Ukraine’s Religious Persecution

Lawrence A. Uzzell

Photo of Ukrainian Flag from Pixabay

Religious freedom is ominously shrinking in Ukraine. Unlike Moscow, post-Soviet Kiev used to tolerate the various rival Eastern Orthodox Christian jurisdictions. But Kiev is now blatantly persecuting the UOC (Ukrainian Orthodox Church), favoring the OCU (Orthodox Church of Ukraine). Ukraine’s parliament has passed the first reading of a bill which ultimately would totally ban the UOC. Its draft bill had explicitly removed the words “in accordance with the norms of international law in the field of freedom of conscience.” 

Ukraine’s government has taken control of much of Kiev’s Monastery of the Lavra (Caves), the country’s holiest, most famous religious site. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate its importance; it was founded in the 11th century and now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a magnet for pilgrims and tourists. The huge monastery complex has hundreds of monks loyal to the UOC; it has also housed the UOC’s administrative center and a key seminary. Like many historical church buildings in the former USSR, that monastery is formally owned by the secular state but de facto has been operated by the UOC since the early 1990s; it was monks, not secular bureaucrats, who built that medieval and post-medieval complex Ukraine’s government has already seized many of the complex’s buildings in order to transfer them to the OCU.

Kiev’s secret police has repeatedly raided allegedly “pro-Moscow” UOC parish churches and monasteries. In essence UOC is enduring a witch hunt; it is accused as a nest of spies and traitors. The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded last summer that members of UOC are suffering violence. Several local governments had already banned the UOC’s activities. With terminations of property rental agreements with the UOC, the UN warned that “the cumulative impact of [Kiev] Government actions targeting it could be discriminatory. Another worrying sign is the surge in hate speech and several incidents of violence against Church members in April 2023. However, the Government and law enforcement authorities did not effectively address the incidents of hate speech.”

So far only several scores of UOC clergymen (among the UOC’s 10,000 clerics) have been formally charged as having collaborated with Vladimir Putin’s army. Metropolitan Onuphry, head of the UOC, emphasizes that it is a Ukrainian church, not a Russian one. Right at the beginning of Putin’s invasion in February of 2022, Onuphry demanded that Putin immediately cease his attack. In May he and his UOC synod declared that it is now fully independent from the Moscow Patriarchate, which is servilely pro-Putin. The UOC has systematically given humanitarian aid to Ukrainians — including soldiers — who are suffering and defending their native Ukraine. Many, many uniformed members of the UOC’s flock are now serving in Ukraine’s army. 

On the other hand, Metropolitan Onuphry has failed to distance him from key UOC leaders who have been exceedingly pro-Moscow. Metropolitan Antoniy (Pakanich), the UOC’s Chancellor; Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed), abbot of the UOC’s most important monastery; and oligarch Vadym Novynskyy, ordained as a UOC deacon in 2020, have tried to keep the UOC dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate

Also dubiously, the UOC has denied that any of its clerics collaborate with Putin’s military. One November 2022 statement offered:

Regretfully, some clergymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are presently accused of collaborationist activity. On our part, bearing in mind various circumstances which have emerged in consequence of the Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine, we state that those artificial accusations are unproven and groundless. Those bishops and priests who have stayed on the occupied territory of Ukraine and continue to carry out their pastoral service there are not collaborators. On the contrary, many of them are true heroes of the Ukrainian people. In the tough conditions that have emerged as a result of war, they have not left their flock. Risking their reputation, clergymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church do everything possible so that our Ukrainian people would survive where war destroys chances for human life.

Nevertheless I agree with my old friend (and ex-colleague) Geraldine Fagan, now editor of the East-West Church Report, commenting that any sympathies toward Russia among the UOC clergy appear to be at an individual level, not institutional. “The vast majority of UOC believers are firm patriots. Among the church hierarchy, even at a senior level, the church has been quite squarely behind Ukraine since the Russian invasion,” she said. In a May 2023 interview with the Wall Street Journal, a spokesman for the UOC conceded that some priests have aided the Russian occupation, but said this makes the church no different from any number of other Ukrainian institutions—including even the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine, the secret police). “In Kherson, lots of police went over to Russia. But no one talks about banning the police—only our church,” he said. “It’s political persecution. The goal is to take from one denomination and give to another that’s supported by the state.” 

UOC buildings and lands have been seized, with parishes coercively transferred into the state’s preferred OCU. UOC spokesman Metropolitan Klyment convincingly states that many people who participated in those parish votes were not even regular churchgoers, and that loyal UOC parishioners are now compelled to worship in their own homes or other premises. Members of a parish of the UOC in Ivano-Frankivsk were injured and one cleric hospitalized. Police were eyewitnesses but did not separate participants or prevent violence according to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. (See its report on the human rights situation in Ukraine covering the period from 1 February 2023 to 31 July 2023). Consider also the St. Michael parish in Boyarka, about 15 miles from Kiev. Armed, uniformed militants attacked the priest with his wife and broke the church front door’s lock. See this striking video.

Also striking is that the huge majority of UOC parishes have not transferred into the OCU, despite pressure (both formal and informal) from the secular government even after 23 months of wartime.
In October, British-Canadian journalist Chris Tomlinson estimated that “as many as five to six million Ukrainians still belong to the UOC despite the pressure imposed on the church by the Zelensky government.” 

President Zelensky’s staff has not hidden its goal of coercively merging the rival Orthodox jurisdictions into only one structure.One April article published by Forum 18 News Service said: “The advisor to the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Mykhaylo Podolyak, stated in a 30 March interview that the UOC will definitely not use the Lavra premises, and that the government ‘must finalise the work on the establishment of the local Orthodox Church…In Ukraine, there will be only the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.’”

The position of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church is striking. In the past it was outlawed under the Soviet regime with cheers from Stalin’s servile Moscow Patriarchate; the Greek Catholics are now again suffering Soviet-style persecution in areas under Putin’s military occupation. Nevertheless, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, opposes a ban against the entire UOC. He stated in January of 2023: “You shouldn’t be persecuted for belonging to some Church, but for crimes against our country—and here we are all equal. A Church isn’t just a religious structure—it’s also people with constitutional rights.” 

The bottom line: Forum 18 correctly concludes that “the state should not use its power in order to intervene in inter-Orthodox competition and conflicts and to compel or force the Lavra monks to join the OCU under the threat of the expulsion from the monastery, or in order to replace one Orthodox community with another based on the government’s preferences.” I have deliberately been concentrating on Kiev’s injustices rather than on Moscow’s; the mainstream Western media usually emphasize Moscow’s atrocities and minimize Kiev’s. But let me now turn to Moscow’s own persecution against unfavored religious institutions. That picture is quite ugly.

Anti-Kiev separatists and Moscow’s troops are not only coercively transferring parishes (from the OCU) but are also eradicating an entire religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are not only seizing physical churches but are also crushing the very ideas of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Greek Catholicism in southeastern Ukraine. Their policies are even more brutal—much more—than Kiev’s.

Findings published by Forum 18 News Service are striking. One analysis about Luhansk province “documents violations including: rendering illegal all Protestant and non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox communities; a climate of fear about discussing human rights violations; repeated denials of permission to a Roman Catholic priest to live in the region; and increasing numbers of banned allegedly ‘extremist’ books, including an edition of the Gospel of John published in 1820.” That latter text had been officially sponsored by Czar Alexander I and the Russian Orthodox Church!

In late 2022, anti-Kiev forces abducted two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests in Zaporizhzhia province. Since then, Moscow refused to provide any information about Fr. Ivan Levytsky and Fr. Bohdan Heleta; quite possibly they are not even alive now. Similarly, Fr. Platon Danyshchuk, an OCU priest in Kherson province in January, was seized; his situation is still unknown.

Other than those two Zaporizhzhia priests, literally all Greek Catholic priests have left the parts of Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces controlled by anti-Kiev separatists or by Russian soldiers. Some priests had forcibly been exiled; others feared for their own lives. Typically, all three Baptist churches in the city of Lysychansk (in Luhansk province) are now unable to function, all three buildings having been seized by anti-Kiev troops.

Luhansk province’s separatists enacted a 2018 law requiring re-registration of all religious organizations such as local parishes. The anti-Kiev authorities are denying registration of any Protestant or non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox congregation. They have forbidden social-welfare activities by unfavored denominations and have cut off gas, water or electricity service. They have denied a Roman Catholic priest permission to continue staying in the province even though he had lived continually there since 1993. The result: Roman Catholic believers in Luhansk province have now been unable to receive Eucharist, a key sacrament in any form of traditional Christianity. In Crimea, Moscow has seized that province’s only OCU cathedral.

Thus Moscow’s aversion against religious freedom is still hugely surpassing Kiev’s. The latter is persecuting only one disfavored church, the UOC; it is still tolerating Protestants and other minorities. In contrast, Putin’s government is marginalizing most non-Orthodox minorities, with the Moscow Patriarchate largely monopolizing as Russia’s de facto state church. Sadly, religious freedom has been shrinking globally during the 21st century, and Ukraine is definitely not an exception. ♦

Lawrence Uzzell is a retired journalist, having published in periodicals from the Moscow Times to the Catholic Historical Journal, specializing in religious freedom especially in the former Soviet Union. He and his wife are members of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Recommended Citation

Uzzell, Lawrence. “Ukraine’s Religious Persecution.” Canopy Forum, February 16, 2024.