Proposed laws in Ukraine that aim to prevent the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from being used as a means for Russian influence are gaining notice in the United States. Some U.S. conservatives are using this as evidence to portray Ukraine as unfriendly to religious liberties.
The Ukrainian government claims that the suggested legislation would not restrict the church’s actions. However, some people believe that the church has ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and has experienced a decrease in membership since Russia’s complete invasion of Ukraine.
They claim that it would only allow a state agency to look into potential ties between a religious group and Russia, and if necessary, take action to resolve the issue.
The current version of the proposed law, which was given initial approval by the Ukrainian parliament on October 19, forbids “actions of religious groups that are connected to the main centers of power of a religious group (association) whose headquarters (management) are based outside of Ukraine in a country that is engaged in armed aggression against Ukraine.”
Lawyers Robert Amsterdam and William Burke-White, who are registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, state that any ban against the Church is unjustifiable, unlawful, goes against international law, and is not in the best interests of Ukraine.
“I find this to be the most frustrating aspect,” Amsterdam stated during a phone conversation with VOA. “As someone who supports Ukraine, I am disappointed that the government would present legislation to the Rada that goes against the law and international norms. The Ukrainian government must adhere to the rule of law.”
The Ukrainian government may be even more concerned as certain U.S. opinion leaders have begun to voice opposition to providing additional military support in their efforts to defend against the Russian invasion that began last year.
At the third Republican presidential debate in Miami on November 8th, Vivek Ramaswamy, a candidate, alleged that Ukraine had prohibited the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He stated, “The parliament passed this just last week, with the backing of our U.S. currency.”
Previously, on a well-known program on X, Tucker Carlson, a well-known figure in the media, made allegations against the Ukrainian government for prohibiting “a specific group of Christians.” As of this week, the show has accumulated over 55 million views.
However, in an interview with VOA, Viktor Yelensky, the leader of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience, stated that the proposed legislation only allows his service to investigate the ties of any religious organization with Russia. This is in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.
As per the law, the service will carry out a religious study evaluation of the actions of religious institutions to identify any instances of subordination in matters related to their canonical and organizational affairs with influential centers.
According to the spokesperson, if a connection is found, the agency will request an organization to implement particular modifications. If a religious organization chooses not to abide by the law, legal action will be taken and the civil court will make the ultimate decision. This does not constitute a ban.
The representative of the UOC, Metropolitan Kliment, concedes that his religious institution is not explicitly mentioned in the suggested legislation. However, he expresses concern that the ultimate edition of the proposed law may be more stringent and specifically identify his church.
The complicated connection between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Russia has caused conflict within the country’s religious community for many years, even before the invasion.
After many years, the Russian Orthodox Church was the main Christian group in Ukraine through the Ukrainian Exarchate. However, in 1990, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church became its own distinct entity while still maintaining ties with the Russian church.
In May 2022, the leaders declared their complete separation from the church based in Moscow. This church has been a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to take over Ukraine.
In addition, there exists another Orthodox Christian church in the nation – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This church was established in 2018 through the union of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Both religious institutions assert their lineage as successors of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine, tracing their roots back to the 10th century.
The UOC saw a significant decrease in believers as a result of last year’s invasion, with entire parishes being allowed to change to the OCU with a two-thirds vote at a parish meeting.
According to a survey carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, as of July 2022, 54% of Ukrainian church attendees were followers of the OCU. The study also revealed that only 4% of churchgoers continued to attend the UOC, a significant decline from the previous year’s 18%. However, Metropolitan Kliment, a representative of the church, claims that the actual number is greater.
The transfer process in Amsterdam has received severe criticism due to reports of intimidation towards parishioners. One eyewitness stated, “I have witnessed men wearing balaclavas entering and using threats to coerce people into changing their beliefs.”
According to Yelensky, the majority of transitions occurred without violence, but there were some conflicts in situations where most people wanted to change while a minority supported the priest who opposed it. He noted that the most chaotic transitions occur in rural areas, where the local communities are responsible for constructing and upkeeping temples, and that resistance to change is often coordinated.
Since the beginning of the war, the UOC’s relationship with Russia has been closely examined.
According to RFE/RL, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) initiated 68 criminal cases against members of the UOC, including top religious figures, between February 2022 and October 2023. These charges include treason, collaborationism, and supporting the aggressor nation.
The SSU stated that authorities are currently looking into 18 instances of inciting religious hatred, illegal weapons sales, and the dissemination of child pornography.
The law enforcement authorities of Ukraine claim that they do not target individuals based on their religious beliefs, but rather for committing real offenses.
During an interview with the UNIAN agency, Vasyl Malyuk, the head of SSU, stated that possessing a cassock and incense does not worsen the situation, but it also does not absolve one from legal responsibility. He emphasized that their work is strictly within the boundaries of the law, regardless of one’s position within the church.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent agency tasked with reviewing potential infringements of religious liberty abroad and providing policy suggestions to the U.S. government and Congress, has taken notice of both the contentious issue at hand and the proposed legislation.
The USCIRF panel has talked about the proposed legislation with Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s representative to the US. In a written response from USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper, VOA was informed that “The Ambassador passionately argued for Ukraine’s right to protect its national security in light of Russia’s unwarranted war and attempts to exert influence in Ukraine.”
Cooper stated that the commission acknowledged Ukraine’s difficulties, but requested that the country ensures the law, once implemented, does not infringe upon religious rights.
According to his written response, the government of Ukraine should guarantee that the law does not unfairly single out law-abiding citizens based on their religious beliefs or associations, and should not impede individuals from peacefully practicing their religion and gathering with others in their community.
Amsterdam refuted any implication that his actions on behalf of the UOC could benefit Russia by giving ammunition to those in the U.S. Congress who want to stop providing military aid to Ukraine. He asserted that Kyiv should just retract the draft.
He stated that combining illegal laws and discussing them with Congress is incredibly foolish and absurd, and it would be the worst decision for Ukraine to make.
Metropolitan Evstratiy (Zorya) of the opposing OCU dismissed any notion that religious freedom in Ukraine is in danger. He stated to VOA, “Since gaining independence, Ukraine has never experienced such a high level of religious liberty in its history.”
Earlier this month, Evstratiy was one of 18 members of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations who traveled to the United States. During the trip, they met with members of Congress, politicians, experts, and leaders of religious communities.
The council asserts that it speaks for 95% of the religious groups in Ukraine, but Metropolitan Kliment of the UOC states that no one from his church was asked to join.
Yaakov Dov Bleich, the American-born chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, informed VOA that he discussed the proposed legislation with Americans while on his trip. He stated, “This law states that if a hostile nation attempts to use a religious or any other organization to manipulate the people and society of Ukraine, it poses a threat to the country.”
The group also discussed significant infringements on the freedom of religion and the use of physical force against religious minorities by Russian officials in the occupied regions of Ukraine.
Anatoliy Kozachok, the senior bishop of the Ukrainian Church of the Evangelical Faith, stated in a written response to VOA that evangelicals have experienced their highest level of religious freedom since Ukraine’s independence. He also mentioned that he participated in the trip.
In Ukraine, there are no closed churches and no clergymen are facing persecution for their religious activities, according to the author. However, in territories occupied by Russia, the author stated that his community is experiencing religious limitations, bias, and mistreatment.
He stated that there are no active churches left in the occupied Luhansk region, for instance.
According to Metropolitan Evstratiy, during their visit to the United States, the delegation discussed the issue of priests who have been kidnapped and are currently imprisoned in Russia, as well as the destruction and looting of sacred sites.
According to the speaker, if someone, whether they are a lawyer, journalist, or politician, claims that there is no religious freedom in Ukraine but fails to mention the occupied territories, it is a clear indication that they are spreading Russian propaganda rather than stating the truth.
The city of Amsterdam acknowledged that the conditions in the territories controlled by Russia are “terrible,” and Metropolitan Kliment stated that the UOC has consistently denounced the situation.
He stated that our Church has continuously denounced any forms of religious bias, and our representatives in the occupied territories have strongly opposed any unlawful actions targeted towards any religious group.
In addition, the USCIRF concurs with this viewpoint.
According to Cooper, Ukrainian religious communities living in areas occupied by Russia have faced severe violations of their religious freedom. The Russian military and unofficial authorities have frequently prohibited religious groups, abducted and harmed religious leaders, and destroyed significant religious and cultural sites in Ukraine.
“Nevertheless, we want to emphasize our worries regarding the potential consequences of the enactment of legislation No. 8371.”
This report includes contributions from Nataliia Churikova and Myroslava Gongadze, as well as materials from Euromaidan, RFL/RE, and UNIAN.