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Ukraine makes first step to ban Russian-backed church

Ukraine moved closer to cracking down on a Ukrainian Orthodox Church aligned with Russia, with parliament approving a law to ban the religious body.
UOC MP worshipers attend a church service headed by UOC MP primate Metropolitan Onufriy. Photo: UOC MP facebook page
Ukraine makes first step to ban Russian-backed church

Following months of debate, the Ukrainian parliament has adopted in the first reading a law that would effectively allow banning the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).

The current version of the law, adopted on 19 October, is credited as being the mildest option among those discussed: it envisions taking to court specific religious organizations with an established connection to Russia, which has been waging full-scale war against Ukraine under the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. The UOC MP is still subjugated to this church, led by the Moscow Patriarch, the Ukrainian state believes. In February 2023, an independent commission convened by the State

267 MPs voted for the law, out of the necessary 226 for adoption. MPs from former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity urged for more radical measures to immediately ban the church.

Meanwhile, a group against the measure, mostly within current President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, tried until the end to sway votes through veiled threats of punishment in the afterlife. Before the vote, some UOC MP bishops also urged lawmakers to “think about their souls” after death, indirectly threatening them with “God’s punishment.”

The law will pass another hearing, during which it could be amended to be more harsh, although it is unclear whether the necessary votes could be found.

What the law envisions

The government-submitted law launches a complicated and lengthy mechanism for moving towards a ban of the UOC MP, which is a legally complex operation since the church doesn’t have one single legal entity.

Instead, each parish, diocese, and the UOC MP center, the Kyiv Metropolis, is its own legal entity.

The law envisions that the State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience (DESS) must first establish that one of these particular religious organizations has its center in Russia. After that, the service will issue an order to the church to rectify this situation by changing certain norms in its statute or other documents.

If this does not happen, then DESS will file a lawsuit against this particular legal entity in court, which must then make a decision on the ban.

This legal process can take a long time, and years may pass before the ban is enforced.

According to the BBC, this path was chosen because it is the most legitimate judicial route and will not elicit the West’s harsh condemnation for violating religious freedom and human rights. After all, according to European tradition, only the court has the right to decide to ban certain religious organizations.

The DESS head Viktor Yelenskyi (read his op-ed for Euromaidan Press here: How the Russian Orthodox Church enabled Putin’s war against Ukraine) has communicated this position to foreign ambassadors this summer.

According to him, the UOC MP is home for a “carefully designed and well-funded campaign to implant the ideas of Russian chauvinism, exclusivity, anti-Westernism, as well as to plant foci of anti-Ukrainianism in the social fabric of Ukraine, which has been carried out by the Russian state machine under the guise of religion since the beginning of Putin’s rule.”

Yelenskyi also noted that “religious institutions” (read: UOC MP) worked to undermine Ukrainian statehood and defense capabilities and “spread capitulationist sentiments” since Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine.

“The large-scale invasion forced the vast majority of those who supported Russian religious and political narratives to radically change their position. However, Ukrainian society, the state, and church communities are essentially united in their desire to prevent the abuse of religion in the interests of the aggressor state,” Yelenskyi was quoted by DESS as telling the ambassadors.

According to Andriy Pinchuk, a UOC MP priest who was suspended from ministry for his criticism of Moscow Patriarch Kirill, if a UOC MP parish or diocese listens to the DESS and changes its statute, severing all ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, the case will be closed, and the church will be allowed to exist in Ukraine because it will not pose a threat to the national security of the state.

“I predict that the UOC [MP] will not do this. If it wanted to, it would have done so long ago. The UOC will go the other way, by creating a picture of religious persecution,” Pinchuk forecasts.

If a parish or diocese refuses, then DESS will take them to court, and close first the Kyiv Metropoly, and then the 50 diocesan (regional) administrations of the UOC MP.

There are roughly 6,000 UOC MP churches and monasteries on Ukrainian-controlled territories. They will lose their state registration.

Individual parishes will have several options for their property: they can either:

  • migrate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), granted independence in 2018;
  • re-register the buildings as owned by a civic organization or person;
  • or wait out. This option will likely result in individual parishes eventually being taken to court.

As UOC MP parishes and monasteries will lose the right to lease land, city, town, and village councils will take away all these church lands that are currently leased, including multiple churches built on the territory of hospitals, clinics, museums, and educational institutions.

Most likely, the regional authorities will lease them to the OCU.

“Implementing this law will be very painful. Because it will concern not only buildings and land. First and foremost, the enforcement of this law will affect hundreds of thousands of human souls. Some of them are deeply poisoned by pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. But among this quagmire, there are many islands of genuine spiritual and evangelical life and good deeds for the benefit of internally displaced persons, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and other needy individuals. And the fault of such church communities will be only in the fact that they are controlled by a handful of metropolitans who sold out to Kirill Gundyaev and the Kremlin.

The period of church ruin, which has been sowed in Ukraine for 30 years by such high-ranking pro-Russian clergy of the UOC [MP], is coming to an end,” Pinchuk believes.

How the Russian Orthodox Church enabled Putin’s war against Ukraine

UOC MP: a promoter of the “Russian World”

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) has longstanding ties to Russia and propagated the ideology of the “Russian World,” despite claiming in May 2022 to have cut ties with Moscow. The UOC MP benefited from government support in Ukraine for years, spreading Russian soft power through cultural events and paramilitary groups.

Numerous UOC MP priests backed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. For example, Father Pavel Batarchukov systematically supported Russian-led separatists in occupied Donbas by blessing them and boosting their fighting spirit against Ukrainian forces, even receiving a 2017 blessing from UOC MP leader Metropolitan Onufriy.

The “Russian World” ideology asserts that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus constitute one spiritual space united by Russian Orthodox Christianity. Through this doctrine, the UOC MP aimed to tie Ukrainians to Russia’s cultural and civilizational space. The UOC MP held events promoting Russian culture and language while marginalizing Ukrainian identity as subordinate.

In May 2022, under rising pressure, the UOC MP declared independence from Moscow but retained spiritual ties. However, this rhetorical shift did not eliminate its decades-long propagation of “Russian World” ideology. Many UOC MP parishes still pray for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, demonstrating Russia’s enduring sway.

The Ukrainian government has accused UOC MP clergy of denying Ukraine’s sovereignty and advocating Russia’s invasion. The Ukrainian Security Service has raided churches and pressed charges against clergy accused of promoting Russian aggression.

In December 2022, a special expert commission of the State Expert Commission on Church Relations officially established the connection of the UOC MP with the Moscow Patriarchate. Particularly, the commission found that the UOC MP maintains its status as a structural unit of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), lacking full autocephaly. It holds a canonical connection to the ROC, and its governance suggests ongoing subordination to the ROC.

The UOC MP itself does not agree with this and declares its independence from Moscow, although it admits that it has not declared full autocephaly.

Anatomy of treason: how the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sold its soul to the “Russian world”

Ukraine’s crackdown on the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP)

Unlike his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, under whose patronage Ukraine received a Tomos of autocephaly for its own independent Orthodox Church (OCU), standing president Volodymyr Zelenskyy maintained neutrality in the religious sphere.

This neutrality held until November 2022, when Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) raided several UOC MP monasteries and facilities, claiming to uncover Russian propaganda materials and evidence that some church leaders held Russian citizenship. The raids targeted monasteries in Kyiv, Zakarpattia, Chernivtsi, Rivne, and other oblasts. During the raids, the SBU seized Russian passports of church hierarchs, brochures denying Ukraine’s independence, and other materials promoting the “Russian World” ideology.

In December 2022, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council instructed the government to prepare legislation banning religious organizations affiliated with Russian centers of influence. It also initiated an audit into the UOC MP’s use of the historic Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra complex, Ukraine’s largest and most famous monastery.

In March 2023, the state terminated the UOC MP’s free use of the Lavra premises and ordered it to vacate. However, the church refused to leave, filing lawsuits to fight the eviction. Scuffles broke out between pro-Russian church supporters defending the Lavra and opponents demanding that the church depart.

Also in March, Ukraine’s SBU charged the abbot of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavlo, with inciting religious hatred and justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It placed him under house arrest. The SBU has said it opened over 60 criminal cases against UOC MP priests since Russia’s 2022 invasion.

The government has justified these actions by citing the UOC MP’s ties to Moscow, cases of propaganda and collaboration with Russian occupiers in Ukraine, and the need to combat Russia’s ideological influence. However, the UOC MP has claimed it is facing persecution and pressure from the state. Some international religious figures have also voiced concern about freedom of religion in Ukraine amid the government’s campaign against the church.

Discussions about a special law to restrict the activities of churches in Ukraine that are run from Russia have been ongoing since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. After all, the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill, have consistently supported the actions of Russian troops.

In April 2023, 70% of Ukrainians supported a ban on the UOC MP, a Gradus poll found. 66% were supportive of the state’s actions to evict UOC MP monks from the Lavra monastery in Kyiv.

According to polls, in January 2023, 69% of Ukrainians considered themselves Orthodox, 41% of them belonged to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which has about 8,000-9,000 parishes, 4% to the UOC (MP), with 10,000 parishes, and 24% did not belong to any church.

With reporting by BBC

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