"We are not afraid and will not stop": why SBU will not break UOC priests
For what the authorities pursue Archpriest Viktor Zemlianoy and why they are helpless against believers.
The name of Archpriest Viktor Zemlianoy is known to many Ukrainians, both Orthodox Christians and enemies of the Orthodox Church. For the former, Father Viktor is a model of an Orthodox priest, an excellent preacher, a wise shepherd, and just a good person. For the latter, he is a representative of the “aggressor Church”, “the Kremlin's mouthpiece” and simply “a traitor in a cassock”.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry gives him the highest liturgical award for a priest — the second cross, while the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) accuses him of treason. He enjoys love and respect of believers, while special services say that he incites hostility. So what is really happening?
It all started a few years ago, in 2015. Then Father Viktor began to publicly say for the first time that a directed campaign against our Church was being carried out, which would end up with trivial raiding, i.e. seizures of Orthodox churches.
It was Father Viktor who said at that time that representatives of the authorities were behind religious conflicts in Rovno rather than common "believers" of the UOC KP. Agree that to say this in modern Ukraine is very unsafe.
Furthermore, in 2016, the head of the UOC Metropolitan Onufry blessed to conduct an unusual religious procession. Until then, according to tradition, on the eve of the feast of the Baptism of Rus, the believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had gathered on the Vladimir Hill and after the prayer service gone from there to the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.
But in the country, there were military hostilities – a war in which the Church takes a position of peace because for Her people both in the west and in the east of Ukraine are Her own children. And our hierarchy constantly says that only the Church can bring peace to Ukraine because only the Church unites everyone in the one Body of Christ. Therefore, His Beatitude decided that the cross procession should take place not only in Kiev but throughout the country.
From the west of Ukraine, from the Pochayev Lavra, one cross procession set off, and from the east, from the Sviatogorsk Lavra, another one was moving towards Kiev to unite in the capital of Ukraine torn by the war, to tie the country and people with the help of prayer.
So, Father Viktor Zemlianoy was the priest who led the “western” wing of the cross procession. He, along with several thousand ordinary laymen, walked more than 500 kilometres to tell people: peace in Ukraine is possible only with God, in His Holy Church.
There were attempts, as we remember, to blacken, to slander, to hinder, and to stop the cross procession. They said that among the pilgrims, there were "titushki" (tough guys), "militants from the Donbass", etc. Naturally, the words of Father Viktor, who repeated tirelessly that “there is no policy in the cross procession” were left unnoticed. Rather, they were unnoticed for a while.
Already on February 2, 2017, it became known: the priest had come to the close attention of the Security Service of Ukraine. Representatives of the special services acted openly - it was clear: this is an act of vengeance for organizing a religious procession.
The main purpose, as it seemed, was to intimidate the priest. This is what Father Viktor said after the visit of the SBU officers to his home: “People from the Alpha Special Forces, armed with machine guns, broke into my apartment. Matushka and children were pushed into the kitchen, then brought to another room and were not allowed to leave. As the lawyer later explained to me, there were many violations. It seems to me that these people are deprived of moral principles if they break in like this to the priest and do what they have done. Later, the Alpha fighters, when I was being carried to the SBU ... one of them turned to me and apologized. And when I was already taken out of the car, they shook my hand and wished me luck. And this indicates that not everything is neglected there, and there are normal people.”
But let's think about it. It turns out that the person who organized the absolutely peaceful action, who all the time speaks about peace in Ukraine and about the end of the war and who walked halfway across the country is under pressure by the special services. Just for calling for peace!
Such a strange position of the Ukrainian security officials couldn’t escape the attention of the world media and various international human rights organizations. Especially when those who spoke out about the cross procession – the UOJ journalists, together with Father Viktor, got under pressure from the security officials.
"Later, the Alpha fighters, when I was being carried to the SBU ... one of them turned to me and apologized. And when I was already taken out of the car, they shook my hand and wished me luck."
Fr. Viktor Zemlianoy
And what is characteristic: Father Viktor was not afraid. When it became known that Patriarch Bartholomew decided to grant the Tomos of autocephaly to the Ukrainian schismatics, our believers began collecting signatures against this lawless act. Surprisingly, the purely church issue really unnerved the Ukrainian authorities, and in many cities and villages, they did everything to prevent the collection of signatures.
In particular, the chairman of the Zdolbunov DSA insisted on the presence of the police during Sunday services of the UOC, so that believers would not even think to oppose the formation of the Single Local Church in Ukraine. He was reminded that such an order can be interpreted as a direct violation of the Constitution of Ukraine. It was Father Viktor who reminded that. Two weeks later, it was he who brought the collected signatures to the Phanar.
Did the priest guess that he just would not get away with it? I think he did. Therefore, when in December 2018, his car was stopped and he was handed a subpoena for questioning by the SBU, the priest was not surprised: “According to my observations, as soon as articles about me appear in the press (the priest was called the Kremlin’s mouthpiece - Ed.), expect further actions.”
And on March 15, 2019, there is another interrogation. This time, Father Viktor is again accused of treason and inciting interfaith hatred. Moreover, the charges are so serious that the SBU investigator tells Fr. Viktor’s parishioners: “Pray for him”, and then demands that a measure of restraint be chosen, including detention of the priest. The absurdity of the situation looked so obvious that the court refused to impose a preventive measure. At least for now.
And again Fr. Viktor was not frightened. Here is his comment after all these events: “I have no fear, this is the will of God. We will never stop on this road. It is those people who do this should fear first of all the wrath of God. I cannot understand how in our country, where there are democratic rights and freedoms, my rights are violated so rudely – and this is in fact pressure on me as a priest so that I do not fulfil my duties.”
What duties or commitments does Fr. Viktor mean? The fact is that each priest gives a so-called “protege oath” before taking the priesthood. This oath is given before the Almighty God and cannot be abolished. Among other promises, the future priest says these words: “To observe the teaching of faith and to instruct the faithful in the way of godliness under the guidance of the Holy Orthodox Church and the Saints Father; to protect the entrusted souls from all heresies and schisms, and to instruct the erring ones and turn them to the path of truth and salvation. <...> Do not enter into prayer and canonical communion with persons who do not belong to the Orthodox Church or who are in schism. Do not participate in any political parties, movements or actions.”
In fact, Father Viktor merely keeps the oath he took before his ordination. He protects his flock from heresies and schisms, and he himself refuses to engage in prayer communion with schismatics. After all, the representatives of the OCU – and this is no secret to anyone – are no more than schismatics in the eyes of the world Orthodox Church, as well as representatives of the UOC KP, the RCC and the UGCC. Yes, today the Ukrainian authorities rely on them, but this does not cancel both the attitude of the Church to them and the priestly oath.
“I have no fear, this is the will of God. We will never stop on this road. It is those people who do this (pressure on the Church – Ed.) should fear first of all the wrath of God."
Fr. Viktor Zemlianoy
For centuries, the Orthodox Church has fought against various schisms, and there are a number of canonical rules that forbid praying with schismatics. This means that if what is happening in Ukraine today is brought to a logical end, the Orthodox Church will be banned – after all, it always calls on schismatics to repent! And neither the Church nor Her priests will stop doing this. Could they arrest all? It is unlikely, although there were precedents – remember the years of the Soviet struggle against the faith.
In Ukraine, the Church is separated from the state. This means that the state cannot, does not have the right to dictate to the Church how to deal with its children. The state cannot specify what is right and what is wrong in the canons of the Church, cannot prohibit the preaching of peace or stop a priest if he is engaged in purely ecclesiastical matters, such as the struggle against schism because if the state assumes religious functions, then sooner or later it will turn into a death machine that will take millions of lives.
In the end, the Church will still win just as She has won for many centuries. And neither death, nor persecution, nor sorrow will frighten the believers because as long as there are such priests who fulfill their duties, the faith of Christ will triumph. And it will be impossible to destroy it.