Ukraine has right to crackdown on ‘weaponized’ churches, religious freedom expert says

A Ukrainian serviceman takes a selfie before the Christmas service in the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra on January 7, 2023, amid the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian serviceman takes a selfie before the Christmas service in the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra on January 7, 2023, amid the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine's strategy to crack down on what it perceives as "weaponized" religious institutions aligned with Russian aggression, including the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian affiliates, might be extreme but justified, a human rights expert argues. 

In an op-ed published in National Review, Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the conservative Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute, stresses that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church is not a passive observer but an active participant in Russia's war efforts. She believes that Ukraine has every right to "defend itself from Russia's aggression, and that should include defending itself from a weaponized church."

Her piece comes as the Ukrainian government has escalated its actions against Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and leaders, including the arrest of 68 priests and Metropolitan Pavel. Ukraine has also added Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to its "most wanted" list in December.

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Kirill has blessed Russia's invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022 and has portrayed it as a holy war, intertwining religion with the Kremlin's political ambitions, Shea wrote. She added that the Russian Orthodox Church has historically aligned itself with Soviet authorities and continues to support President Putin's regime.

"Religion was not Putin's primary reason for invading Ukraine, but Kirill has been his stalwart partner in the fight," wrote Shea, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In 1927, after Stalin slaughtered or imprisoned over 50,000 Orthodox religious, and even greater numbers of laity, the Russian Orthodox leadership capitulated with a 'Declaration of Loyalty to the Soviets.' Today, the Moscow Patriarchate continues as an active and loyal Putin ally."

A delegation from the Ukrainian National Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, representing several different churches excluding the UOC, defended Kyiv's actions during an October meeting with the Hudson Institute.

They detailed instances of UOC clergy acting as Russian military collaborators and propagators of Moscow's disinformation.

"They told of UOC clergy serving as Russian military collaborators, spotters for snipers, spies, conveyors of strategic information, and propagators of Moscow's disinformation," she wrote. 

The Kremlin, Shea added, leverages the Moscow Patriarchate to morally justify its aggression, with Kirill persuading the Russian Orthodox populace of the war's righteousness.

In contrast, Bob Amsterdam, an attorney representing the UOC, criticized the Ukrainian government's actions in an interview with Tucker Carlson late last year.

Amsterdam argued that the UOC, having declared independence from Moscow in May 2022, is unjustly targeted. He accused the Ukrainian government of political motivations, aiming to suppress the UOC in favor of the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine, recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The lawyer accused the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of engaging in an "unlimited campaign to steal property, harass, intimidate and jail clerics, force conscription on believers, act in a manner that is almost unbelievable in a civilized society.”

“They’ll use the excuse that this church, which, by the way, completely separated from Moscow in May of last year, is somehow connected to the Russian [Federal Security Service],” Amsterdam said. “But based on the testimonies I’ve reviewed, there seems to be little substance to this allegation.”

Last December, Ukraine passed a law to ban religious organizations linked to Russian influence, citing national security concerns.

Some experts argue that the law while safeguarding Ukraine's "spiritual independence," has raised questions about religious freedom. The domestic security agency's counterintelligence operation against the UOC has led to investigations of over dozens of priests and raids on religious sites.

The situation is complex, with the UOC's historical significance and its recent formal disassociation from the Moscow Patriarchate. The UOC's split in May 2022 was seen by many as insufficient in distancing itself from Russian influence. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, now the majority church in Ukraine, represents a shift in religious dynamics, further complicating the government's stance on the UOC.

Internationally, the U.S. has provided substantial aid to Ukraine, raising concerns about the implications of supporting actions that could be perceived as infringing on religious freedoms. Comparisons have been drawn to U.S. policies in other regions, questioning the consistency of America's stance on religious liberty.

As Shea and other experts note, the Ukraine conflict has a significant religious dimension that cannot be ignored. The politicization of the Moscow Patriarchate and its role in the war adds layers to the ongoing crisis.

Ukraine's efforts to restrict the Moscow Patriarchate and its Ukrainian loyalists are seen by some, like Shea, as necessary for national security, while others view them as a troubling infringement on religious freedom.

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