What the Church should expect from the new Parliament of Ukraine

The party of the new President received most votes in the Verkhovna Rada. Photo: UOJ

How can changes in the power Olympus impact the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

On Sunday, July 21, 2019, early elections to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine were held. According to the data, the “Servant of the People” party of President Vladimir Zelensky received more than half of the mandates and will be able to independently form a government and appoint its candidates to all key posts in the country.

Vladimir Zelensky himself came to power under the slogan of a radical renewal of all spheres of life in the state. Now he controls the executive and legislative branches of power. How can changes in the power Olympus impact the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

Ukrainian society, in both the presidential and the current parliamentary elections, said a decisive “no” to all the policies of the previous government. Petro Poroshenko lost to Vladimir Zelensky with almost a threefold difference of votes (Poroshenko – 24.46%, Zelensky – 73.23%). The results of the elections to the Verkhovna Rada after processing 93.56% of the ballots are as follows:

Online board of the voting outcome. Фото: strana.ua

The party “Servant of the People” gains 43.14% of the vote, while Poroshenko’s “European Solidarity” party – only 8.18%.

Recall what characterized Poroshenko’s policy, which was so strongly resented by Ukrainian citizens.

In the domestic political sphere, it is never-ceasing militancy, keeping constant tension in the Donbass and choosing military means to resolve the conflict. In public life, it is imposing on all regions of Ukraine the so-called Western-Ukrainian dialect, to be more comprehensive and precise, Galician values, glorification of the OUN-UPA pro-fascist forces and their ideology.

In the economy it is a break in economic ties with the unrecognized DNR and LNR, as well as Russia, as well as unsuccessful attempts to redirect the economy to the European market; the closure of industrial production and the migration of a significant part of the working population to seek jobs in Russia and Europe. By approximate calculations, we can talk about more than ten million people in Ukraine.

In the communal sphere, it is an unjustified overestimation of tariffs for utilities and pumping money from the population through various financial schemes.

Ukrainian society, in both the presidential and the current parliamentary elections, said a decisive “no” to all the policies of the previous government.

In the foreign policy – we have a confrontation with Russia and unquestionable implementation of instructions from the United States.

In the religious sphere – it is the most blatant interference, contrary to the Constitution of Ukraine, in the internal affairs of religious organizations, creation in the framework of the election campaign of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and declaring it a stronghold of Ukrainian statehood. These are also attempts, by lawless and violent methods involving the Security Service of Ukraine, to drive the Ukrainian Orthodox Church into an artificially created OCU.

All the above policy ran up against the Ukrainian people who, according to the Constitution, are the only source of power. However, whether this policy will change in all spheres of life with the arrival of new state actors in power is a big question. Let's try to analyze how the state policy in the religious sphere can change.

On the upcoming changes in power

Despite the fact that the party “Servant of the People” is gaining a little more than 43% of the votes, it will receive significantly more than 50% of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Under the current electoral law, only half of the deputies is elected by party lists. The second half is elected in single-mandate majoritarian constituencies. And in these constituencies there is also a significant preponderance of the votes of candidates from the “Servant of the People”. This means that at the expense of the majoritarian system, pro-Zelensky party will receive more than half of the mandates. Given that candidates in single-mandate constituencies, who are registered as self-nominated candidates, tend to join the parliamentary majority, a situation may arise in which Vladimir Zelensky’s supporters will receive in the Verkhovna Rada not a simple but a constitutional majority, i.e. more than 300 deputy mandates from 450.

According to preliminary calculations, approximately three-quarters of the seats in the parliament will go to people who have never been MPs before. In the new composition of the Verkhovna Rada there will no longer be the most odious personalities from the past convocation: Oleg Liashko, Dmitry Yarosh, Vladimir Parasiuk and others. Most of the authors of anti-church bills are not going to parliament either.

Recall the names of those who provided legislative support for the Church to be persecuted: Igor Brichenko, Ivan Krulko, Yaroslav Markevich, Sergei Vysotsky, Igor Lapin, Nikolai Kniazhitsky, Irina Podoliak, Viktor Yelensky and others.

How can one not remember the words of the Holy Scripture: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked by abuse. What a man sows, he will reap” (Gal. 6, 7).

Let us recall the names of those who provided legislative support for the Church to be persecuted: Igor Brichenko, Ivan Krulko, Yaroslav Markevich, Sergei Vysotsky, Igor Lapin, Nikolai Kniazhitsky, Irina Podoliak, Viktor Yelensky and others.

Thus, a radical renewal of the highest echelons of power awaits us. And if, to some extent, the electoral idea of Vladimir Zelensky about the lustration of Poroshenko-era officials has been carried out, this renewal of power will be total as ever. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that the Zelensky's team has already decided to hold elections to local self-governments soon. This means that power holders will also change at the level of cities, villages, districts and regions.

A separate and much discussed question now is: what will happen to the outgoing representatives of the previous government – is it simply their dismissal or something more unpleasant? There is a huge demand among the people for bringing all the perpetrators to justice for the unenviable situation in which our country finds itself at the moment.

As it is known, the creation of the OCU and the forcible transfer of UOC communities into this structure were accompanied by blatant lawlessness committed by government officials, starting from the Department of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Culture and ending with village councils. It seems that the warnings that sounded half a year ago to such officials would be prophetic: “Do not break the law to please Poroshenko for you will have to answer.”

Poroshenko and OCU

A central element of the election campaign of Petro Poroshenko was the creation of the OCU. The brainchild of the former President was indeed concocted from the religious organizations of the UOC-KP and the UAOC and even received the Tomos from the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Against the backdrop of total failures in all other spheres of state and public life, the OCU became the only “achievement” which the former President could at least somehow draw on. However, how much is this hyped issue in demand now?

Just a few months ago, the topic of the Tomos and the OCU was highlighted practically by all the media. This topic, without exaggeration, was central to the Ukrainian information field. But where is it now? It somehow very quickly disappeared after the presidential election, which once again proves that the Tomos was imposed on Ukrainian society artificially.

For the current government, #TomosforOCU” will definitely not be a priority. And the refusal of Vladimir Zelensky to meet with representatives of Phanar regarding the transfer of real estate objects to Constantinople as the latter's Stavropegia is very indicative.

The topic of the OCU was very abruptly eliminated after the presidential elections proving that Tomos was artificially imposed on Ukrainian society.

All this testifies that the new government will not interfere (at least not so roughly as the previous one) in the internal affairs of religious organizations. It is hoped that the illegal reregistration of communities to the OCU and the enormous political pressure that has been exerted on the UOC over the past five years will cease. This was said in a recent interview with the UOC Chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich) of Borispol and Brovary: “We have lived through difficult five years when falsohood and hatred against our Church have been cultivated. All this was attached a certain importance at the state level that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ostensibly lived inside the state and was not patriotic in its essence. This is slander against their own people, against their own citizens, because the UOC is the Church of the Ukrainian people.”

Now, the current agenda is not only about the cessation of this anti-Church policy, but also the restoration of the violated rights of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, its communities and ordinary believers.

What the UOC expects from the new power

Firstly, it is the abolition of anti-church laws.

The number one among these regulations is the law on renaming of the UOC, which was adopted on December 20, 2018. With the help of this law, the Ministry of Culture and other opponents of the UOC tried to force it to change its name from the UOC to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The law is openly unconstitutional and discriminatory in nature.

On July 22, 2019, the Sixth Administrative Court of Appeal of Kiev dismissed the appeal of the Ministry of Culture in the case of the renaming of the UOC and upheld the decision of the District Administrative Court of Kiev to halt the process of the forced renaming of the UOC. Whether this is a final point in the law renaming timeline is still unknown, but it is already clear that without the pressure of the previous government on the courts, we can see quite obvious solutions in favor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Another anti-church law is “On Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine Regarding the Subordination of Religious Organizations and the Procedure for the State Registration of Religious Organizations as a Legal Entity”. The head of the Legal Department of the UOC, Archpriest Alexander Bakhov, called it a law “on the seizure of churches and the creation of black registrars, who today have illegally re-registered about 250 religious communities of the UOC”.

One can hardly expect the new composition of the Verkhovna Rada to vote in the near future for the abolition of these laws. But they are unlikely to be executed and besides, there is an increased possibility of declaring them incompatible with the Constitution through the courts.

Secondly, it is the abolition of illegal decisions on the transfer of the UOC communities to the OCU.

On June 19, 2019, at a meeting of representatives of the diocesan legal departments of the UOC, Metropolitan Anthony sounded the specific numbers of illegally re-registered communities: “In particular, there have been recorded in Volyn Region – 67, Rovno Region – 48, Chernovtsy Region – 11, Zhitomir Region – 15, Khmelnitsky Region – 42, Ternopol Region – 27, Vinnitsa Region – 2, Ivano-Frankovsk Region – 2, Transcarpathian region – 5, Poltava region – 1, Kirovograd region – 1, Kiev region – 1. All in all, the number of illegal re-registrations concerns 222 religious communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church."

The UOC expects that the new government, unlike the previous one, will be more respectful of the laws of Ukraine and will not exert pressure on the courts in order to deny the UOC communities the restoration of violated rights. If the courts are guided precisely by legal rather than political considerations when making relevant decisions, more than two hundred communities will be able to restore their affiliation with the UOC and return the temples seized from them.

Indirectly, the return of illegally seized temples will be facilitated by the decree “On Measures of Counteracting Raiding” signed by the President on July 22, 2019. Although this document does not apply directly to religious organizations, it sets a general tendency to counter illegal seizure of property.

One can hardly expect the new Verkhovna Rada to vote in the near future for the abolition of these laws. But they are unlikely to be executed.

According to Deputy Head of the Office of President Alexei Goncharuk, “The issue of raiding has become one of the most painful for business. According to various estimates, over the past six years, more than three thousand seizures have occurred. This is usually a change of ownership by falsifying documents, through non-existent registrars or through “loopholes” in the registry. The schemes are different, but the essence is the same. Today’s decision is a real step to put an end to it.”

The same schemes were employed by the commission of illegal actions against the UOC communities.

Thirdly, it is the abolition of the state registration of such a phantom as the “Kiev Metropolis of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church of Ukraine)”, which is the religious center of the OCU.

A claim for cancellation of such registration was filed by the Kiev Metropolis of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and on June 18, 2019, the Kiev District Administrative Court accepted it for consideration. As Alexander Bakhov explained it, “The so-called newly-established OCU has no reason to be called the Kiev Metropolis of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church not only because there is a religious center with a similar name since 1991, but also because the primary title document “Tomos”, which they are supposed  to respect and fulfill, defines two names for them – “The Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU) and “The Most Holy Church of Ukraine” (MHCU).”

Again, if the court is guided only by the provisions of the Ukrainian legislation, the registration of the legal entity “The Kiev Metropolis of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church of Ukraine)” will be canceled. And this, in turn, will entail the fact that all the decrees and orders of the head of the OCU, Epiphany Dumenko, will be declared invalid.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not expect and does not require any privileges from the authorities, the Church wants to simply live according to the laws of the state. The Primate of the UOC, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine Onufry, said on Ukraina TV channel, “Our Church does not ask for any preferences, any advantages. We ask that the law be in action and that everyone be equal before the law.”

Meeting this wish will put all religious organizations in equal conditions. The UOC managed to withstand in the face of actual persecution by the state. Now, the OCU will have to show what it is capable of in conditions when the state will not provide it with such active (including force) support, in conditions when it will have to act within the law like other religious organizations.

Actually, these words of His Beatitude Onuphry contain the answer to the question of what the Church should expect from the new Verkhovna Rada – respect for the constitutional rights of citizens and the equality of all before the law. The outcome of the elections to the Verkhovna Rada allows us to make a cautious conclusion – there is hope.

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