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Zelensky must protect religious freedom, not quash it

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen during his joint press conference with Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki and Latvian President Egils Levits on Sept. 9, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. |

This December, while the world prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky proposed a law to ban all religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia. Zelensky justified his decision as necessary to prevent Moscow from being able to “weaken Ukraine from within.” He said the move would protect the nation's “spiritual independence” amid their bloody battle with Moscow. 

Concurrently, Ukraine’s domestic security agency [SBU] launched a counterintelligence operation against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [UOC]. The assault targeted at least eight religious sites, including monasteries. The authorities have been looking for individuals suspected of subversive activity against the state. More than 30 priests are under investigation due to the raids across the country to root out pro-Russian clerics. Though SBU claimed they were checking for weapons and searching for Russian collaborators sheltered in church buildings, no weapons were found in any of the raids. Although no actual crimes were committed, several clergy members were charged with “glorifying Russia” during church services.  

By way of background, of Ukraine’s 43 million people, around two-thirds identify as Eastern Orthodox Christians. In 2019 the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople permitted Ukraine to form a church independent of Moscow, named the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Nevertheless, many parishes and priests remained under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchate until May of this year, when the UOC formally broke ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over the invasion of Ukraine. Zelensky’s ban on the religious activities of the UOC, despite its formal split from Moscow, effectively curtails the spiritual practices of millions of already beleaguered Ukrainian people. They will not be allowed to attend their church, seek prayer from their pastors, or associate with the church community they have sought comfort from their whole lives. 

Here in the US, Congress approved billions of dollars to support Zelensky under the guise of defending freedom and the right to self-determination for the Ukrainian people. US taxpayer dollars are being used to defend Ukraine’s “democracy” against Russia, one of the world's most ferocious superpowers, despite its potentially catastrophic consequences on America if Russia retaliates. As champions of religious freedom and the freedom of conscience, how then can the US turn a blind eye to the criminalization of an entire religious denomination?  

Zelensky is quoted as saying, “Personal economic and restrictive sanctions will be applied to any Christian caught worshiping in unapproved ways.” Based on these midnight raids of convents, his government intends to punish Christians for practicing their religious beliefs. Strangely enough, no one in the media or the government seems concerned about this dramatic turn of events. 

The value of religious freedom is a democratic principle we promote and defend not only at home but abroad. In the height of the fear that swept across our nation after the Islamic terror attack of 9-11, no US officials suggested banning Islam. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. The US State Department deployed many individuals like me around the Islamic world to attest that American Muslims were an integral part of society. The FBI did countless outreach events with Muslims to ensure they felt safe and protected. Until today, the US government has gone out of its way to ensure that the terrorist acts of a few Muslims do not define an entire religious group. Yet, we do not uphold Zalensky to the same standard. There are far less restrictive ways of curtailing subversive Russian activities than banning a majority religious group. Their security agency should be focused on the malfeasance of individuals, not entire communities. The criticism is not meant to discount the reality or severity of the threat posed by religious actors who use their influence to accomplish nefarious goals. It is a dilemma faced by many governments, including our own. However, the standard has always been to preserve the sanctity of worship above all else. 

Consider the example of when Israel retaliated against Hamas for using a mosque to shoot rockets at Israeli civilians. The United Nations, with the backing of the US, is consistently up in arms about the ways in which Israel is forced to defend itself. Despite the constant aggression from its neighbors, Israel has never banned Islam or even the faction of Islam that supports violence against its nation. Yet, in 2021 alone,  UN General Assembly condemned Israel with a total of 14 resolutions compared to the five for the rest of the world combined. The hypocrisy is undeniable. 

We claim Ukraine's battle against Russia is a fight for democracy, but sending the army into monasteries is not promoting liberty. This latest move by our ally in Ukraine should be grounds for a loud outcry from Christians, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum. Unfortunately, Christian members of Congress continue to back Zelensky, no matter how many Christians he arrests or churches he seizes.

Hedieh Mirahmadi was a devout Muslim for two decades working in the field of national security before she experienced the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and has a new passion for sharing the Gospel.  She dedicates herself full-time to Resurrect Ministry, an online resource that harnesses the power of the Internet to make salvation through Christ available to people of all nations, and her daily podcast LivingFearlessDevotional.com.

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