The Real Threat to Religious Freedom in Ukraine

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
An Orthodox priest collects religious objects as others clear up glass and debris inside the Holy Intercession Cathedral damaged after missile strikes, in Zaporizhzhia on October 18, 2023. (Andriy Andriyenko/AFP via Getty Images)
An Orthodox priest collects religious objects as others clear up glass and debris inside the Holy Intercession Cathedral damaged after missile strikes, in Zaporizhzhia on October 18, 2023. (Andriy Andriyenko/AFP via Getty Images)

In the U.S., support for Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion is weakening, especially among evangelicals. In Congress, this attenuation is largely among Republicans. There are several reasons for this: one is that President Biden has tried to tie increased aid to Ukraine to increased domestic spending, which they oppose. Another is ballooning spending itself, as the national debt grows ever more massive.

Another worry is the Ukrainian government itself, with vague allegations of corruption and otherwise misspent American aid. One of the concerns raised is that the Ukrainian government, particularly President Zelensky, is curtailing religious freedom. Some have even accused Zelensky of persecuting Christians. Ben Johnson has written:

“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has pressured Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy and laity to affiliate with the OCU, raided UOC monasteries, attempted to evict monks on flimsy evidence, interfered with the internal operations of a church, legally impeded traditional Orthodox Christian observances, and openly favored one faction over another.”

During an interview with former Vice President Mike Pence, Tucker Carlson stated that:

“The Zelensky government has raided convents, arrested priests, has effectively banned a denomination — a Christian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, within Ukraine — has persecuted Christians.”

In order to counter such allegations, a delegation of Ukrainian religious leaders visited Washington DC the last week of October. Lists can be boring but it is important to note the range of leaders in the delegation:

  • Yevstratiy (Zoria), Metropolitan of Bila Tserkva, Deputy Head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine;
  • Oleksa Petriv, Head of the Department of External Relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, archpriest;
  • Vitalii Kryvytskyi, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine;
  • Anatoliy Kozachok, Senior Bishop of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church;
  • Anatoliy Raychynets, Deputy Secretary General of Ukrainian Bible Society, pastor;
  • Ivan Rusyn, Deputy Senior Bishop of the Ukrainian Evangelical Church;
  • Stanislav Nosov, President of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine, Chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations;
  • Vyacheslav Horpynchuk, Bishop of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church;
  • Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, Founder and President of the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine;
  • Akhmed Tamim, Supreme Mufti of Ukraine, Head of the Religious Administration of Ukrainian Muslims;
  • Ayder Rustemov, Supreme Mufti of Crimea, Head of the Religious Administration of Muslims of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

This roster included senior representatives of one of the two major Orthodox churches, the major churches in communion with the Roman Catholic church, and all the major Protestant leaders. It also included the senior Muslim and Jewish leaders in the country. They were united in their assertion that, except for the Russian–controlled areas, religious freedom in Ukraine is strong.

The concerns that have arisen concern the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which has historically been under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is distinct from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which as of January 2019, has now been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch as autocephalous, that is independent and self-governing.

The Ukrainian government is concerned that, because of the UOC’s historic ties to the Moscow Patriarchate, some of its members are sympathetic to and may provide support to the invaders. This is rational, given that Patriarch Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, has enthusiastically supported the invasion. To counter this, Ukraine’s parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill in early October 2023, now tabled, that would restrict any religious organization affiliated with an aggressor state. Metropolitan Zoria stated that the goal of the bill is to “protect religious freedom from being instrumentalized by the Kremlin’s dictatorship.”

Another concern is the status of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, often also called the cave monastery. This spectacular historic site lies in the heart of Kyiv and is Ukraine’s most important religious center, the spiritual core of the country. The Ukrainian government is seeking to restrict the UOC and settle the Orthodox Church of Ukraine there. This is somewhat akin to wanting Westminster Abbey in London to be run by the Church of England. It is hardly a major blow to religious freedom.

If we are truly concerned with religious freedom in Ukraine, then we should focus on the Russian-controlled areas where any religious body not under Russian Orthodox control is suppressed and its clergy may be tortured and imprisoned.

The Religious Freedom Institute, founded in Kyiv in 2001, consistently documents these atrocities and the general situation of religious freedom in Ukraine. Senior Catholic clergy have said that if the Russian invasion succeeds, then the Catholic church in Ukraine will be exterminated. The real threat to religious freedom in Ukraine is the Russian invasion.

Read in Providence.