An Assessment of the Religious Situation in Ukraine

by Vladimir Kiselyov

The introduction of the principle of freedom of conscience into Ukraine has been complicated by various factors, above all, a long tradition of interference by the state into religious affairs. Before 1917 the structures of the Russian Orthodox Church and the state were tightly interwoven. For example, selection of bishops had to be approved by the tsar or his representatives. Today the human rights field acknowledges that at least two basic conditions are needed for full realizations of religious liberty: separation of church and state, and neutrality of the state. In fact, the dominant church in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has neither reverted to the church-state model of the past nor embraced strict church-state separation. The situation in Ukraine today is more like the model common in Western Europe, in that the state gives "de facto" preference to the majority church. This attitude is reflected in the "Law of Ukraine on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" of 1993, which limits proselytism by stating in Article 24: "foreign clergy and other representatives of non-native religious organizations may preach and carry out other canonical activities only in those religious organizations which invited them to Ukraine and with the official approval of the government body that registered the statutes and the articles of the pertinent religious organizations." The restoration of religious freedom in Ukraine has also sparked major sectarian disputes. Currently there are more than 70 churches and associations of all faiths in the Ukraine. Sharp divisions have arisen within the established churches and between different denominations. Thus there is bitter rivalry between [the Orthodox] and Ukraine's five million Greek Catholics, who view the pope as their spiritual leader but follow a rite similar to the Orthodox, who are split into various branches.

Disputed Churches

These tensions originated in the church Union of 1596, which led to the foundation of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The Union was a result of the Polish-Ukrainian confrontation of the late sixteenth century and it concerned the western regions of Ukraine. It was supported by the Polish authorities and regarded as a betrayal by Orthodox. Under Soviet rule the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church became a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism and Stalin forcibly merged it with the Russian Orthodox Church [in] 1946, confiscating its property, exiling thousands of priests and forcing parishes to hold illegal services in forests or private homes. The church became legal again only in 1991 as a result of Gorbachev's reforms. However, disagreements over property soon erupted, sometimes pitching elderly Catholic and Orthodox worshipers into . . . street clashes outside disputed churches. Greek Catholics first took an Orthodox church by force in Spring 1989. The core conflict between Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Orthodox was ostensibly over the control of church buildings and other property: even today only two-thirds of churches and religious associations have their own buildings, and settlement of property claims is still not specified in state legal acts. However, it soon became obvious that the conflict bore the hallmarks of confessional and even political revenge; it has become integrated into the political struggle for power in Ukraine between the Western- and Moscow-oriented forces in the country. In 1993, for example, Orthodox protesters in Kiev prevented Cardinal Lubachinsky, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from holding an ecumenical service. The Orthodox Church considers itself to be the defender of authentic national identity, a typical form of religious nationalism that equates national identity with adherence to a particular faith. However, it has been divided into two rival communities for five years: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is canonically a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. The latter emerged as a result of efforts by the Ukrainian political elite to reduce the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate over Orthodox Ukrainians. Thus, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate reflects the effort of the Ukrainian political elite, which considers the autocephaly of the Kiev Patriarchate as a mandatory attribute of national sovereignty. Many Ukrainian state officials share the belief of right-wing nationalist leaders in the old stereotype that Ukraine in an Orthodox nation, despite the country's actual mosaic of religious diversity. Another contender for national hegemony in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This church came about as a result of Lenin's encouragement of indigenous churches, but Stalin preferred the Russian church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was dissolved in 1946. It was legalized only in the late 1980s during Gorbachev's reforms. However, in 1995 the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, which is in charge of state regulation of church documentation, supported a decree by the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate according to which every church institution which has been or is going to be registered under the name of the Ukrainian Autocephaleous Orthodox Church legally becomes a part of the Kiev Patriarchate. As a result the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church legally becomes a part of the Kiev Patriarchate. As a result the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church currently functions without legal status.

Peace treaty

On 21 July 1997 leaders of fifteen Christian groups signed a peace treaty in Kiev aimed at ending the sometimes violent conflict over property . . . in Ukraine. The Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox churches and the Greek Catholics want a single Ukrainian church, and this was the first step towards peace and agreement among the Ukrainian confessions. However, mutual mistrust and the likelihood of disputes over who would head that church would threaten any effort to unite Ukrainian Christians. The integral link between religion and national identity in Ukraine also provides a pretext for discrimination and tension. Some Protestants and non-mainstream churches and communities, both Christian and non-Christian, are frequently affected by discriminatory treatment by local officials. For example, the director of religious affairs in Kiev permitted only 100 baptisms by the Seventh Day Adventists Church during authorized public meetings in 1996. Over the past few years there have been instances of graffiti in Ukrainian towns and cities and attacks in the press against some minority groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as state-sponsored persecution of several New Age groups, such as the White Brotherhood. The Ukrainian government has still not taken steps to enforce laws banning the distribution of materials promoting ethnic and religious hatred, and this makes it possible for ultranationalist groups and some majority church leaders to distribute freely books and leaflets with offensive contents. Overwhelming economic difficulties often provoke a society to look for scapegoats, and for most Ukrainian nationalist politicians religious nationalism has provided new scapegoats to fill a void left by the demise of communism. Religious and ethnic intolerance such as that in Ukraine is a primary danger to religious freedom in post-communist countries in general. Threats to religious freedom may not originate with governments but with religious leaders and dominant ethnic and cultural communities within these countries. Governments may be merely instruments of religious persecution. In these circumstances a new strategy for international intervention on behalf of religious freedom is required. This might entail: (1) Bringing local and national religious leaders together with international experts to draw up a plan of support for religious freedom and tolerance; (2) Providing funds to support constructive interfaith activities in the community; (3) Creating publicity which would make it more difficult for governments to ignore the conflicts within their societies or to side with dominant groups against minorities.

- from "Frontier," Keston Institute, No.2, 1998