UOC Primate – to President: Our communities don’t cut locks on churches
Met. Onufry called on Petro Poroshenko to draw conclusions from mistakes and look for other ways of unification that would not harm the state and people of Ukraine.
On March 21, 2019, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with the members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, including His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and All Ukraine, His Eminence Metropolitan Anthony of Borispol and Brovary, the chancellor of the UOC, and Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich, the Deputy Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the UOC, reports the UOC DECR website.
“I as President, as the guarantor of constitutional rights, will do everything possible to protect religious freedom in Ukraine. The issue of religious freedom should be the subject of our joint action,” the head of state, who initiated this meeting, addressed the AUCCRO members. “Violence can never be a method of solving problems,” he said.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry, thanking the President for the opportunity to meet, addressed him with the following words (the UOJ cites the full text of the address):
“In these blessed days of Great Lent, the Church calls us to repentance, abstinence, prayer, and reconciliation with others. The task of the Church is to take care of the spiritual and moral, to lead people to God, and to preach love, forgiveness and peace. The task of the state is to take care of the material side of human life, to monitor compliance with the laws, and the like.
However, in these days of Great Lent, and for a long time prior, events have transpired in the religious sphere of our country that grieve us. I am referring to the seizure of churches, the interference of the authorities in Church affairs, and other offences.
In particular, the heads of village councils, city councils, heads of administrations, deputies convene meetings of territorial communities and arrange illegal votes regarding the subordination of the religious community. This is directly contrary to the Law of Ukraine No. 2683 (draft law 4128-e), which says that only a religious community with a two-thirds vote can do it, and not a territorial one. This has resulted in our churches forcefully seized, communities driven out into the streets and having to pray in rural houses. In particular, our communities in Volyn serve in houses: in the villages of Nichegovka, Krasnovolia, Telchi, Godomichi (this is the Manevichi district); in the villages of Zhidychin, Klepachev, Berestianoye, Kulchin (this is the Kivertsi district); Berestechko, Peski, Zviniache, Skobelka (this is the Gorokhov district). And this is not all data only for the Volyn region. There are a lot of such cases in different areas. The police are often inactive, just passively watching.
I want to emphasize that it is not we who are seizing churches, it is not our communities that cut the locks on churches, as they sometimes say in the media. It’s people foreign to the Church who come, who didn’t go to church before and don’t go now.
One of the recent blatant cases was in the town of Baranovka in the Zhitomir region, where on Forgiveness Sunday the deputy from the Radical Party Oleg Kovalsky gathered a “veche” (meeting), after which he sent about 400 people to take over the UOC Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. As a result, the crowd rushed to the temple. Parishioners, about 150 people who were in the temple, were beaten, pushed down the church steps and thrown out of the church fence.
And for such illegal actions, for provoking inter-religious hatred, for attempted seizures, none of the officials bear any responsibility. Instead, the priest of our Church, who protects our churches and upholds the rule of law – I mean Archpriest Victor Zemlianoy from the Rovno Eparchy, is under pressure, criminal proceedings are initiated against him, he has already been given a notice of suspicion under articles No. 161 (part 1) and No. 300 (part 1). All charges are artificial. They also try to choose a preventive measure for him. As we know, the pressure on our priest is exerted on the orders of the head of the SSU in the Rovno region, Bedriy Vasily Vasilyevich. In some other regions of Ukraine, there are similar criminal proceedings. We regard them as ordered, as a way of putting pressure on the clergy and believers of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and we believe that such persecution in a democratic society is unacceptable and violates the right to freedom of religion.
The media are spreading false information about the transfer of UOC religious communities in the amount of about 450 parishes. However, to our knowledge, only 42 parishes have decided to move to the OCU, and of those, 9 parishes transferred without their priest. Another 55 so-called "voluntary transfers" are characterized by cutting locks and beating the faithful and, in fact, are seizures. There are 137 registered cases when the territorial community voted to join the OCU against the will of the religious community. In those cases, the canonical priests remain to serve in the churches, though local authorities report that the community has allegedly transferred.
The facts of threats, intimidation, pressure on the clergymen of the UOC, discrimination and other violations of the rights and freedoms of our Church have already been brought to the attention of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and published in their report of 12.03.2019.
Everything that is happening now in the villages throughout Ukraine negatively affects both the authority of the government and the authority of the President.
Therefore, I would ask you to stop artificially initiating a change of affiliation. It will stop conflicts among people.
I am sure that everything that is happening around our Church in particular, and among the Orthodox in general, is not the way we should go. This is definitely not the path that will lead us to unity. It is necessary to recognize the fallacy of this path, to draw conclusions from the mistakes, and look for other ways of church unity. Seizing and transferring parishes only throw the process of unity back for decades. We already experienced this in the early 1990s. Therefore, if the situation cannot be completely remedied, then at least one should start by not worsening it.
Mr President! I want you to understand us correctly. We, that is our Ukrainian Orthodox Church – for Ukraine, for the whole and united state. For calm, for peace, understanding and unity among our people. We have always defended and declared this. All that I have mentioned above only harms the state. Make it stop. I am sure it is within your power!” concluded His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry and handed to the President a list of seized temples and a description of a whole series of facts of other offences committed against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In response to the appeal of the Primate of the UOC, Petro Poroshenko said that neither he nor any regional state administration sent instructions on the transfer of churches from one denomination to another. The head of state advised to go to court in such cases and suggested that His Beatitude hold a separate meeting to discuss these crisis issues. He also instructed his assistants to look into all the cases mentioned in the document submitted by His Beatitude Onufry.
After the official part of the meeting was over, President Poroshenko held a brief private conversation with His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and All Ukraine.
Earlier, Epiphany Dumenko, commenting on the seizures of UOC temples by OCU activists, has claimed that churches are not being seized, but that communities sometimes cut off their own locks.