Friday, December 29, 2023

Zelensky’s move against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a step too far (Opinion)

Zelensky: Ukraine seeks 'spiritual independence,' acts against church - The  Jerusalem Post

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and right now the situation in Ukraine is getting increasingly desperate for President Volodmyr Zelensky and his administration.

Despite its unquestionable valour, the Ukrainian Army remains locked in a grinding stalemate with Vladimir Putin’s Russian invaders. 

If this weren’t enough of a challenge, President Zelensky has also been forced into a number of significant changes to his ministry, including the removal of a defence minister over charges of corruption, at a time when many in the international community are beginning to lose faith in the Ukrainian cause.

Given this confluence of factors, it’s perhaps no surprise Zelensky and his government feel they are surrounded by enemies, whether real or imagined. 

Perhaps it’s this sense of being under constant attack that explains his decision to endorse a bill now before the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada) that would ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the spiritual home to millions of his fellow citizens.

Ukrainian politicians want to take the vote of those supporting a new church – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) – and therefore feel it is in their interest to destroy the ancient UOC. But there is nowhere in the Ukrainian constitution or international law, or laws of war, for the banning of a religious denomination.

If enacted, this legislation, which is currently awaiting further scrutiny in the Rada, would deny the Ukrainian people a basic human right: the freedom of religion. 

It would require people of one faith to abandon their church and instead worship under the government’s preferred branch of Orthodoxy – the newly established OCU.  Telling people how they must worship is blatantly inconsistent with international human rights.

According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration crafted in the aftermath of World War II, a war that devastated what is now Ukraine, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Ukraine also aspires to membership of the European Union. Here, Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which Ukraine ratified in 1997, obliges Ukraine to “secure to everyone within [its] jurisdiction” the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including the freedom, “either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

Put plainly, the Ukrainian Parliament risks pulling down a key pillar for civil society, one it will sorely need if it is to establish a free and pluralistic society once Russia is pushed out. This must be stopped.

And why do I care? 

Well, as someone who stood up to the Russian state in the past, I can assure you it’s not to give a boost to the opponents of freedom. 

On the contrary, defending the right to freedom of religion is a move in support of freedom, movements which I have supported in the past in places like Zimbabwe. 

Returning to Ukraine, neither historical religious ties nor the possibility of foreign influence can override the freedom of religion. 

In a democratic society, it is not for the state to judge canonical links to other branches of Orthodoxy or to invoke national security without justification. 

Evidence has yet to be presented that would demonstrate foreign control of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; indeed, the head of the UOC in Ukraine has denounced the Russian invasion.

Since the February 2022 invasion, the UOC has operated independently of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The UOC’s priests, its leadership and thousands of followers fully support their country against Russian aggression and have done everything in their power to separate from the ROC.

Whether the current government likes it or not, the UOC is home to Orthodoxy in Ukraine, it has been around for a thousand years and, while it has historically sat within the Russian Orthodox branch of the Church, the UOC cut its administrative tie to Moscow following the invasion. 

It is – in effect – an autonomous branch which does not recognise this historic link in their structures.

Whatever the taxonomy, the fact is, the world has not given the Ukrainian government carte blanche to intimidate or harass innocent church officials or churchgoers. 

If the Ukrainian government has proof of criminal wrongdoing within the church, then it should investigate and charge it under the law. 

What it should not do is violate a fundamental human right when the entire world is looking to it in the hope that it might be a beacon of hope in a region where human rights are few and far between.