Ukraine’s religious restrictions more than wartime emergency measure?

According to observers speaking at a recent online seminar, Ukraine is on a “very slippery slope” in violating religious freedom since it introduced sanctions and other restrictions last year against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), Moscow Patriarchate. The online symposium, organized by the Greek Order of Saint Andrew and attended by RW, took place shortly after the Ukrainian government led by Volodymyr Zelensky expelled monks from the historic Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kiev because of their ties to the Moscow Patriarchate. The action was part of Zelenksy’s changed policy in late 2022 to target religious organizations with ties to Russia, particularly the UOC, after he had earlier stated he would not ban the church. Since last spring, when an assembly of the UOC officially distanced itself from Russia, it has been a matter of debate if the church has actually cut ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, since some bishops have maintained their Russian connection.

Pechersk Lavra in Kiev (source: Wallpaper Flare).

Historian Nadieszda Kizenko said that Ukraine’s insistence that there be one Orthodox church without Russian ties runs counter to its own history, since there have long existed various competing visions of Orthodoxy and relationships with Russia in the country. Even in a time of war, Kizenko said that there is little evidence of large-scale collaboration between the UOC and Russia. “Finding someone having rubles or Russian pamphlets does not constitute treason.” It has not helped matters that the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has intervened in the controversy by proposing that the Lavra monastery should remain open only if it affiliates with its own church. The decision in late March to expel the monks, teachers, and students from the Lavra Monastery without notice because of their ties to the UOC is another worrisome step, especially since the monastery has hosted refugees from the war and some of the monks’ and students’ families and relatives are fighting in the war against Russia. [The abbot of the monastery was arrested in early April.] Recently buses of UOC pilgrims to the second Lavra Monastery were not allowed to worship there.

The Ukrainian state is “going down a slippery slope fast. Being in a state of war does not excuse an attack on religious freedom,” Kizenko said. Russian journalist Sergei Chapnin said much of this policy change is the work of a new religious affairs advisor to Zelensky, who has drawn up the names of priests and bishops suspected of being collaborators without any legal proceedings against them. He said the “anti-Ukrainian Orthodox propaganda is extremely strong in the government-owned media. It’s no way to disestablish the UOC [from suspected Russian ties]. The UOC will continue to exist and will be stronger under pressure from the outside, creating a martyr complex,” Chapnin said. Boston College political scientist Elizabeth Prodromou said that “state solutions to religious conflict don’t work. There needs to be an engagement between both churches [the OCU and UOC] to [work for] unity and religious freedom.” She added that recent government restrictions on Orthodoxy are not limited to Ukraine or Russia and that they bear watching. In a little reported action, at the end of last year the Latvian government passed a law requiring churches to cut ties with any country outside of Latvia.