Amid increasing accusations of misconduct and violence during the transfer of parishes from the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC MP) to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), a group of activists are requesting church leaders condemn any use of force (English translation here).
The group, called “10 Theses for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” arose in 2019 when they presented a plan of reforms to the just-independent Church, which received independence (autocephaly in church terminology) from the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Reacting to an incident in the central-Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, where OCU activists and Ukrainian servicemen breached a barricaded territory of a monastery to vacate it by force. The OCU group claimed they had rights to these premises, citing a decision of the parish community to leave the UOC MP and join the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. A standoff ensued, and at least two jaws of UOC MP priests were broken during the violent seizure of the UOC MP premises.
UOC MP claims, however, that the OCU did not lawfully gain rights to this territory because the decision was not made by parish members but by the regional community, meaning Ukrainians simply living nearby. This is a common accusation of the UOC MP amid its growing unpopularity in Ukrainian society and pressure on its church structures. Parish transfers from the UOC MP to the OCU, which sped up after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, have been marred by anger, chaos, and violence.
“Even though the main responsibility for the explosive religious situation in Ukraine lies with the leadership of the UOC MP, the use of physical violence in the transfer of churches to the OCU is unacceptable,” the 10 Theses appeal goes. “Conscious or unconscious, active or hidden support and emotional approval of such methods can lead to tragic consequences and even armed clashes on religious grounds. The situation is exponentially complicated by Russia’s full-scale war unleashed against Ukraine.”
“We call for an end to any attempts at forcible seizure of buildings and ask the leadership of the OCU to condemn them. The war for temples will not lead to the expansion and strengthening of the OCU, even if we have legal, moral, historical and social justice on our side,” 10 Theses stress and call upon all OCU faithful to intervene: “Inaction and irresponsible silence in such cases is tantamount to approval and complicity in violence.”
“In such a struggle between the OCU and the UOC, it is primarily Christianity in Ukraine that loses. Faith is not measured by the number of square meters in a cathedral or monastery. For our unchristian behavior, the Lord will devastate our temples,” the activists appeal.
At the same time, 10 Theses for OCU stresses that the primary fault for the religious tension in Ukraine lies with the UOC MP leadership, which keeps telling its believers that the OCU are schismatics despite receiving church autocephaly in order to preserve loyalty to their own structure. This places UOC MP faithful between a rock and a hard place as they are forced to explain their affiliation with church structures of the invading country:
“The UOC MP leadership is ready to sacrifice Ukraine for the sake of its corporate interests and unhealthy fantasies, stubbornly refusing to admit that their long-standing flirting with Russia was the most fatal and tragic mistake of this church structure.”
The UOC MP still maintains canonical subordination to the Moscow Patriarch, who blesses Russia’s war against Ukraine, despite claiming to have broken ties in May 2022, and Ukraine is eyeing a law that would request the UOC MP cease any connections with Russia or be taken to court.
The OCU was envisioned to end the long-standing schism between the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church (in canonical subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate; UOC MP) and the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate). However, in their majority, the UOC MP snubbed the invitation to unite and continues to campaign against the OCU.
Having had priority status up till 2014 in Ukraine, the UOC MP erected many temples and still has more parishes than the OCU. Despite this, the number of its faithful has plummeted with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; a January 2023 poll found that currently 4% of Ukrainians consider themselves a part of the UOC MP, while 41% professed allegiance to the OCU.
Conflicts over church temples, the majority of which belong to UOC MP, have therefore become common in wartime Ukraine amid accusations that the church contributed to Russian aggression through the promotion of Russian World ideology.
“We understand and share the pain, despair, and emotional state of many Ukrainians who would like the history of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine to finally end. We understand the needs of every real religious community to have a church where the sacraments are performed, and prayers are heard.
But Christians are followers of the New Testament of Love, and this imposes enormous responsibility on us towards our own conscience, towards Universal Orthodoxy, towards Ukrainian society, and towards the international community. We believe it is unacceptable to support, provoke, approve or in any other way tolerate ‘Lynch courts’ without exhausting all legal civilized means of establishing order and restoring justice,” the activists say.
Since the fall of 2022, Ukraine has raided UOC MP monasteries and pressed charges against clergy accused of aiding Russian aggression. As well, the state has terminated its lease agreement of Ukraine’s largest monastery, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, with the UOC MP.
UOC believes that these state actions, as well as laws under consideration to “ban” it in its current form and state inaction towards violence during parish transfers constitute religious persecution.
This thesis has become widespread among US Republicans, being propagated by e.g. conservative media personality Tucker Carlson. Part of the reason of its success in the USA is the work of well-paid lobbyists such as law professor William Whitney Berk-White, who is paid at an hourly rate of $1400 by the law firm Amsterdam and Partners LLP, which in turn receives funding from Ukrainian oligarch and UOC-MP archdeacon Vadym Novynskyi.
Disclaimer: the author of the article is a signatory of the appeal.
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