean Diocese of the Kyiv Patriarchate permission to prepare request to change the zoning of its land for the construction of a cathedral. Mayor Ghennadiy Babenko told reporters, “Religion is a delicate matter and our councilors followed their religious preferences when voting.” 

On Nov. 7, there was an attempt by a group of renegade monks to seize the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration in Chortkiv, L’viv Oblast.  The four were from the nearby Pidhirtsi Monastery and were assisted by about 50 young men who had come in from L’viv. These monks were excommunicated from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church after secretly being consecrated bishops in 2008. The attack failed but, according to Myron Bendyk, President of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Seminary in Drohobych, this was evidence of plans to create a schism in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from the inside and get the breakaway groups to join the Russian Church later. 

Officials from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate have stated on several occasions that their priests and bishops are being pressured to switch to the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Filaret said in the same letter of Dec. 30 that Metropolitan Ilarion, who had been sent to Ukraine to prepare for Patriarch Kirill’s visit in Spring 2010, “was looking for people he could take away from the Kyiv Patriarchate. Ilarion himself confessed that he had tried to talk the late Metropolitan of L’viv Andriy into betraying his church but had failed.” Patriarch Filaret claims that, at this point, in some of his dioceses, 70% of the priests have undergone “interviews” where they were “offered” an opportunity to switch to the Moscow Church. Moreover, the Patriarch says, “Local officials were directly involved in all these activities and the coordination and timing of these efforts suggests that they have support from the offices in Kyiv.” 

Finally, we grab the churches

Last year, a wave of “raiders’” attacks hit churches of the Kyiv Patriarchate. In October, three UOC parishes in Makariv, Yasnohorodka and Makovyshche, all in Makariv County, secretly registered changes to their statutes within just two weeks. On Dec. 26, a clash was provoked in the village of Ruzhky, Tarashcha County. Police surrounded the church to supposedly “protect” it from its own parishioners but were forced to back off when most of the people voted for the church to remain under the Kyiv Patriarchate. 

With tension between confessions growing weekly, President Yanukovych, supposedly the guarantor of the constitutional rights of all Ukrainians, regardless of their religion, has been demonstratively ignoring not only the “schismatic” Kyiv Patriarch Filaret, but the leaders of all other long-standing confessions in the ecclesiastic world for over a year now. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, established in 1996 and including over 95% of religious communities in Ukraine, stated at its meeting on Nov. 4 that the only answer it ever had from the Presidential Administration to written requests for a meeting with Mr. Yanukovych was, “The Administration is working on this issue.” At the next meeting on Dec. 16, Council members expressed concern about the elimination of the State Committee for Nationalities and Religions and the spreading of its portfolio among other central executive bodies: “This decision is a move that will undermine social tolerance and the Church-State dialog.” Bankova’s curious response to the Council’s appeal was to call a session of the Humanitarian Council where the controversial initiative to change control over St. Sofia was discussed. 

The idea that the Moscow Patriarch is the commander, ideologist and inspiration of not just the Russian Orthodox Church, but just about the entire Orthodox Church around the world is being hammered into the minds of Ukrainians through the press. During Patriarch Kirill’s summer visit, news of the Patriarch’s progress was a must in every newscast. The First National Channel aired live at least five Masses by Kirill, although it ignores anything going on in other churches. Such a policy in state-owned media should be viewed in the context of Patriarch Kirill’s frequent references to the break-up of the “Fatherland” as a “tragedy.” 

Whose interests, Ukraine’s or the Moscow Patriarch’s was President Yanukovych defending he awarded the Metropolitan of Odesa and Ismail, Agafangel, a major promoter of the idea of a “Russian world” and a leader of the ukrainophobic wing of the ROC in Ukraine, the 5th level Order of Prince Yaroslav Mudriy… on the Independence Day, no less. Prior to this, the press service of the Odesa Eparchy published a request to the President to eliminate with the schismatics in Ukraine through the “Bulgarian” scenario, that is, by force. The inappropriateness of this suggestion made even the press service of Metropolitan Vladimir distance himself. But that didn’t stop Mr. Yanukovych from making the award anyway. 

Now we can move in!

The expansion of the Moscow Patriarchate poses a threat both to other confessions and the peaceful co-existence of all Christian churches in Ukraine. Over 2008-2010, the policies of the Russian Orthodox Church took a conservative turn. Today, internal ROC documents on human rights, economic policy and state building are promoting the ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.” Patriarch Kirill’s doctrine of a “Russian world” logically involves the expansion of this self-referential vision across all the countries it encompasses. 

In Ukraine, one notoriously ukrainophobic, PR Deputy Vadym Kolesnichenko, has become the mouthpiece of this idea. He has registered a draft Declaration on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights in the Verkhovna Rada whose wording is identical to the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church and can be summed up in one sentence: “Human rights cannot be higher than the values of the spiritual world.” By stating openly that the recognition of human rights as the highest and universal basis for a society is “unacceptable and dangerous,” this PR Deputy is suggesting that the ideology of the Russian Orthodox Church be the basic principle underlying Ukrainian society. In short, basic human rights, whose value Mr. Kolesnichenko questions, and the country’s entire legislative base up to and including the Constitution, should be rewritten. 

Politically aware Ukrainians cannot ignore the growing influence of the Moscow Patriarchate in their country with the active support of their Government. This has already moved from a mere struggle over jurisdiction to a struggle for identity. The church led by Patriarch Kirill is eager to promote the “God-givenness” of the current Government, following Russian traditions, and to support the attack on civil rights with ready-made slogans. Ukrainians who understand this need to work at all possible levels to resist by insisting on the separation of Church and State and removing “outsiders” who are damaging inter-faith relations in Ukraine, so that religion does not become a factor triggering interregional and civil conflict. 



NO CHOICE. The huge new Cathedral of Transfiguration at Teremky in suburban Kyiv was initially built for the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. When its sponsor, businessman Ihor Lysov, joined Party of the Regions, the parishioners were quickly given a choice: either go over to the Moscow Patriarchate—or lose the church. The huge church itself was given to the ROC.


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