Zelensky's speech: what new President said and what he kept silent about
What Orthodox Ukrainians should expect from Vladimir Zelensky as a guarantor of the Constitution, based on his inaugural speech.
We should say that the representatives of our Church – both official speakers and common believers – do not have any special illusions about the new head of state. They are not under any illusion because they don’t trust, but because over many years of the Church’s existence in this world they have repeatedly been convinced of the fairness and truthfulness of the Psalmist David’s words: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”
However, this does not mean that the decisions of these “princes” do not in any way affect our fate or the fate of the Church. They do affect. And, unfortunately, not always in a beneficial way. Therefore, we want the situation that has recently developed in the attitude of the state towards the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to change for the better.
On the other hand, living in Ukraine and being citizens of the Ukrainian state, we would like the war in Donbass to end to make it easier for people in the country to live. We would like the unprecedented flow of emigration of Ukrainians abroad to cease. That is why we listened very carefully to the first speech of the new President, hoping to hear in it those messages that would tell us what path the Ukrainian state would take in the next five years.
But, as in any speech, it is important not only what is said but also what is left out. So, what did we hear from Zelensky’s words and silence during his inaugural address?
First of all, let's consider what Zelensky said about the Church. Nothing. Not a word about the Tomos, the need to unite "all branches of Ukrainian Orthodoxy" and that "the church question is a question of state security". The word "Church" in his speech did not sound even once. Is it good or bad?
Historically, it has been much easier for the Church to live under those rulers who were not interested in its inner life and did not try to influence it, those who deliberately distanced themselves from church matters. Yes, even those sovereigns who called themselves "guardians of Orthodoxy" did not always benefit the Church. Indeed, by and large, almost all Byzantine emperors considered themselves believers, which did not prevent some of them from persecuting holy icons, supporting heresies and sending Orthodox bishops and theologians to death (examples of St. John Chrysostom and St. Maxim the Confessor are more than illustrative).
At the same time, the rulers, who dealt exclusively with state issues and did not try to subjugate the religious sphere, brought more benefits to the Church than harm.
Historically, it has been much easier for the Church to live under those rulers who were not interested in its inner life and did not try to influence it.
Therefore, Zelensky’s silence regarding the “church problem”, which is especially significant in comparison with his predecessor, can be perceived positively – it gives hope that the canonical Church will finally be left alone.
At the same time, we do not need any privileges or special treatment from the state. All that we want from the new President was best expressed by our Primate, His Beatitude Onuphry: “We do not expect anything. We want the President to treat us like all, to be equal before the law so that there are no 'friends' and 'foes'.'
Silence after Tomos
Yes, in his first speech as President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko also did not touch on church issues, except for the promise to respect "local religious traditions". But Zelensky's silence is of a completely different kind because it is silence after the Tomos.
As we remember, “church independence from Moscow” was almost the main priority of Poroshenko’s state policy. For him, the proclamation of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian schismatics (that’s how the Tomos is perceived in church circles) was "the completion of the construction of the Ukrainian state ... because without an independent Church there can be no independent state".
This document for Poroshenko was so significant that the President compared its bestowal with another act of declaring independence and believed that the Tomos should give Ukraine the long-awaited freedom and peace: “Tomos is actually another Act of Independence of Ukraine. It will strengthen religious freedom, interfaith peace, enhance the rights and freedoms of citizens. Especially those who were out of communion with the universal Orthodoxy and who were unjustly branded as uncanonical.”
The president was echoed by the schismatics themselves, who considered the Phanar document another baptism of the Ukrainian people, comparable only to the Baptism of Rus by Prince Vladimir: “If we received the first baptism during the time of St. Vladimir, then the Tomos is the second baptism of Ukraine because we receive our independent Ukrainian Church,” said the head of the OCU Epiphany Dumenko.
Therefore, the very fact of complete disregard for the Tomos and everything connected with it must testify that Zelensky intentionally distanced himself from the path of the state development that the previous President had chosen. This does not mean that the situation will not change in the future, but at least for the moment the new head of state definitely does not intend to promote the Tomos topic.
And where is Dumenko?
Actually, the absence of Epiphany Dumenko in Zelensky’s video message recorded shortly before the inauguration confirms that. In the video, besides the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry, the “Honorary Patriarch” of the UOC KP, the head of the UGCC, several rabbis and muftis spoke out. But Epiphany did not take part in it.
Dumenko himself could not clearly explain his absence. According to the original version, published by the “BBC”, Epiphany did not like the proposed text, which included the phrase “one shouldn’t speak the language of guns”. The head of the OCU "was worried that it would look like he was calling for negotiations with the militant leaders".
Later, another version was added, according to which Dumenko was worried that his participation in the video message with Filaret would lead to different interpretations of who is more important in the OCU.
“If we received the first baptism during the time of St. Vladimir, then the Tomos is the second baptism of Ukraine because we receive our independent Ukrainian Church.”
Head of the OCU Epiphany Dumenko
Well, a few days ago, Epiphany voiced the third version of his absence: “In general, there was some misunderstanding. Until now, we have always addressed within the framework of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. This was the first such video message. For my part, there was a request that we continue in the same direction in which we have worked for more than 20 years. We agree on a certain position, we even discuss it, but having come to a certain clear position, we voice it, sign it together. Therefore, in the future, we are ready to make certain addresses within the framework of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches. But, probably, due to the lack of experience, certain misunderstandings arose.”
Many religious and political experts have interpreted so many discrepancies on the part of Dumenko as evidence that in the eyes of the new President he does not look like a person you can and should bet on. If this is indeed the case. It can be assumed that the “OCU project” will either completely disappear or, in the absence of serious state support, turn into a small marginal sect.
At the same time, it cannot be said that there was absolutely no religious rhetoric in Zelensky’s speech, and, by and large, it could not be otherwise. After all, all our culture, all our traditions, and mentality have grown on fertile Christian soil.
This was most vividly evident in the words that the President is not an icon or an idol when Zelensky advised officials to hang portraits of their children on the walls of their offices instead of the portraits of the head of state, so that "before every decision, they look into their eyes".
This thesis can be interpreted as a call from the new President to abandon hypocrisy, lies, which have become, unfortunately, the flesh and blood of domestic state officials. For them, external religious attributes are too often only a cover for internal, deep disbelief, and the portraits of the President and national flags are a cover for the realization of selfish interests.
And one more thing that’s worth attention. Zelensky came on foot to his inauguration. This act can be interpreted differently, but we, Christians, with our inherent positive view of the world, want to see in the President’s walking not a PR move but a manifestation of humility. For now, he is one of us. God grant it be so in the future.
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We would like to sum up with the words of our Primate, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry, who, commenting on the speech of the guarantor, said: “No one can guarantee that all that was said will be fulfilled to the iota. But the fact that a person has already said a word means that this is a promise on his responsibility, and he will definitely do something from that. Perhaps not absolutely all – life is life, there are many components that we do not know, but which can seriously affect us. But if a person does not have good intentions, he will never do good. And he (Vladimir Zelensky - Ed.) has good intentions, may God help him to make them one hundred percent true.”
So, we can and should treat what Vladimir Zelensky said without excessive hopes and expectations. But we should always remember the gospel wisdom, which at all times put specific deeds above any words: “You will know them by their fruits”. We wish the deeds of the new President were in line with what he said. Because otherwise, he will have to answer not only before people but also before God. And although Vladimir Zelensky does not position himself as a churched Christian, we want to believe that the oath on the Gospel was not just a formal procedure for him.