Moscow and Kiev, a war waged with 'anti-Orthodox' laws
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Ukrainian parliament approve laws that humiliate the Patriarchate of Moscow and favor the Kiev Patriarchate. The fight also involves the Vatican and Catholics. Ukraine, like Russia, back tracks on laws guaranteeing religious freedom.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Relations between Ukraine’s political elite and the Moscow Patriarchate have been tense throughout the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. From Maidan's demonstrations at the beginning of 2014, to the subsequent annexation of the Crimea and the clashes in eastern Ukraine, they are now reaching boiling point.

At present, the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovnaja Rada, is considering draft norms that have provoked a very negative reaction from ecclesiastical leaders. The majority parliamentary groups, consisting of the "Petro Poroshenko Bloc", the "National Front", "Self-Accountability" and the Radical Party, have advanced two laws which, according to the Moscow Patriarchate, pose a direct threat to their positions in Ukraine.

The first of them is very patriotic and militant. It is called "The particular status of religious associations whose leadership centers are in a country recognized by the Verkhovnaja Rada as an aggressive state." If approved, those religious communities (in practice, those dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate) will be forced to sign an agreement with the state in which they are committed to "respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and laws", if they want to be registered. Once registered, they will have to agree the appointments of their central and regional hierarchs (metropolis and bishops) with state authorities.

Another law initiative proposes to change the law on religious freedom, allowing religious communities to change their ecclesiastical jurisdiction, from one Patriarch to another (preferably from Moscow to Kiev). A simple majority vote of the parish assembly will suffice.

Such brutish anti-Russian projects have provoked an outcry from representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which simply defines them as "anti-Orthodox". The Church loyal to Moscow has gathered its faithful under the walls of the Rada, with banners and icons in prayer "for the deputies return to reason". Members of the parliamentary opposition have also called these texts not only anti-orthodox, but also "anti-Ukrainian". MP Novinskij spoke of "atheistic initiatives that are able to break the country definitively and drag it into an even bloodier oppression on religious grounds." One of the prelates obedient to Moscow, metropolitan Luka, said that "today the devil's servants, who shout at the "de-communistization "of the country, have gone far beyond their "neo-democratic "masters ... They propose to approve laws that intend to destroy the spiritual life of our Mother Church. "

In this struggle against the "Devil's Servants", the Moscow Church has turned to its historical opponent, the Catholic Church, for help. The Ukrainian consul at the Holy See was received by the Vatican Secretariat of State, where she explained the contents of parliamentary laws under discussion. The Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundjaev) sent messages to Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Russian President Putin, the Minsk Accord guarantors (German Premier Merkel and newly elected French President Macron), UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Secretary of the World Council of Churches Olav Fykse Tveit. In these, the Patriarch states that "in the case of the approval of such laws, a form of discrimination never before seen in Europe, that of the majority orthodox of the Ukrainian population, will be rendered illegal". The Patriarch has compared this situation to that of Nazi Germany.

Vladimir Legojda, spokesman for the Patriarchate of Moscow, stressed that "no religious community in Ukraine has endorsed such initiatives". However, in reality Moscow’s chief antagonist, the Patriarchate of Kiev led by the eighty-year-old Filaret (Denisenko), who broke away from Moscow in the 1990s at the time of the collapse of the USSR, is behind the MPs’ move. This Church is not considered in Legojda's statements, since Moscow does not recognize its canonical right to exist, denying the nature of religious community and considering it as a "group of chauvinistic politicians". The new project, however, would require the Church of Moscow to recognize the Patriarchate of Filaret.

At present, the vote on the two draft laws has been postponed, but it is expected to take place shortly. Meanwhile, the tensions is fomenting among the population, with the anti-Russian majority viewing the representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow as the true fomenters of the conflict in Donbass and other parts of the country. Many recall recent episodes, where some priests under Moscow's jurisdiction have openly supported the Russian militias and blessed their weapons.

The opposition between the two Patriarchs of Moscow and Kiev is also based on the war of numbers, in which the pro-Russian side would prevail with about 10,000 parishes against 5,000 (unofficial numbers). The problem is that, due to the complex official registration process, it is not possible to produce credible statistics of the number of communities, extending the issue to Greek-Catholic, Roman Catholic (Latin) and other Orthodox jurisdictions as well. Not to mention other religions.

The synodal secretary of the Patriarchate of Kiev, Archbishop Evstratij (Zorja), issued an interview with a Russian radio, saying that there is no correspondence between the number of registered communities of the two patriarchs in Ukraine and the actual amount of their respective faithful. According to current laws, any group of ten Ukrainian citizens can form a religious association and ask for legal status. The statistics refer only to the number of such registered groups, and not to the number of the faithful they represent. According to Evstratij, these registrations were carried out under the previous pro-Russian administration, so "it is true that Moscow has double the number of parishes over Kiev, but they are all dead souls," said the prelate recalling the famous Russian novel by Ukrainian writer Nikolaj Gogol.

The Archbishop of the Kiev Church, however, cited an independent sociological research by the Pew Research Center, published on May 10, according to which only 17% of Ukrainians consider the Patriarch of Moscow as the leader of Orthodoxy. 7% refers directly to the Patriarch of Constantinople (which has its jurisdiction in Ukraine), while 46% of the respondents recognize the Patriarch of Kiev, Filaret, as the highest orthodox authority in the country. If Moscow is believed to be the first Church in the country, Evstratij says, this is true only on paper, but in fact for the number of faithful it is the Kiev Church, and it is right for such faithful to have the freedom to freely choose their jurisdiction of reference.

Beyond this "test of strength" and the war of declarations between the two Patriarchates, it should be considered that the laws regulating religious freedom in Ukraine are still set according to the liberal directives of the early nineties in an attempt to allow anyone to organize activities forbidden by the communist regime for so long. In Russia, too, the laws at first were equally permissive, but since 1997 onwards (and most of all in Putin's almost twenty years reign), official measures and policy lines have been increasingly aimed at protecting the interests of the " State Church", The Patriarchate of Moscow.

The scandalous "ecclesiam" measures of the Ukrainian Rada, which clearly intend to introduce strong elements of anti-Russian discrimination, are exactly the same as the Russian ones, which in turn discriminate against non-Orthodox people. As if to say: what goes around comes around, even in such a delicate field regarding people's life choices and conscience. Hoping that the Russian-Ukrainian spat does not lead to even worse conflicts.