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How Ukraine has become unsafe for millions of Orthodox believers

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has faced unprecedented pressure in modern history: the seizure of churches, arrests of church clergy, criminal investigations, and the possibility of a complete legal ban.

The leadership of the UOC declared full independence from the Russian Orthodox Church back in May, but the position of the authorities has not changed.

Meanwhile, Ukraine became divided into “first-class Orthodox” – parishioners of the OCU, and “second-class Orthodox” – parishioners of the “Moscow-affiliated” church, as Ukraine claims.

To strengthen national unity, the Ukrainian government is dealing a heavy blow to religious harmony, which will inevitably be a source of tragedy for millions of Ukrainians.

Historically, the religious situation in Ukraine has always been tense. Every political crisis has led to a split in the church: the very formation of the state, the 2014 Euromaidan, the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018.

Ukraine has never had a united Orthodox church, and the nationalist-minded part of society has long been seeking one. The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has for many years been the most active denomination, but has been forced to fend off accusations of “working for Moscow” because of its formal subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russia’s attack has provoked a round of aggression against the UOC, with accusations of it “working for Russia” and “serving the Kremlin” heard with renewed vigor. Meanwhile, Kiev has made the fight against the UOC political.

Immediately after the start of the military operation, the seizure of churches by force began in many regions of Ukraine. In March, armed supporters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), formed under the previous president, Petro Poroshenko, disrupted a service in the Pokrovsky Church of the Cherkasy region.

They started a fight, attacked the priest, and dragged him out of the church. On March 7, the OCU seized the Anno-Zachatievsky Church in the Ivano-Frankovsk region. Opponents of the UOC came to the church, expelled those in attendance , calling them “parishioners of the aggressor" and changed the locks on all the doors.

A major scandal occurred this month in Ivano-Frankovsk. A church service was held with the participation of the new local bishop Nikita Storozhuk at the only UOC cathedral in the city. During the service, opponents of the UOC broke into the church to arrange a provocation and disrupt the service. “Away with the Moscow priest,” “Moscow KGB get back to Moscow,” shouted the provocateurs, who had responded to a call issued by an adviser to the mayor of Ivano-Frankovsk, Nazar Kishak. Some believers left the service with bloody faces, broken noses, and other injuries.

Violent seizures of churches in Ukraine have become a regular occurrence. From February to August, over 250 churches across the country were seized by supporters of the OCU, according to the information and educational department of the UOC. Official statistics for the entire duration of the conflict have not been disclosed yet.

The church is also under pressure from the state. Many monasteries in Ukraine have been raided: the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the Koretsky Holy Trinity Monastery, the Cyril and Methodius Convent.

Recently, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced raids in three dioceses of the country – in the Zhytomir, Rovensk, and Transcarpathian Regions, with the Cherkasy and Volyn Regions later added to the list.

The reasons cited were “counterintelligence measures,” “the fight against Russian special services,” and “the search for pro-Kremlin literature.” A prayer book, church literature in Russian or, for example, an icon of a canonized saint – the Russian Emperor Nicholas II – were all counted as evidence of anti-Ukrainian activity.

Ukrainian spooks say they are looking for “traitors of the Ukrainian people” among the clergy of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate. On August 5, 2022, the SBU detained a priest of the UOC, Sergey Tarasov. His daughter said that the security forces came to his house, searched him, and accused of treason. Later, his body was found in one of the Kiev morgues with a traumatic brain injury.

The highest clergy of the UOC have also come under surveillance from the Ukrainian security forces. On November 7, the SBU accused the Metropolitan of the UOC in the Vinnytsia Region of “inciting religious discord and insulting the feelings of citizens.” And on December 2, it said it suspected the Metropolitan of the Kirovograd diocese of the UOC of “pro-Kremlin” views. The names of the metropolitans have not been disclosed despite their high rank.

Kiev-Pechersk Lavra controversy

The attempt to seize the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra – Ukraine’s main Orthodox shrine, belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – is a separate story. Raids took place on its territory, which the SBU explained as necessary “to prevent the use of the Lavra as a cell of the ‘Russian world’.” A week after that, SBU officers searched the abbot of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel.

The legal transfer of the Lavra to the subordination of the new Ukrainian church is currently under consideration. In early December, the charter of the monastery of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra appeared in the state register of Ukraine, and a representative of the OCU announced the re-registration of the Lavra to a new owner.

However, Minister of Culture of Ukraine Alexander Tkachenko later denied this information, calling the incident not a transfer, but a “registration of a legal entity of the OCU on the territory of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Reserve.”

The creation of a “parallel” legal entity can be used by the OCU in future ownership claims concerning the Lavra. In conjunction with the raids, Vladimir Zelensky decided to ban religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence in Russia.”

Even the lawyers of the Verkhovna Rada did not agree with the initiative, saying that it violates the constitution and will lead to “religious tension in society.” However, if the law is adopted, the fate of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra will be sealed.

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