The voice of millions of UOC believers: ignore impossible to hear

07 April 2021 20:14
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Believers delivered over 1 million appeals to the President. Photo: UOJ Believers delivered over 1 million appeals to the President. Photo: UOJ

On April 1, UOC believers handed to the OP of Ukraine more than 1 mln signatures with an appeal to abolish anti-church laws. Why did they do that and will they be heard?

On April 1, 2021, the laity and clergy of the UOC came to the Office of the President of Ukraine in order to personally hand over to the head of state more than 1 million signatures under the Appeal to the President, which contains a request to initiate bills to abolish anti-church laws. Why were believers forced to take this step and what else do they want from the Ukrainian government?

Background

On December 20, 2018, the Verkhovna Rada, despite clearly anti-constitutional provisions, adopted Law No. 2662-VIII, on the basis of which the authorities began to pressure the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with a demand to change its name.

Later, on January 30, 2019, the name of the new religious structure "Ukrainian Orthodox Church (the Orthodox Church of Ukraine)" appeared in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, Individual Entrepreneurs and Public Organizations of Ukraine, which forced the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to file a lawsuit against the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine and the State Registrar "Centre for Legal Assistance and Registration" on the illegality of the state registration of the OCU religious centre.

In addition, the adopted anti-church laws do not comply with either the Constitution of Ukraine or international treaties in the field of human rights, directly violate Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine, Article 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in April 2019 the District Administrative Court of Kyiv halted the process of forcibly renaming the UOC, and in December of this year, the Supreme Court of Ukraine allowed the UOC to retain its name. On February 11, 2020, at the open part of the plenary session, the Grand Chamber of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine began to hear the case on the compliance of the law on renaming religious organizations with the Constitution of Ukraine.

It is indicative that the “Holy Synod” of the OCU spoke out against the possible abolition of this anti-church law. The “bishops” stated that if the judges recognize the law on renaming the UOC unconstitutional, it means they were bribed by the aggressor, they destroy the independence of Ukraine, and the “international partners” should punish these judges.

In turn, the laity and clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church initiated the collection of signatures under a letter addressed to President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky, as well as to the head of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and the head of the Constitutional Court.

Appeal to the President signed by over a million UOC believers

The text of the Appeal to the President from the laity of the UOC, signed by more than a million people, says that anti-church laws violate the rights of believers and contradict the constitutional principle of separation of the state from the Church. Through these laws, "the state grossly interferes in the activities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church", and "The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine applies these anti-constitutional laws exclusively against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and is forcibly trying to deprive Her of its own name", which "is discrimination on religious grounds of millions of believing citizens of Ukraine, belonging to the UOC”.

The letter also says: “the religious communities of the UOC are under constant pressure between the state authorities and the raiders, we were deprived of the opportunity to amend the constituent documents, to change leaders, to open accounts in banking institutions, to use notarial services, to register rights to land plots under church structures and so on."

The consequence of this can be called a serious growth of interfaith confrontations, increased religious enmity and conflicts in the state, while “the use of anti-constitutional laws by church raiders leads to daily destabilization of the religious situation in society, a deterioration in the level of freedom of religion in Ukraine, the creation of significant obstacles to the spiritual and social ministry of Churches and religious organizations".

The believers emphasized that the UOC has repeatedly appealed to the President with a request to remove anti-church norms from these laws, "however, apart from formal replies, there was no reaction to them".

“We consider it unacceptable for the guarantor of the observance of the Constitution of Ukraine, human and civil rights and freedoms to neglect the interests of their voters, a multimillion Orthodox society,” said the UOC believers.

Prayer for peace on the Vladimir Hill in Kyiv. Photo: UOJ

Can the President overturn the anti-church laws?  

No, the President does not have the authority to abolish laws adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. And no one demands that he exceed his authority and break the law for the sake of the believers of the UOC. But at the same time, as noted in the text of the Appeal of believers to Vladimir Zelensky, the President “has the right of legislative initiative in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. The bills determined by the President of Ukraine as urgent are considered by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine out of turn".

In other words, Zelensky may “submit to the Ukrainian parliament for consideration as urgent the bills on recognizing as invalid the amendments established by Law of Ukraine No. 2673-VIII “On Amending Certain Laws of Ukraine Concerning the Subordination of Religious Organizations and the Procedure for State Registration of Religious Organizations with the Status of a Legal Entity" dated 17.01.2019 and the Law of Ukraine No. 2662-VIII "On Amending Article 12 of the Law of Ukraine "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" regarding the name of religious organizations (associations) that are part of the structure (are part of) a religious organization (association ), the governing centre (management) of which is located outside Ukraine in a state that has been recognized by law as having carried out military aggression against Ukraine and/or temporarily occupied part of the territory of Ukraine" dated 20.12.2018".

Simply put, Zelensky can initiate new bills in order to repeal Poroshenko's anti-church laws by their action. Will President Zelenskyy do this?        

Why does the President need our letter and signatures?

First of all, then, to draw the attention of the head of state that the UOC, which is discriminated against, is the millions of Ukrainian citizens who clearly declared their position in the field of church-state relations in the previous presidential elections. The former head of the State Committee for Religions, Yuri Reshetnikov, emphasized that “in 2019, 73% of citizens clearly expressed their attitude, verdict and disagreement, including in the sphere of state-faith relations. But now we see the continuation of that policy."

Reshetnikov's words were also confirmed by Metropolitan Clement (Vecheria), who noted that the new politicians who replaced Poroshenko "not only do not correct the mistakes of their predecessors but also register new bills that contain violations of the constitutional rights of believers".

According to the Deputy Head of the Legal Department of the Rivne Eparchy of the UOC, Archpriest Vasily Nachev, representatives of several eparchies that suffered most from church raiding "came with signatures and an appeal to the President of Ukraine to draw attention to us".

Believers and priesthood of the UOC under the building of the President's Office. Photo: UOJ

Metropolitan Clement emphasizes that the initiators of the appeal were the laity themselves, and "if the President does not heed their appeal, people intend to seek to be heard by any legal means". The boxes with these signatures were brought under the President’s Office. Now it will be simply impossible not to pay attention to them.

The second reason for this step is that, as stated in the letter of believers, the laws "determined by the President of Ukraine as urgent are considered by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine out of turn". This means that if the President says, the deputies will be obliged to react.

The third reason is a clear violation of the religious rights of believers of the UOC and the hope that the President will stand up for them. The UOC Chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony, commenting on the initiative of the UOC believers to personally deliver 1 million signatures to the President, noted that “the entire fullness of the canonical Church hopes that the voice of the people will be heard. After all, serving the people just means ensuring the observance of the Constitution, protecting the rights of ordinary people, as well as respecting their position and appeals."

In turn, Archpriest Vasily Nachev, already under the walls of the OP, said: “We want the President as the Guarantor of the Constitution to protect our rights. We want the same attitude towards ourselves as towards all Ukrainians. We demand that today we should not be divided into the right, left, right or wrong. We are citizens of Ukraine, and this is our country, our state."

The fourth reason is a violation of the Constitution of Ukraine and democratic principles and freedoms. Archpriest Vitaly Durov, the rector of St. Michael's Church in the village of Zadubrivka, Chernivtsi region, said: “All without exception who today offend the Ukrainian Orthodox Church call themselves ‘patriots of Ukraine’”, but “patriotism is to respect democracy, laws of Ukraine, to respect everyone's choice to pray in the language they want, to practice the faith they want." He stressed that we respect the choice of those people who joined the OCU, although it may be wrong, “but we want it to be mutual – so that we are also respected, loved and considered with. Because we are all citizens of Ukraine, we were born here, in Ukraine, we live and communicate in the Ukrainian language, and we want to be treated as fellow citizens."

A parishioner of one of the churches of the UOC in the Rivne Eparchy said that “we have collected more than a million signatures not to be renamed. We are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. We want to go to church freely, so that we are not humiliated, that we are not divided. Now we have a very big enmity in our country, and we were labelled as second-class people. We want to ask the President to leave us in peace."

Will the authorities react to the demand of a million people?

As a result, on April 1, 2021, after a prayer service on the Vladimir Hill, believers from different eparchies of the UOC, including Volyn, Zhytomyr, Chernivtsi, Rivne and Sarny, brought the Appeal to Zelensky, which was signed by more than 1,063,000 people, to the Office of the President in Kyiv.

Boxes with the signatures of UOC believers under the Appeal to the President. Photo: UOJ

A representative of the President's Office came out to them and invited them to bring in boxes with letters for registration. According to Metropolitan Clement, “if we compare the number of believers who signed the appeal to the President and the authorities with the number of voters who took part in the presidential elections in the first round in 2019, then this is a fifth of all participants” of the vote and ignoring their vote means showing disrespect for voters. Will the Ukrainian government agree to this? There is an opinion that yes, it is possible.
Konstantin Bondarenko, during a press conference on the collection of signatures, noted that for the authorities to change their attitude towards the UOC, it is necessary “to change the course of those who oversee Ukraine from abroad. Since it was not Ukraine itself and the President who made decisions on issues that split society, and only after a change in the general mood in the world, confessional peace will set in Ukraine”. In his opinion, at the moment, we can hardly expect change, which means the Office of the President will “get off with common phrases” to more than 1 million signatures of the UOC believers.

“The faithful handed over a huge number of signatures, but we know examples when a large number of signers were left unattended. I think that some general wording and the answer that the complaint has been taken under control, an inspection will be appointed, etc. will be given,” he said.

It is very possible that Konstantin Bondarenko, who said that “in inter-faith relations, all Ukrainians were held hostage to the situation that Poroshenko created by his actions, establishing the OCU two years ago”, is completely right. But this does not mean that we cannot change anything.

What to do next?

First, in addition to Ukrainian courts, there are international courts. And although it is difficult to fully rely on their fairness, this path must be followed.

Secondly, the Church can use other tools to help change what is happening – to civil disobedience. Thus, in the “Fundamentals of the Social Concept” of the Russian Orthodox Church it is said that “in case of impossibility of obeying state laws and orders of the authorities on the part of the Church Fullness, the Church Hierarchy, upon due consideration of the issue, can take the following actions: enter into direct dialogue with the authorities on the problem that has arisen; call on the people to apply the mechanisms of democracy to change legislation or revise the decision of the government; appeal to international authorities and world public opinion; to turn to their children with an appeal for peaceful civil disobedience ”.

And thirdly, the Church will definitely use Her most important weapon – prayer. As one of the participants in the action near the Office of the President, Archpriest Vasily Nachev, said, "our only weapon is prayer, and we have no more weapons."

We can only hope that the President will hear the voice of millions of citizens of his country who do not ask him for any political preferences but for only one thing – to give them the opportunity to pray in peace in their churches, as required by the Constitution of Ukraine.

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