Ukraine, Religious Liberty And Truth

Apr 27th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine claim the country persecutes Christians. “When American leaders frame this as a war for democracy and human rights, it would be good if the recipient of the aid was a little bit more careful of human rights, including religious liberties,” Sen. J.D. Vance said in an interview in mid-March. Ukraine “is doing some pretty bad stuff,” he adds, citing “news reports of priests being investigated, church assets being seized and priests being arrested.”  Ukrainians have “invaded churches, they’ve arrested priests,” according to Sen. Rand Paul. Rep. Paul Gosar says Kyiv has “banned Ukraine’s oldest and largest denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

Last year, Tucker Carlson said President Volodymyr Zelensky “banned a Christian faith in his country and arrested nuns and priests.” In a Republican presidential debate, Vivek Ramaswamy said: “Do you want to use U.S. taxpayer money to fund the banning of Christians? That is actually what’s happening.”  Steven Moore, a former Capitol Hill staffer and now president of the Kyiv-based Ukraine Freedom Project, visited some 100 GOP congressional offices between September and January. About a third “said they’re concerned about Zelensky persecuting Ukrainian Christians,” he says.

As Jillian Kay Melchior boldly and correctly observes, “This narrative—the product of a public-relations and lobbying campaign—sounds bad. But it’s false, and Americans in particular should appreciate Ukraine’s dilemma. After Sept. 11, the U.S. sought to safeguard religious freedom while protecting itself from Islamic terrorism. Ukraine seeks to uphold religious liberty while addressing Russia’s power over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which supports the Kremlin.”

History provides the proper context for understanding the situation in Ukraine:  “The story begins in the Soviet Union. After the 1917 revolution, Orthodox Christians went underground and proved resilient under persecution. Stalin concluded that if he couldn’t extinguish Christianity, he would co-opt it instead. Beginning in 1943, he re-established the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and reopened churches and seminaries—under state control. This official religious life “could be surveilled, regulated, taxed and, most critically, used to accomplish political goals,” writes Kathryn David, a U.S. State Department historian.”

For years, Ukraine campaigned for an independent Orthodox church, devoid of any allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church.  Therefore, in mid-October 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church, signaled his support for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (called autocephaly).  The Russian Orthodox Church responded by severing ties with Constantinople, warning of a historic schism.  Ukrainians see a fully independent national church as an essential means of breaking from Moscow’s orbit.  What is the historical context of these moves in Ukraine for independence and Putin’s determination of keep all Orthodox Churches united under Moscow’s authority?  President Vladimir Putin has maneuvered diligently in recent years to revive the idea that Moscow should be the capital for all Eastern Orthodox Christians, in effect making the Russian Orthodox Church an extension of his efforts to restore Russia’s superpower status.  As Neil MacFarquhar has argued, Putin “bolstered the church both to sell Russia as a bastion of ‘traditional values,’ and to paint his Kremlin as heir to the holy traditions of the czarist empire.”  But, the Ukrainian Church’s decision to break away from Moscow threatens that dream.  In effect, this dispute pits Constantinople against Moscow for control of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has the title of “His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople—New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.”  (According to tradition, as the “first among equals,” Bartholomew, has the authority to create new, full-fledged branches of the Orthodox church).  His opponent in all this is Patriarch Kirill I, the Moscow Patriarchate, who is also a close ally of Putin.  Several important aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy:

  • Unlike Roman Catholicism, which sees the Bishop of Rome, the pope, as the undisputed leader of the Church, there are 14 branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, each of which enjoys significant sovereignty.
  • The current dispute involves various interpretations of the degree of supervision over Ukraine originally granted to the Moscow patriarchate in 1686.  Moscow has now suspended contacts with Bartholomew I and dropped his name from its prayer services.
  • Many in the Eastern Orthodox Church are weary of what they call “Russian arrogance and the excessively nationalistic attitude of clerics under the Kremlin’s control.”
  • The Russian Orthodox Church boasts a membership of 150 million people, with 30 to 40% of this number from Ukraine.  With Ukraine’s autonomy, a smaller church for Russia would undermine Putin’s effort to call itself the protector of all Orthodox Christians and the so-called Third Rome, after the loss of Rome in the original Christian schism (in 1054) and the loss of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  This loss would also blunt Putin’s effort to have Russia be the reincarnation of the old czarist Russia.
  • Putin and Patriarch Kirill I speak frequently of the “Russian World” of one people, one church and one culture.  Granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ruptures the last significant imperial link to Ukraine and could thereby inspire other churches to seek independence.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that it is the one true church on earth, tracing its origins back to the apostolic church in unbroken succession.  The implication of this position is that both Roman Catholics and Protestants have departed from the true church and the true faith.  From Eastern Orthodoxy’s perspective, in the Great Schism of 1054, the Western Church centered in Rome, left the “mother Church” of the East.  This formal break between Western and Eastern Christianity continues today.  From Russia’s perspective, when the Ottoman Turks succeeded in their conquest of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church shifted to Moscow, which then assumed the position of the Third Rome, insisting that it was the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy.  That perception today informs Patriarch Krill I of Moscow and Vladimir Putin.  They do not see Ukraine’s decision to be independent from the Moscow Patriarchate as legitimate.  This development threatens entirely Vladimir Putin’s vision of restoring the greatness of imperial, czarist Russia, linked forcefully with Russian Orthodoxy, the glue of the new Russian empire.  The authority of the Russian Orthodox Church is to serve the political power and goals of the new “Russian Czar”—Vladimir Putin.  This is what happens when the church is linked resolutely to the state:  The church ends up serving the state.

Melchior adds the following:

After the Soviet collapse, evidence emerged of extensive ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the KGB. Last year two Swiss publications reported that among the KGB agents in the church was Vladimir Gundyaev, known today as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom says the Russian church’s justification of the war is “comparable to jihad, holy war in Islam.” The patriarch has claimed those who die during military duty have made a sacrifice that “washes away all the sins that a person has committed.”

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church historically operated as a subordinate branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Institute for the Study of War reports the Ukrainian church “provided material support for Russia’s initial invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014,” and Russian soldiers used church buildings “as military storage depots, garrisons, field hospitals, and even fighting positions during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian church condemned the 2022 invasion, appealed for negotiations, expressed disagreement with Patriarch Kirill and said it had made statutory changes testifying to its “complete autonomy and independence.” But the Russian Orthodox Church website lists more than 100 members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as members of its episcopate. Many are also currently listed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, says it “severed all administrative ties from the ROC when the present conflict began,” including “withdrawing their senior members and bishops from the synod of the ROC. The UOC cannot control what the ROC says or does on its websites, and obviously the Russians have their own separate agenda to misrepresent the independence of the Church.” He also says the “canonical or spiritual connection” between the churches “is not the jurisdiction of politicians to alter.”

“Some 22 Ukrainian Orthodox Church officials have been convicted of unlawful collaboration with Russians or other war-related crimes, according to Viktor Yelenskyi, Ukraine’s top executive official on matters of religion and freedom of conscience. Priests have been convicted for informing Russia of Ukrainian positions and otherwise spying and for disseminating propaganda urging the government’s overthrow. Mr. Yelenskyi estimates another 72 people connected with the church are subject to criminal proceedings or have been issued notice of suspicion. Mr. Amsterdam said ‘fewer than 1% of UOC members have been found to have issues.’”

Russia uses the church as “a channel of influence, as a kind of soft power,” and it controls senior Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders through “blackmails, compromise, and they also bribe them,” says Cyril Hovorun, a former theological counselor to Patriarch Kirill who broke with him over his support for Mr. Putin and now lives in exile.

Because of this massive Russian interference, Melchior reports, “Ukraine’s Parliament is considering legislation to address national-security risks posed by religious organizations that maintain ties with Russia. Mr. Yelenskyi said to the extent that there is ‘a small restriction on religious freedom’ it should be imposed by law and minimize the ‘burden on the freedom of conscience of ordinary people.’ The bill wouldn’t establish new crimes or criminal penalties. It would prohibit Ukrainian religious entities from affiliating with religious organizations that are based or have a management center in a country waging armed aggression against Ukraine. It would also prohibit religious entities from spreading propaganda, including material calling for the destruction of Ukraine, genocide of the Ukrainian people, and Russia’s violent conquest and occupation of other states.”

  • “Each of the thousands of Ukrainian Orthodox Church parishes would be treated individually under the law. If it is found in violation of the law and refuses to cut ties with Russia, it would lose its legal status as a religious entity. That would terminate its tax benefits and lease agreements, including for state-owned religious properties. Its assets would be liquidated under court supervision.
  • The bill would impose no restrictions on believers’ right to assemble, preach or pray. Nor would anything prevent a church that loses its status from reincorporating as a business or other legal entity, says Mykyta Poturaiev, head of the legislative committee drafting the bill.”

This legislation is the central focus of those claiming Ukraine violates religious liberty. As Melchior concludes, “The evidence doesn’t support the accusation that Ukraine is persecuting Orthodox Christians. The national-security threat posed by some factions of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is genuine, and Ukraine is addressing it in a careful, measured way. There’s a coordinated campaign to convince U.S. voters and lawmakers otherwise, and they shouldn’t be fooled.”

See Jillian Kay Melchior, “Is Religious Liberty ‘Under Attack’ in Ukraine?” in the Wall Street Journal (22 March 2024); The Economist (20 October 2018), p. 51; and Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (8 October 2018).

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