Religious confrontation in Ukraine

March 31, 2016. A new bill, registered in the parliament, can not only legalize church raiding, but also provoke sectarian conflicts, it says in the UOC, as the website segodnya reports.

A group of deputies of the Verkhovna Rada registered a draft bill aimed at amending the regulation of the activities of religious organizations. Legislative act № 4128 “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations “provides the definition of procedure of changing affiliation of religious communities with religious centers operating in Ukraine and outside it. In the explanatory note to the bill, the authors state that the legislative act will ensure the right of religious communities to a conscious choice and freedom to change affiliation with a particular religious center. However, representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) express concern: in their opinion, the legislative act will help legalize raider seizure of the UOC churches and even incite inter-confessional strife.

The right of every citizen of Ukraine to freedom of personal philosophy and religion is guaranteed by Art. 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine, and Art. 8 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” provides a possibility for religious communities to freely change their affiliation with a religious center.

At the same time, the authors of bill № 4128 claim that the procedure of changing affiliation is not regulated in Ukraine on the legislative level, which makes it difficult to ensure the believers a free religious choice. In this regard, a group of deputies made a proposal to amend the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”. In particular, these changes provide that affiliation of every person with a particular religious community is based on their self-identification with this community, which is proved by their participation in the religious life of the particular community.

If a religious community wants to change affiliation, then amendments to the Law will make this possible on the basis of the consent of the majority of members of the religious community present at the parish meeting.

However, the Central Scientific Experts Office has made a number of comments on this initiative and recommended it be rejected. The experts stressed that the Constitution provides for the intervention of the state in religious activity only in the case of the protection of public order, health and morality of the population, or the rights and freedoms of others. In the opinion of the experts of the office, there is reason to believe that the issue is not subject to legislative control.

In addition, the experts emphasize that any amendments or additions to the statute of a religious community are taken in a parish council of the faithful citizens, rather than “at the meeting of citizens”, as proposed in the draft bill. Moreover, in the comments the opinion is expressed that the number of citizens at the meeting of a religious community can be much smaller than the total number of community members. So to decide whether to change affiliation by a simple majority is counterproductive.

The experts also emphasize the concepts of “self-identity” and “religious life” are not clearly defined in the legislation.

The UOC representatives strongly objected to the draft legislation, “This legislative initiative is an attempt to legitimize raider seizure of churches, which, unfortunately, are recorded in certain regions of Ukraine, in particular, in certain regions of Western Ukraine”, stated in a press conference the head of the Information and Education Department of the UOC, Bishop of Irpen Clement (Vecheria).

The bishop considers the bill discriminatory to people who have certain religious beliefs. The priest stressed that the bill will provoke a reduction in the religious communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. To date, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the largest religious organization in Ukraine, it is composed of more than 12 thousand religious communities, and it is millions of citizens.

As was emphasized by the head of the legal department of the UOC Archpriest Alexander Bach, since 2014 representatives of the “Kiev Patriarchate” and authorities have permanently taken actions to seize churches belonging to the UOC.

During this period, 31 seizures of the UOC churches are recorded, 12 are under threat of seizure, 8 changed their affiliation in accordance with the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. Moreover, these seizures are passed off as a voluntary transition of believers,” says the priest.

In addition, cases of church raiding have repeatedly occurred in Ukraine, so far only in three regions – Ternopil, Rivne and Volyn, – said Bishop Clement. – And frequently – with physical violence. Thus, the internal affairs authorities have already instituted about 25 criminal cases on the basis of such events.

The bill wording is also of concern with the UOC. Archpriest Alexander Bach pointed out that the proposed draft legislation contains a number of inaccuracies in the conceptual apparatus, namely, the concept of “self-identity”. According to UOC officials, the term and other amendments to the law will entitle persons who are not members of a given religious community to, via unilateral declaration, state that they are indeed part of a certain community, and thereafter can influence decisions made at the parish meeting of a certain religious community concerning change in jurisdiction.

However, we must also be aware, that the effect of these laws will be felt by all religious organizations throughout Ukraine. If today the bill is directed primarily against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, then tomorrow, with similar objectives in mind, this legislation can also be used against communities belonging to other confessions and religious organizations”, stated Bishop of Irpen Clement.

It must be said that discrimination occurs not only through legislative initiatives. The bishop expressed concern that the Department on Religions and Nationalities at the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine is stalling or not even bothering to register the statutes of new dioceses, monasteries and parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to falsify statistics to create the impression that the UOC is being reduced. Moreover, the Ministry officials won’t provide any comment on it.

It is to be recalled that one of the major conflicts broke out on September 21, 2015 in the village of Katerynivka, Ternopil region. Then there was a fight between the Orthodox believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who served an open-air liturgy near the barricaded church of St. George the Victorious, and supporters of the “Kiev Patriarchate”.

As a result, the unknown got into the church through the side door and broke the front door. After that the religious building was occupied by representatives of the “Kiev Patriarchate”. The UOC believers could not get into the church because, as they said, they were prevented by young people with stripes “Right sector”. The developments were watched by the local units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.