Monday, May 06, 2024

Ukrainian church policy - on the wrong track

On 12 April 2024, the private home of Ukrainian Orthodox priest Mykolaj Danylevych was searched by the country's secret service, the SBU. The officers confiscated the priest's phone and computer, confiscated his passport and accused him of discrimination on a religious basis and of glorifying the Russian attack.

Mykolaj Danylevych belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOK), which the authorities accuse of being a Russian propaganda organisation. However, the church has spoken out against the Russian attack in all official statements and separated from the Russian church, to which it had previously belonged, in May 2022. 

However, the state does not believe this separation, and state measures against the UOK have intensified since autumn 2022: Searches and criminal proceedings against individuals, confiscation of church buildings or dissolution of congregations. The Ukrainian parliament is currently debating a law that would make it possible to ban the church altogether.

Danylevych has two important functions in the UOK: He is deputy head of the "Foreign Office", which is responsible for inter-church relations, and he coordinates the work of parishes abroad - following the separation from Russian Orthodoxy, the UOK has begun to build up a network of now around 100 parishes, primarily to provide spiritual care for refugees.

Danylevych criticised the law as a problem for religious freedom

In the days before the house search, a delegation from the Conference of European Churches (CEC) had visited Ukraine. Danylevych took part in a meeting between the delegation and the Ukrainian Council of Churches and in a discussion with a UOK bishop, during which he criticised the law in question as a problem for religious freedom in Ukraine.

Apparently, the work with the foreign congregations and the discussion of the draft law with foreign representatives were the reason why the SBU took action against Danylevych shortly afterwards. The secret service's press release stated that Danylevych had used his Telegram account to call for prayers for the Russian occupiers and spread Russian propaganda. 

According to Soviet diction, the foreign communities organised by him "spread Russian propaganda narratives under the pretext of alleged spiritual care for Ukrainian migrants". In this way, Danylevych tried to "discredit our country in the international arena".

But what did he post? The terms mentioned by the SBU do not appear in his Telegram account; instead, he called for prayers for the Ukrainian soldiers. The connection with the occupiers was obviously invented by the SBU. On the day of the Russian attack, 24 February 2022, Danylevych posted at 5 a.m.: "Putin broke his word and attacked our country! Bless you all for the defence of Ukraine! Let's pray and defend! The Church is with the people! God, protect Ukraine!" The numerous later posts also reveal nothing that would be Russian propaganda.

However, Danylevych criticises the government's measures directed against the UOC and the (sometimes violent) takeovers of UOC parishes by the rival "Orthodox Church of Ukraine" (OKU). 

The bishops of the two churches hurl accusations and insults at each other - in view of this, Danylevych's diction remains unusually matter-of-fact. He does not belittle the other church, and even when he criticises specific actions, he always calls for unity, which Ukraine needs right now. Until the main trial, reporting requirements were imposed on him; he is no longer allowed to travel abroad, which makes it difficult for him to look after the church communities there.

These events are in line with other actions by the Ukrainian authorities against the UOK. Under President Petro Poroshenko, the OKU was founded in 2018 with strong support from the state.  

President Zelensky, Poroshenko's successor, was initially not interested in religious issues; after his election, the measures also decreased - this included, above all, the re-registration of UOK communities to those of the OKU. However, a few months after the start of the major Russian attack, Ukrainian religious policy changed.

Takeovers of parishes are a major point of contention

Some important positions in the government apparatus were reassigned and the UOK became the object of massive measures. Hundreds of searches were carried out by the secret service on priests, bishops and in monasteries, but only 73 cases were opened, of which only 22 led to convictions - a rather small number given the number of around 8,000 UOK clerics. 

In addition to the aforementioned law, there are numerous other initiatives, such as the UOK having to change its name (and call itself "Russian"), or a law that denies it access to military chaplaincy, even though many soldiers on the front line belong to the UOK. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has repeatedly expressed concern about the threat to religious freedom in his reports on Ukraine (and at the same time rightly pointed out that there is no religious freedom at all in the Russian-occupied territories).

A major point of contention is the takeover of churches. The necessary votes by parishioners are often not transparent. The transfers are often organised by the local authorities, although only parishioners have the right to convene such meetings. In a number of cases, city or municipal councils have simply decided that the activities of the UOK are prohibited on their territory. This contradicts the country's constitution, as local authorities are not responsible for this, but is not criticised. It is not uncommon for acts of violence to occur in which the UOK congregation is driven out of their church, which is then awarded to the OKU and officially registered in their name. 

There are numerous videos in which it can be seen that the police are present but do not intervene. When representatives of the UOK speak out publicly against such acts or doubt the legitimacy of the OKU, proceedings are often opened against them for "incitement of interreligious hatred".

It is undisputed that there were and are collaborators with the Russian aggressors or occupiers in the UOK. In addition, the church leadership often behaved clumsily and ambivalently. 

However, all their official statements were very clearly directed against the Russian attack from the very beginning. The authorities persecute individuals (and Ukrainian law has all the means at its disposal), but the church to which they belong is also defamed as a whole. The religious authority, which exists in the Soviet tradition in Ukraine, justifies the measures with an expert opinion it has commissioned. It comes to the conclusion that the UOK is still part of Russian Orthodoxy. 

However, the experts selected by the same authority to prepare the report had already previously spoken out in favour of banning the UOK; they were therefore not neutral. The result of the report, which also had methodological flaws, was therefore predictable.

How are the other churches in Ukraine behaving in this situation? The OKU supports the planned law and only refers to the UOC in its statements as the "Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine" or as a "structure" (of Russian Orthodoxy). It denies or conceals the use of violence in the takeover of parishes. 

In their statements on social media, the representatives of the OKU often hurl accusations and insults at those of the UOC; they also deny the canonicity of the UOC and spread accusations without evidence, but without being prosecuted.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is extremely reserved, although it was itself banned in the Soviet Union for decades and could only exist underground. Its head, Grand Archbishop Shevchuk, warned against banning the UOK, arguing that this would give it martyr status. The problem of restricting religious freedom is not addressed. The Greek-Catholic news service RISU has long been running a veritable campaign against the UOK, which is also never referred to by its real name and is very rarely reported on neutrally.

Media smear campaign against the UOK

The "All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Communities" is also trying to marginalise the UOK. The representative of the UOK was explicitly uninvited to a meeting with the Prime Minister; no representative of the UOK was taken on a trip to the USA by the Council. 

In the report on the meeting with the CEC delegation on the Council's website, religious freedom in Ukraine is emphasised; the critical questioning of the UOK representative - Mykolaj Danylevych, whose house was searched by the secret service shortly afterwards - is concealed.

A media smear campaign against the UOK can be observed, which is also led or supported by representatives of other religious communities; the denunciations lead to a real threat to members of the UOK. No other religious community in Ukraine has so far shown any willingness to combat this growing social marginalisation of the UOK through dialogue or at least objectification.

Since the political and administrative measures are only directed against the UOK, one must speak of a massive restriction of religious freedom. The authorities argue that the UOC allegedly belongs to the Russian Church and at the same time conceal the clear statements made by the UOC since the beginning of the war as well as the numerous activities of the church to provide material and psychological support to the Ukrainian army and civilian victims, which demonstrate its pro-Ukrainian stance. 

To hold the institution to which individuals belong responsible for their offences is contrary to the principles of the rule of law. Ukraine, which deserves all our solidarity because of the unjustified Russian attack, must adhere particularly consistently to the principles of the rule of law and human rights in this situation, especially as it is seeking membership of the European Union. 

However, if the targeted measures against the UOK continue or even intensify, this orientation towards European principles will be jeopardised.