“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, on December 1, 2022, stated in reference to the need to ensure the spiritual independence of the country. He signed the decree with measures to counter religious organizations and figures affiliated with the aggressor state: the Russian Federation. Zelensky’s rule was based on the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDCU). Immediately after the presidential statement and decree appeared in public, numerous publications emerged in the media and social networks trying to argue that these measures meant a ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), headed by Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv. However, these conclusions are hasty and mostly based not on an analysis of the text of the decree and the decision of the Security Council but on counter-propaganda and widespread hatred directed against the UOC.
The Security Council’s decision was preceded by several public scandals, the most notorious of which was the November 12 performance of a song referencing Russia in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the main monastery of the UOC. President Zelensky even had to comment on the scandal. The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) searched the Lavra a few days later. A month before that, the SSU had searched the home of one of the UOC bishops, Metropolitan Jonathan of Tulchyn. The second notable scandal was connected with the too-soft decisions of the UOC Synod on November 23 concerning bishops who began collaborating with the Russian occupation authorities. There are five bishops in Crimea and Metropolitan Arkady of Roven’ki (Luhansk area), who transferred their dioceses into the direct jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, and also former Metropolitans Josef of Romny and Yelisey of Izyum, who fled to Russia after the liberation of the territory of his diocese by the Ukrainian army. The UOC Synod did not impose any sanctions against these bishops. There is no doubt that the facts of collaboration with the aggressor state disturb Ukrainian society, and the state must respond to them.
Contrary to the information spread on social media, President Zelensky’s decree of December 1 is not a ban on the UOC. It refers to the inspection of religious organizations for cooperation with Russia, which treacherously attacked Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains the largest religious organization in Ukraine. A ban on the UOC and the closure of all parishes would inevitably lead to great tension in society, if not a public split, which is very dangerous for a country that is defending itself against war aggression. Moreover, the vast majority of UOC priests and laity are patriotic. Olena Bohdan, head of the State Service for Ethnopolitics and Religious Freedom in Ukraine (SSERFU), says that of all the clergy in the UOC, only 1% are currently under suspicion of collaborating with the aggressor state.
The specificities of Ukrainian religious law allow the authorities to act in a pinpoint fashion and impose sanctions against specific communities and figures. The subjects of the law are not a centralized religious organization, such as the UOC or the OCU, but particular communities and parishes registered as legal entities. Churches, in legal terms, are voluntary associations of parishes. Accordingly, their prohibition will not automatically lead to the closure of all parishes. Moreover, theoretically, parishes can withdraw from the association and continue to exist independently.
Another topic of speculation that President Zelensky instructed to close is the canonical status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Opponents of the UOC (primarily the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, OCU) continue to call it the ROC in Ukraine and put under suspicion the decision of the UOC council on May 27, 2022, to be fully independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. Zelensky’s decree instructs the SSERFU to examine the UOC’s constitution (statute) for its connection to the Russian Orthodox Church. Earlier, Olena Bohdan said that this connection does not exist. It is unlikely to be discovered now. Moreover, on November 23, the Synod of the UOC decided to renew the production of myrrh, which is one of the signs of autocephaly in modern Orthodoxy.
Another painful issue that should be closed by order of the President of Ukraine is the status of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. The day after Zelensky’s decree was published, the OCU announced that it had re-registered the legal entity of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Many people thought that the main monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was transferred to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. In fact, the OCU re-registered St. Theodosius Monastery, which is next to the Lavra, giving it the new name “Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.” This statement is an element of the information war between two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine has already denied information about the transfer of the Lavra to the OCU. At the same time, the Security Council included Metropolitan Pavlo Lebed’, the scandalous vicar of the Lavra, in the list of the religious figures under personal sanctions. He joined the collaborationist bishops mentioned above and Deacon Vadim Novinsky, a Ukrainian businessman and politician, considered one of the most prominent sponsors of the UOC leadership.
Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that the decree’s implementation should occur in accordance with international standards in the field of freedom of religion or belief, including those enshrined in the European convention on human rights, which includes a mechanism for complaints. However, the presidential decree has caused considerable concern among believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. They fear the inspections will be conducted in violation of the law and will follow the interests of competing religious organizations, primarily the OCU. Here, serious oversight by society and Ukrainian human rights organizations is needed. On the other hand, some UOC believers welcome the measures imposed by the state. They believe such efforts will help to cleanse the Ukrainian Church of corrupt hierarchies. The Ukrainian hierarchs, on the other hand, can appeal to courts, including the European Court of Human Rights.
Andrey Shishkov is a junior researcher at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Tartu and a member of the research project “Orthodoxy as Solidarity” supported by the Estonian Research Council (PRG 1599).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.