In most Western democracies, including those like Denmark and England, which have a state church for historical reasons, the fortunes of this or that form of faith are mainly treated as a matter for the religion's own adherents. In a context of religious freedom, rival creeds ebb and flow as they offer their spiritual wares and vie for souls. But the further east you travel in Europe, and the further you go into lands where state-sponsored atheism once prevailed, the more likely it becomes that religion will be treated as a matter of high politics.
Over the weekend, as a gathering of bishops in Kiev formally proclaimed an independent Ukrainian church, one striking feature of the proceedings was the omnipresence of President Petro Poroshenko (pictured, above left). He has tied his political fortunes to the successful establishment of a national Orthodox church, a body to which most Ukrainian citizens can comfortably adhere. And as the bishops chose one of their number, a 39-year-old prelate called Epifaniy Dumenko (pictured, above centre), as their primate, the Ukrainian head of state hailed the election as a landmark in national history: a moment at which Ukrainians stood up to Russia’s worldly leader Vladimir Putin and its spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. He declared:
“This is a church without Putin, this is a church without Kirill, a church without prayers for the Russian state or Russian forces, because Russian [state] power and Russian troops are killing Ukrainians. But it is a church with [the presence of] God.”
Mr. Poroshenko will travel to Istanbul in January with Metropolitan Epifaniy to receive a formal blessing for the establishment of an autocephalous (ie. self-governing) Ukrainian church from the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, who traditionally holds the “primacy of honor” among the world's Orthodox hierarchs. The legitimacy of all these moves is furiously contested by both earthly and spiritual leaders in Moscow, who insist that the only properly constituted Orthodox church on Ukrainian soil is the one that is subject to Muscovite authority. From Moscow’s viewpoint, the weekend gathering in Kiev was an assembly of “schismatic” clerics whose decisions have no legal worth.
The leader of the Moscow-aligned church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufry, was invited to the weekend meeting of bishops in Kiev, but both he and most of the bishops under his authority simply returned their invitations to the Patriarchate in Istanbul where they were issued. However, two bishops who had hitherto been part of Onufry’s church did accept the invitation and were duly “banned from clerical service” by their Muscovite brethren. One Muscovite spokesman described them as traitors.
The Russian government and Moscow Patriarchate have lamented loudly that Moscow-aligned prelates, clergy and monastics are coming under pressure from the state authorities in Ukraine to switch sides in this escalating contest. Two of the country’s most important ecclesiastical sites, one in Kiev and one near the western border, are currently under Muscovite control and their monastic stewards complain that they have been subject to police searches as well as legal moves which could threaten their occupation of the properties. The Ukrainian government insists that people will still be free to worship in Moscow-aligned churches if they wish.
In fact, neither Russia nor Ukraine gets a perfect bill of health from international agencies that monitor freedom of religion, although Russia generally fares quite a lot worse. It is generally agreed that some of the worst violations of religious freedom in the region take place in areas of Ukraine that have been occupied by Russian-backed forces, as well as in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. As a report by the American State Department puts it, Russian-led forces (in the eastern provinces of Ukraine) “continued to detain and imprison members of the Jehovah's Witnesses as well as other religious leaders.”
In a rather unexpected development, Mr. Putin was quoted by a Kremlin website as calling for more lenient treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group has been persecuted in Russia since April 2017 when the Supreme Court decreed that the sect should be added to a list of outlawed, extremist organizations. At a meeting in the Kremlin on December 11th of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Mr. Putin apparently said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians too. I don't quite understand why they are being persecuted. So this must be looked into, this must be done.” Nearly 100 of the 170,000 Russian followers of the sect are currently facing criminal charges. In another part of the newly-published conversation, Mr. Putin said it was “complete nonsense” to treat religious groups as terrorists just because of their beliefs.
It is anybody’s guess why the Kremlin has decided to take a more emollient view of a millenarian sect which rubs up against many governments because its members refuse to undergo compulsory military service. But Russia can hardly expect the world to sympathise with the plight of Moscow-aligned Orthodox Christians in Ukraine when it violates religious freedom within its own borders. That could be a reason for the change of heart.
Read the original text at The Economist.