Standing near VR and OP: Laity realize their responsibility for the Church?

Believers have come to the understanding that the Church is not only the hierarchy; the Church is all of us. Photo: UOJ

On June 15, 2021, over 20,000 UOC believers came to a prayer standing at the VR in defense of the Church. Is it a burgeoning struggle of believers for their rights?

On June 15, 2021, nearly 20,000 believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church came to the building of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. The prayer standing, which was initiated by the "Miriane" (Laity – Ed.) public organization, aimed to once again draw the attention of the Ukrainian authorities to anti-church laws that contradict the Constitution. Let us recall that these laws are about renaming the UOC and simplifying the procedure for "transitions" (in fact – raider seizures) of the UOC churches by supporters of the OCU. These laws were adopted even under Poroshenko, who built his presidential campaign on the propaganda of a new schismatic structure and the fight against the UOC. As a result, in a short time, more than 120 temples were taken away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the help of right-wing radicals, officials and activists, while hundreds of others are being litigated due to illegal re-registrations.

That is why the believers of the UOC decided to unite to defend their Church and created the “Miriane” organization, whose Orthodox lawyers have prepared bills designed to stop the infringement of the rights and freedoms of the Church. Furthermore, in order to prevent these bills from being shelved, the laity decided to hand them over to the people's representatives personally. At the same time, it was supported by more than a million signatures of believers with a call to halt the actual persecution. The prayer standing at the walls of the Verkhovna Rada lasted more than an hour, and then the believers moved to the Office of the President. Having given a statement to the representative of the OP, the "Miriane” dispersed singing the troparion "Christ is Risen!". What's next? Can we say that this action is one-time, or, like in Montenegro: not 20,000, but dozens of times more believers will take to the streets of Ukraine to protect their Church? In order to answer these questions, a few preliminary remarks need to be made. 

Believers of the UOC near the Verkhovna Rada. Photo: UOC

Power and Church in Ukraine

It happened so that the attitude of the authorities towards the Orthodox Church in Ukraine always had a smack of certain condescension. Politicians viewed (and view) the clergy and believers as simply strange people who have their own subculture, which has no connection with the reality in which the politicians themselves live. Most of the "people's representatives" are poorly or not at all good in religious matters, have no idea about spirituality and spiritual life, and perceive various church organizations in the country only through the prism of their political expediency. By and large, politicians remember about the Church and believers only on the eve of the elections. The day after the elections, they recede into the background or their “concern” about the Church transforms into a desire to adjust the Church to their political interests. This often leads to big problems and does not bring any political benefit.

Metropolitan Clement (Supper) quite rightly noted that all the presidents of Ukraine "perceived the religious component of Ukrainian society very primitively," and "their offices are constantly creating some kind of religious simulacra that have nothing to do with reality." And now, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, commenting on the prayer standing of the UOC believers at the walls of the Verkhovna Rada, confused it with a rally of the Opposition Platform for Life (OPZZh) Party, calling the participants in the standing "grannies in yellow caps."

True though, the president might have been simply misinformed and did not understand the situation as political analyst Elena Dyachenko correctly noted. But something else is important here: Zelensky is not very interested in WHY the UOC believers came to his Office. Is this good or bad?

Zelensky and the Church in Ukraine

On the one hand, this is bad. Because the president “does not float the Church boat”; he is hardly aware of (or does not want to know) what problems the Church is facing, which means that he is not able to solve them.

On the other hand, this is good. Because Zelensky really distanced himself from religious issues, not trying to involve them in the sphere of his political activities, which means there is a hope that he will leave the Church alone.

Two things look strange against this background.

  1. If Zelensky as a politician is really not concerned utaboi religious issues, why invite Patriarch Bartholomew to Ukraine, and even on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people?
  2. Why does he as the President of the country not become the initiator of the abolition of anti-church laws, which have already brought (and will still bring) so much grief to ordinary people and so many problems for the authorities?

Archbishop Nikolai (Pochtovy) of Vasylkiv drew the attention of the Head of State to these moments in his speech at the prayer standing. In particular, Vladyka asked Zelensky to end the persecution of believers in the UOC and to withdraw the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew to come to Ukraine. “We ask you to withdraw the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew as he is not the Head of our Church, not even the official representative of the state from which he comes. This (the granting of the Tomos to the OCU – Ed.) failed to bring peace, unity to the Ukrainian Orthodox community. We ask you for the sake of peace in Ukraine, for the sake of religious peace! We pray for our Ukrainian state, for our Church and give our lives for peace in Ukraine. We hope that you will listen to us,” Vladyka Nikolai said.

Address by Archbishop Nikolai. Photo: UOC

In this respect one needs to understand that inviting the head of the Phanar to Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky hardly did it of his own accord. Let's refer to August 2019, when Patriarch Bartholomew and Vladimir Zelensky were supposed to sign a joint statement. However, at the last moment, “the parties did not understand each other,” and the President’s team refused to sign a document prepared at Phanar in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry (where Poroshenko’s personnel were still sitting). Consequently, at that time the President of Ukraine was very far from fawning on Phanar, and even more so from inviting its head to Kyiv.

We can only guess about the reasons for such dramatic changes, but another thing is clear – the Head of State has no personal interest in cooperation with Phanar. Unlike, for example, Petro Poroshenko. This means that if he is presented with more weighty arguments than those being at his disposal now, the situation can take a U-turn. One of these arguments can be the stance of ”Miriane”.

Will Montenegrin scenario work in Ukraine?

Zelensky cannot but understand that the fight against the Church always and in all cases ends in failure. There are more than enough examples. Metropolitan Clement (Vecheria) noted that "no one has ever succeeded in speculating on the feelings of believers."

He stressed that those who tried to do this, "always received the most deplorable result for themselves," because "it is not the electoral calculations that make a difference here, but the will of God," which no politician can falsify.

Poroshenko is a good case in point. Of course, the Church has nothing to do his political loss directly; the UOC has never officially announced its position on the presidential elections. But millions of believers could see Poroshenko was actually trying to destroy their Church, and therefore voted for another candidate. However, if this candidate continues Poroshenko's anti-church policy, he may face the same fate in the next elections. Only now the lay people can be much more active. For example, like their brothers in Christ in Montenegro.

President Djukanovic has ruled his country since 1991. It seemed that his positions were unshakable, and Montenegro would be in his hands for a long time. However, Djukanovic made a fatal mistake by openly opposing the Church and initiating a law according to which the land under the temples and monasteries built before December 1, 1918 (when Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) should be transferred to the state. The state, in turn, had to hand the land over to the schismatic “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”. This fate awaited more than 600 churches and monasteries. In the end, Orthodox Montenegro rose to the occasion and rebelled in the literal sense of the word.

Literally hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Montenegrin cities for peaceful religious processions in defense of the shrines, chanting the words "We will not give the shrines!" On some days, prayer processions gathered up to 300,000 people, which is almost half of the population of Montenegro. But instead of canceling anti-church laws, Djukanovic decided to start repressions against the most active defenders of the Church. In particular, Bishop Joannikije of Budimlja-Niksic was arrested, while his vicar Vladyka Methodius, abbot of the Cetinje monastery, was severely beaten, and several criminal cases were brought against Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radovic) of Montenegro-Littoral. Such actions of the authorities forced Metropolitan Amfilohije to appeal to the people of the country with a statement that the authorities of Montenegro had discredited themselves and to vote against them means to vote for the Church. As a result, Milo Djukanovic lost the elections and, although he remained president, he lost de facto power in the country.

Believers near the Office of the President. Photo: UOC

This story is very revealing, because it demonstrated to politicians around the world the enormous potential of associations of believers. If we are united, if we are driven by the lofty goal of protecting our Mother Church, rather than our pecuniary interests, then God is with us and we are invincible. This is what the Montenegrin case is about.

Yes, Ukraine is not Montenegro. Our population is 40 million against Montenegro’s 600,000. True though, not all citizens are believers of the UOC in Ukraine and the UOC has always humbly prayed and silently gone though trials, disengaging itself from any political actions.

Yet, we have never had the situation that has developed over the past two years around the UOC. And we have many millions of believers. If not all, half of them will definitely come out to defend their shrines, because if the authorities fail to protect the Church and its rights, then the believers will have to bear the brunt.

So far, only 20,000 people have joined in the event. But soon we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Rus, the day when hundreds of thousands of laity, members of our holy Church, gather for the procession in Kyiv. So if the authorities want to see how many of us there are in total, we will come to the President again. Now all together.

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