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Ukraine lawmakers advance law to ban churches with ties to Moscow

Local residents pass by a destroyed church which served as a military base for Russian soldiers on April 10, 2022, in Lukashivka village, Ukraine. The Russian retreat from Ukrainian towns and cities has revealed scores of civilian deaths and the full extent of devastation since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Local residents pass by a destroyed church which served as a military base for Russian soldiers on April 10, 2022, in Lukashivka village, Ukraine. The Russian retreat from Ukrainian towns and cities has revealed scores of civilian deaths and the full extent of devastation since the beginning of the Russian invasion. | Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

Ukrainian lawmakers have advanced legislation that would crack down on religious groups that have ties to Russia, with critics arguing that the measure curbs religious freedom and targets the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, a unicameral legislature, voted last Thursday for a law that opponents say would effectively ban the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church last year. The UOC is different from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is tied to the Kyiv Patriarchate and is independent of official Russian influence.

Lawmakers voted 267-15 in favor of the bill, which still needs further voting before it can be sent to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to be signed into law.

The legislation would ban any activities by religious groups "that are affiliated 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," reports The Associated Press.

Lawmaker Iryna Herashchenko of the European Solidarity Party called the vote "historic" and said that "Verkhovna Rada took the first step to expel Moscow priests from Ukrainian land."

"[The new law] is not about religion or church, but about protecting the national security of Ukraine," Herashcenko added, as quoted by The Kyiv Independent.

"It's about the fact that the church, which has a metropolis in Moscow, is not really a church, but a branch of the FSB (Russian security services). And it can be banned in court."

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, who has backed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, denounced the vote, arguing in a statement released last week that the legislation puts the Ukrainian state "alongside the most horrific theomachist regimes of the past."

"The initiators and supporters of the passing of this bill in Ukraine include top-level government officials, deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, radical politicians and public figures," Kirill said in a statement.

"They do not hide the fact that the bill is directed against the largest religious community of Ukraine and is aimed at the liquidation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a centralized structure with each of all its dioceses, parishes and monasteries and convents."

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the Ukrainian government has taken measures against the UOC, accusing the church of promoting pro-Russian propaganda.

Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council has raided UOC properties and reportedly found Russian language materials supporting the invasion in the possession of clergy.

The UOC officially severed ties with the Moscow Patriarchate in May 2022 over the Russian-affiliated Church leadership's support for the invasion and denounced the war.

Last December, Ukrainian security personnel told the government that they should pass a ban on the UOC, with Zelenskyy championing the proposal as a way to help the war effort.

"We have to create conditions where no actors dependent on the aggressor state [Russia] will have an opportunity to manipulate Ukrainians and weaken Ukraine from within," stated the Ukrainian president. "We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul."  

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