In recent weeks, criticism of the Ukrainian government over the alleged restrictions of religious freedoms in the country has been voiced in the United States.
As the Voice of America learned, at least in part these voices come from a campaign run by American lobbyists representing the interests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate).
The House did this just last week with the support of the U.S. dollars, claimed Vivek Ramaswamy, who spoke at a Republican debate in Miami.
On Fox News, UOC lawyer Robert Amsterdam accused the government of Ukraine of banning an entire Christian denomination.
Lobbyists claim that draft law 8371 will actually ban the activities of the UOC in Ukraine. Formally, the draft law makes changes to the current legislation of Ukraine regarding the guarantee of freedom of religion, establishing that the activities of religious organizations associated with the centers of influence of a religious organization, the management center of which is located outside of Ukraine in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine, are not allowed, wrote a U.S. expert William Burke-White.
At the same time, the government denies any intention to restrict freedom of religion. “It is not about religious freedom. This is about national security,” said the head of the relevant agency, Viktor Yelenskyi.
“The law authorizes us to check the connections of religious organizations with Russia. If these are found, we will ask for changes. The court will have the last say,” he explained.
A legally separate parish may change its ecclesiastical jurisdiction by a two-thirds vote at a parish meeting. Yelenskyi told Voice of America that 1,600 congregations of the UOC have transitioned to the OCU since December 2018 when the Unification Council was held. But, he emphasized, the law is not aimed at speeding up the process, but only at promoting the severing of ties with Russia on the part of religious organizations.
According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, in the period from June 2020 to July 2022, the share of respondents who refer to themselves as OCU believers increased from 34 to 54, and UOC believers’ share fell to 4 percent in July 2022 compared to 18 percent in June 2021. Metropolitan Klyment suggested that the number of their supporters could be higher.
Amsterdam says that if parishes or individual believers shift from the UOC to the OCU, they cannot fully observe the usual religious rites.
The liturgy is different, he claims, adding that the language is Church Slavonic versus Ukrainian. Metropolitan Klyment stated that, in the opinion of the vast majority of local churches, “the OCU has not yet proven that their priests have a real sacred position rather than self-imposed.”
Archimandrite Kyrylo Hovorun, a Ukrainian theologian and professor of ecclesiology, foreign affairs and ecumenism at Stockholm University College, told Voice of America that the two churches share the same rites.
“Both churches allow their followers to pray in Church Slavonic or Ukrainian. There is no difference between them other than canonical status. The UOC maintains implicit subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate, while the OCU is completely independent,” he stated in a written response.
The issue of draft law 8371 has also attracted the attention of the U.S. government. The Embassy of Ukraine in the United States shared with Voice of America the written responses of the relevant Ukrainian agency to the request of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a separate agency responsible for reviewing possible violations of religious freedoms overseas and offering policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
Responding to the commission’s questions, the Ukrainian agency noted that the law “does not aim to limit freedom of conscience, but to prevent the indoctrination of the population of Ukraine through a religious center that is part of the military-political complex of the state that is trying to destroy Ukraine.”
The Voice of America Commission itself reported that they had a meeting with the Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, on the topic of religious freedom in Ukraine, during which the issue of the draft law was also raised.
The ambassador strongly advocated Ukraine’s ability to defend its national security in view of the unjustified war and Russian influence campaign in Ukraine, said the written response from the head of the commission, Abraham Cooper.
The commission expressed its understanding of the challenges facing Ukraine as it struggles to counter enemy collaborators during the war, but asked for assurances that the law, when passed, would not infringe on religious freedom.
Ultimately, the Ukrainian government must ensure that the law does not target law-abiding citizens because of their religious beliefs or affiliations or in any way prevent people from peacefully practicing their religion with others, the commission stressed.
Russia’s war against Ukraine and its occupation of Ukrainian territories remains the greatest threat to freedom of religion in Ukraine, says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Ukrainian religious communities in Russian-occupied territories have experienced some of the worst violations of religious freedom, as Russian military forces and de facto authorities regularly banned religious groups, abducted, tortured, and killed religious leaders, and destroyed religious and cultural sites. of Ukraine, the commission concluded.