Ukrainian president again raises church questions


by Anton Skripunov

RIA Novosti, 8 September 2017


President Poroshenko addressed a wide-ranging message to the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada. Several political scientists have already called it preparation for 2019, when the country will hold presidential elections.


Separately, the topic of the creation of an "independent Ukrainian church" was touched upon, despite the fact that such a church already exists. However this "problem," as Poroshenko branded it, has occupied the heads of his speechwriters for two years now. This time the presidential mantra could have been left without attention were it not for two curious and, in all likelihood, fateful details for the tenuous Ukrainian religious construction.


Right to a domestic church


In his rhetoric, the president was extremely harsh: "Let the leadership of the ecumenical patriarchate listen to us. I want to again call to the attention of His Holiness (Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew—ed. note) the very great seriousness of our intentions and to the firm political will of the Ukrainian leadership to resolve this problem, which has been on the agenda since 1991. Ukraine has the right to a local church and we must defend this right!"


At these words, the deputies, in a fit of patriotic feelings, even stood up. And the president was yet more categorical: "Nobody can take away this right from Ukrainians. Each of our citizens himself, and only himself, has selected and will select where he should worship!"


But, he affirmed, this "does not mean the appearance of a state church" and "it is not a ban on other Orthodox confessions," since nobody "has the right to deprive Ukrainians of their own church."


"Ukraine is separate from the church, but it cannot observe passively when other states, other state agencies, use dependent state institutions for the achievement of their own geopolitical goals,"—such is the contradiction.


Coincidentally or not, Poroshenko's theses were refuted just the day before: the ideas are supposedly not viable.  Believers reminded Poroshenko about the unfulfilled obligations to the European Union.


"We are really striving for the unity of the church. But we wish for this unity to be genuine and organic. When the representatives of the government want simply to drive everybody into a unified structure and everything will happen inside there, will there really be unity?—and will it not worry them and can't help but worry them," the chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow patriarchate (UPTsMP), Metropolitan Antony, complained.


And indeed society does not, as of the present, have a "desire for a religious war," no matter what pro-government sociologists maintain. It is another matter that the UPTsMP is seriously worried about a planned inflaming of a conflict.


Lawful choice


And here are the May events, when thousands of believers held a demonstration at the walls of the Rada as a sign of protest against the anti-church draft bill No. 4511, which proposed clearing the appointment of bishops with the authorities. They apparently so impressed the president that he threatened not to sign the document, even if the deputies adopted it.


"This is not the state's business. However, I am ready to discuss other documents," he hinted to the people's deputies.


Most likely, he is talking about draft law No. 4218, according to which parishioners can transfer from one jurisdiction to another. The document has already been branded the "law of hostile church takeover," since it is by this still not legalized scheme in the conduct of the schismatic Kiev patriarchate (KP), which is not recognized by world Orthodoxy, that more than 40 churches have been transferred in three years. It is on the foundation of the KP, which is extremely loyal to the government, that it is planned to create an "independent church."


"In my view, the culmination of the conflicts for church buildings has already passed. Seizures are still happening, but these are now isolated incidents. The situation is still difficult, but is now sufficiently stable," Metropolitan Antony concludes. However, it is still "stably bad,"—without any hints of improvement in the situation.


However, in the church question, Ukrainian presidents made their "European choice" back nine years ago, when Viktor Yushchenko publicly requested autocephaly from Patriarch Bartholomew and was publicly slapped down. Now they are trying to act less pompously, by appeals through the Rada and personal letters. However, as representatives of the most diverse Orthodox local churches have frequently emphasized, interference by the Ukrainian secular authorities in purely church matters happens very incompetently. At a minimum, because according to the canons, the grant of autocephaly to a Ukrainian church can be done only by the Russian Orthodox Church.


"It is strange that, despite declarations of a 'European choice,' Ukrainian leaders think that issues of church structure pertain to a sphere where they should manifest 'political will.' In reality, such issues are decided by the church itself on the basis of unchanging canons and proceeding from its spiritual needs, and not at all on the political interests of one party or another,"—thus a vice-chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, commented on Poroshenko's speech.


The so-called "September theses" of a potential candidate for president in 2019 draw for Orthodox believers of Ukraine, who constitute by various statistics 60 to 80 percent of the total population, a gloomy picture: either the creation of an artificial "united local independent state church" (which in and of itself is an oxymoron) or the methodical "wringing out" of church buildings of the canonical UPTsMP. The only question is whether Ukrainians will vote for a new, more bloody, war. (tr. by PDS, posted 8 September 2017)

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