Yuriy Reshetnikov: accusing the UOC of “pressure”, representatives of Ministry of Culture demonstrate ultimate cynicism

Why do they not want in the Ministry of Culture to respond to the statutes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? What stood behind the visit of Constantinople Archbishop Job (Gecha) to Kiev? What should be the way of uniting Orthodox believers in Ukraine? What are further prospects of the development of the social and religious situation in the country?

These and other questions of the “phrAse” are addressed to Yuriy Reshetnikov, religious expert, Doctor of Philosophy and Chairman of the State Committee for Nationalities and Religions in 2009-2010.  

The Ministry of Culture accuses the UOC of trying to register not diocesan administrations but dioceses on the whole by means of doublespeak. At the same time they refute statements on the authority acting as a brake on registration of the UOC statutes. Can you shed light on the situation at hand? 

Starting from December 2014 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in conformity to the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” has submitted 14 statutes to the Ministry of Culture for registration: 3 statutes of diocesan administrations, 3 – of synod departments and 8 – of monasteries.

Pursuant to Article 14 of the above law a registration body considers an application and statute of the religious organization during a month, makes a relevant decision and not later than within 10 days notifies the applicants in writing about the decision taken. In some cases this body can require an opinion of representatives of local authorities and specialists. Then the decision on statute registration is to be made within 3 months.      

However, despite time frames clearly specified by the Law, the Ministry of Culture during a year and a half (!) has not delivered any official decision regarding the UOC statutes, having de facto refused from registering them. Hence, there are all grounds to state that the Ministry’s officials violate the current legislation.  

In the commentary of the Ministry’s representatives it was noted that the statutes submitted by the UOC purportedly run counter to the legislation in force. At the same time, there isn’t a single lawyer in the Ministerial Department for Religions and Nationalities. As for the Expert Council, referred to by the Ministry’s reps, it consists basically of religious scholars, while its two members – lawyers – did not participate in the matter with the UOC statutes. So the thesis about these statutes being contrary to the legislation appears dubious, mildly speaking.  

This “non-compliance” is explained by the Ministry of Culture with the UOC intention to place parishes and monasteries under jurisdiction of the church hierarchy and relevant church administrative bodies, which, they say, does not ensure full autonomy for parishes. Hereby the Ministry entirely neglects a clear-cut norm of article 5 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” with respect to the state taking note of and having respect for traditions and internal order of religious organizations. So does it ignore the fact that not only Orthodox tradition rejects the notion of “autonomous parish”, but even Protestant statutes prescribe that communities should be subordinated to the administrative centers of the associations they are members of.    

Therefore, this reason is completely pointless. It is indicative that the Ministry has thoroughly avoided official correspondence with the UOC on that matter, giving preference to fruitless oral negotiations.

What does such position of the Ministry of Culture imply?

It has to be approached in the context of overtly biased attitude to the UOC on the part of a number of the Ministry’s representatives and considerable part of the Expert Council. Another factor is a desire to ensure the transition of the UOC parishes to the UOC KP. Obviously, regular subordination of these parishes to their administrative centers will somewhat complicate implementation of such plans. That is why there is an attempt to disorganize the UOC structure via non-registration of its statutes, on the one hand, and to activate transition of the UOC communities to the UOC KP jurisdiction via adoption of the notorious draft law # 4128 “On Introducing Amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”, on the other hand. It’s noteworthy, the draft law was worked out by some members of the Expert Council who are extremely partial to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. They do not even hide the fact this legal instrument is targeted against the UOC and set to facilitate the transition process of its parishes to the UOC KP.     

Its adoption will hardly entail mass transitions but cause essential problems not only for the UOC parishes but for all (!) religious communities of Ukraine, given it is evaluated critically both by  legal experts and representatives of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations.

Interestingly, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church began to face similar problems related to statute registration after it refused to accede to the UOC KP last year. By doing so the UAOC spoiled the scenario, which was actively boosted by the Ministry of Culture, and thus fell out of its favor together with the UOC.  

In June 2016 the Ministry returned the statutes of 8 monasteries and 2 dioceses to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for the follow-up revision, neither having taken a decision on their registration, nor having refused their registration pursuant to article 15 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. To call it a “goodwill gesture”, as the Ministry’s reps do, and to blame the UOC hierarchy in “pressure” in the situation at hand is nothing else but demonstration of ultimate cynicism.

At the same time, the statute of the UOC Lvov diocesan administration, submitted as long as in December 2014, is still being “considered” by the Ministry.

In the near time the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will have to submit to registration the statutes of its organizations, whose names and juridical addresses are to be changed under decommunization process. Besides, the UOC has to submit statutes of all (!) its organizations in compliance with the Tax Code provisions before 1 January 2017. It’s easy to assume these statutes can suffer the same miserable fate given a biased attitude of the Ministry’s administration to the UOC. Yet without registration the activity of the UOC organizations will be extremely complicated.     

How do you evaluate the statement of Constantinople Patriarchate’s Archbishop Job (Gecha), which he made during his visit to Kiev, that Constantinople has always considered Ukraine to be its canonical territory? How can you generally comment this visit and its probable implications?    

Similar theses have been voiced by Patriarch Bartholomew before, in particular in 2005 and 2008. Nevertheless, Archbishop Job highlights other, not less important, moments. Namely, that Constantinople is aware of the fact that to date the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is in the folds of the Russian Orthodox Church, which binds everybody to take into account the interests of pan-orthodox unity. Additionally, he makes it clear that the issue of autocephaly for Ukraine is inextricably linked to the necessity of integrating the Orthodox across Ukraine.   

As for the visit itself, it demonstrated that our power, on the one hand, and the Phanar, on the other, continues to resolve the issues related to the future of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Apparently, this visit should be viewed on also in the context of setting up an ad hoc commission by the Synod of Constantinople Orthodox Church to examine the “Ukrainian issue” following the VR address on granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.  

How do you see the way of getting the Ukrainian Orthodoxy united? How much appropriate is the pressure of the state, political forces, mass media in this process?  

The unification of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy is desirable both from the point of view of the church and the nation. This is also a necessary condition for the Ukrainian Church to be granted autocephaly. If this status is granted only to one part of Ukrainian Orthodox believers, it is certain to lead to another schism in the country. At the same time, current inter-orthodox relationships in Ukraine are much worse, unfortunately, than they used to be as of the end of 2013. It especially concerns the relations between the UOC and the UOC KP and between the UAOC and the UOC KP.    

Such negative tendency originates not so much from the activity of these churches as from the policy line of certain mass media, state authorities, as well as various public political associations. I mean a flagrant campaign aimed at the UOC defamation and shaping a negative “picture” of this Church, which has to do with stirring up interfaith hatred. The situation is aggravated by illegal seizures of the UOC churches, which are carried out with the immediate participation of the “Right Sector” members and other similar radical groupings. At best it occurs with connivance of the state authorities, at worst – with their direct involvement.    

Furthermore, the Working Group on regulating topical interchurch conflicts, set up at the Ministry of Culture in November 2014, existed just for two months, the UOC having been ungroundedly blamed for the inefficient work of the body.    

Obviously, all this in no way contributes to sound relationships between the churches and, moreover, to the sustainable dialogue between them. Therefore, of we speak of resuming an interchurch dialogue, then the power representatives need to come back to observing the equality principle of all religious organizations before the law and equal attitude of all civil servants to them. As for mass media, both secular and churchly, they must quit the “hate speech” altogether.  

Simultaneously, highly positive and important is an intensive activity of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, public councils on cooperation with churches and religious organizations at the Ministries of Defense, Science and Education, Health Care that employ chiefs and representatives of all Orthodox Churches of Ukraine.    

Let’s move on to the UOC Cross Procession. A lot anticipated provocations on the part of the UOC believers, but nothing of that sort happened. It proves once more we have a distorted vision of the UOC, its clergy and parishioners at the grassroots’ level, doesn’t it? 

We do not simply have a distorted vision of the UOC – this vision is being consciously shaped. At fault are, first and foremost, lots of mass media and particular politicians. The problem is that words of journalists and political actors, having been said or written by them in their comfortable Kiev-based cabinets, give a rise to real violent response with regard to the UOC faithful, pitting ordinary citizens, who affiliate to different religious communities, against each other.

There is an impression that such media pundits and politicians are not actually interested in consolidation of the country, but in fulfillment of the “divide and rule” principle and influx of aggravating and often provocative topics. Perhaps, it is done to distract the people from “anti-performance” of our political rulers and the country’s plight.     

At the same time, thanks to the Cross Procession, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has indeed carried out the “East and West together” slogan, so crucial for the current stance in Ukraine.

Therefore, when they cried out to the people, who’d come out to pray for the peace in Ukraine, to go to Moscow and Kremlin – it was mere abomination. Similar reproaches can be assessed as instigation to separatism. Let alone their inconsistency: fancy if during the war with fascist Germany somebody would declare that the believers, praying for the native land, had to go to Germany...

Despite all provocations, slander, curses, insults, violent behavior of the opponents, participants of the UOC Cross Procession managed to rise to the occasion, show a high level of citizenship, patriotism, spirituality, humbleness, which distinguish truly faithful people.

In your opinion, has the social-religious tension in Ukraine diminished or, on the contrary, exacerbated after this event?  

The campaign, launched against the UOC during the Cross Procession, became a new round of the state policy vis-à-vis the Church we’ve witnessed for the last two years. Unfortunately, I have no feeling something will change for the better in the nearest time. I think the pressure on the UOC and its faithful will be on. It’s worth mentioning about the risk of further politization of the religious life in the context of the oncoming elections.    

However, if the President of Ukraine has serious intentions of creating One Local Church, he has to make a U-turn in the state policy in order foster, rather than hamper, an interchurch dialogue, without which the creation of such Church is merely impossible. The fact that do-it-by-force scenarios do not work when it comes to unification point is testified by the history on the whole, as well as the history of “union” of the Greek-Catholic Church with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946, in particular, although the power had fare more possibilities then. 

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