by Maxim Goldard*
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky recently stated that: “Ukraine is the territory of the greatest religious freedom in our part of Europe.” These words of his were widely quoted by many leading Ukrainian and world media.
Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine really says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and religion. This right includes the freedom to profess any religion or not to profess any, to freely perform, individually or collectively, religious cults and ritual rites, to conduct religious activities …
… The church and religious organizations in Ukraine are separated from the state, and the school – from the church. No religion can be recognized by the state as obligatory.”
Let’s see how these provisions of the Constitution are implemented in today’s Ukraine in practice.
The largest religious organization in Ukraine is the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Its parishioners are 3 million citizens of Ukraine, it has 12,000 parishes (communities), almost 300 monasteries and three Lavras – the shrines of all Orthodoxy.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is historically connected with the Russian Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, but has such wide autonomy from it that can be compared with complete independence: the highest governing bodies, the appointment of bishops, the election of a metropolitan are the exclusive competence of the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy. The UOC is recognized by all the world’s largest church denominations.
In the fall of 2022, a coordinated attack on the authorities began against the UOC in order to ban it. The attack is led directly by the highest officials of the state. So, on December 21, 2022, the head of the special service – the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) Malyuk bluntly stated that “now we are actively working with this (against the UOC), and our supreme commander sets the main pace.” Once again: according to the head of the SBU, the organizer and inspirer of what is happening is President Zelensky.
The plan of this attack is set out in the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine dated December 1, 2022 “On Certain Aspects of the Activities of Religious Organizations in Ukraine and the Application of Personal Special Economic and Other Restrictive Measures (Sanctions)”, and those officials who did not want to execute it, fired.
This happened, for example, with the head of the State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, Olena Bogdan, who stated in November 2022 that: “According to the documents, there is no connection (with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).” As a result, she was fired and replaced in December 2022 with Viktor Yelensky, who fulfills all orders from the authorities in this direction.
For similar reasons, in September 2022, the deputy head of the SBU of the Kyiv region, Y. Palahniuk, was removed from his post.
In pursuance of the plan aimed at discrediting and prohibiting the UOC, mass repressive measures began in the form of searches in the temples of the UOC and the priests.
From October 2022 to January 2023, the SBU, the police, the National Guard carried out mass searches in churches, temples, laurels, monasteries of the UOC in Vinnitsa, Volyn, Zhytomyr, Transcarpathia, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Poltava, Rivne, Sumy , Kharkov, Kherson, Khmelnitsky and Chernivtsi regions, as well as in Kiev. More than 350 church buildings and 850 clergy were searched.
It is very important that the European Court of Human Rights in its decisions notes that searches in places of worship and in the homes of religious figures should be interpreted as a form of state coercion, calculated to intimidate them, as well as their fellow believers, so that they refuse to from your own faith.
After the searches, many hierarchs of the UOC were charged with standard, identical charges under Article 161 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (violation of the equality of citizens depending on their religious beliefs):
Metropolitan Jonathan of Tulchinsky and Bratslav, Metropolitan Joasaph, the former head of the Kirovohrad diocese of the UOC, Metropolitan Theodosius of Cherkasy and Kanev, and Metropolitan Pavel, the vicar of the main shrine of Ukrainian Orthodoxy – the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.
In addition to police charges, in December 2022, the president also imposed personal sanctions against the clergy of the UOC – citizens of Ukraine, which involve extrajudicial blocking of their property and civil rights.
The persecution against the church was intensified by the president and the unconstitutional deprivation of their Ukrainian citizenship. So, back in 2019, Bishop Gedeon of Makarovsky was deprived of citizenship, but soon the court confirmed the illegality of this decision.
At the end of December 2022, by presidential decree (No. 898/2022 of December 28, 2022), the citizenship of 13 primates of the UOC was terminated, including Metropolitan Jonathan of Tulchinsky and Bratslav, Metropolitan Meletiy of Chernivtsi and Bukovina, Metropolitan Joseph of Romny and Burinsky and Metropolitan of Dnepropetrovsk and Pavlograd.
On January 19, 2023, the Cabinet of Ministers submitted draft law 8371 to the Parliament of Ukraine, the essence of which is to create a mechanism for banning the UOC.
Fulfilling the task of the president, local authorities, violating the Constitution, out of court began to prohibit the activities of the UOC in their territorial communities.
This was done in Ivano-Frankivsk, Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Lvov, Rivne, Sumy, Cherkasy and other regions.
On April 21, 2022, the head of the Sumy regional military administration Dmitry Zhyvitsky said why this is being done: “I will do everything so that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not exist in the Sumy region.”
Such actions of officials are accompanied by threats against priests and believers from radicals incited by the authorities.
Forceful seizures of the temples of the UOC, which are organized by the authorities together with extreme nationalists, have become constant.
Already captured more than a hundred temples and churches in the Ivano-Frankivsk, Lvov, Ternopil, Rivne, Vinnitsa, Kirovograd, Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Khmelnitsky regions. At the same time, both priests and parishioners were subjected to beatings and humiliation.
The apogee of the impudent illegal seizure of churches is the seizure of the two main shrines of Ukrainian Orthodoxy – the Kiev-Pechersk and Pochaev Lavra, the illegal persecution of their abbots.
Thus, the Ukrainian authorities launched a targeted campaign of moral and physical terror against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Her goal is to completely destroy this church. After the president has effectively liquidated the political opposition by banning all leftist and other opposition parties, after freedom of speech has been destroyed, and all the remaining media in Ukraine have been taken under tight control, he strikes at the only large structure left in Ukraine, which is not yet subordinate to the authorities – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
If this plan is successful, it will be possible to speak about the establishment in Ukraine of not just an authoritarian, but a totalitarian regime, which by terrorist methods controls all spheres of life in the country without exception.
* Chairman of the “Union of Left Forces of Ukraine – For New Socialism”
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