The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church warned that banning Orthodox Christian communities that have ties to Russia could spark “righteous anger” and cast those impacted as martyrs.
“A Church isn’t just a religious structure, an organization with a charter, leader and center – it’s also people with constitutional rights, and while there are people in Ukraine oriented toward Moscow’s Orthodoxy, this Church will exist even if it’s illegal under state law,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych during an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.
Orthodox Christianity is the largest religion in Ukraine, with 78% of the population affiliated with the religion. However, a schism in the church divided the nation’s faith among two sects of the religion – one based in Ukraine and one that is led by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
President Volodymyr Zelensky asked lawmakers on Dec. 1 to ban the Russia-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church from operating in Ukraine. He said his government would create a law “making it impossible for religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine,” per The New York Times.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, sparking a conflict that has so far lasted the subsequent 10 months.
Zelensky said banning the religion would “guarantee spiritual independence to Ukraine” in a nightly address to the country. He claimed that the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches had acted as operatives for the Kremlin and that he had instructed his forces to investigate the Russia-affiliated congregations.
The Orthodox Church is comprised of several autocephalous churches that are self-governed. For more than 300 years, most orthodox Ukrainians were part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The UOC is loosely led by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church – currently, Patriarch Kirill who resides in Moscow and associates with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tension within the church developed following Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and intensified in 2014. In December of 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew — the head of the global Orthodox Church formally allowed two of the three branches of the Orthodox Church in the country to split from the Russian-led branch. This led to the formation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
“I don’t wish to give prescriptions to our legislators, but we were once banned as well, and we survived underground,” said Archbishop Shevchuk in January. “Our own moral authority was saved by becoming a martyred Church which did not collaborate with the Soviet authorities. It’s important to understand that banning a Church doesn’t mean ending its existence.”
“You shouldn’t be persecuted for belonging to some Church structure, but for crimes against our country, and here we are all equal. … The point is that our northern neighbor, who is killing us today, shouldn’t be able to use any Church for his political ends,” he added, per the Catholic Standard.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal submitted Zelensky’s proposed legislation to Ukraine’s parliament on Jan. 19, days after several attacks on UOC priests, reports The American Conservative. Shmyhal said the measure was necessary to prevent “activities by religious organizations” that have affiliations with “a state carrying out armed aggression against Ukraine.”