Is the Church being dragged into internal strife of security forces?

Are law enforcers trying to use priests in internal confrontation? Photo: UOJ

There are cases when some law enforcers persuade UOC priests to make statements against others, promising help in defending the temple from the raiding by the OCU.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has clearly and unambiguously articulated its attitude to the events. For example, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry was the first religious leader in the country to call the war a sin and to compare the Russian military action against Ukraine to the sin of Cain. Besides, many UOC spokespersons and officials condemned the war.

Two dozen eparchies of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have stopped commemorating the name of Patriarch Kirill at all services, thereby expressing their disagreement with his position on the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the UOC is very actively involved in volunteer work, using all its resources for humanitarian aid to people and regions affected by the war.

It is the priests of the UOC who have rescued several thousand people from shelling. For example, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Gerashchenko said that Archpriest Boris Kovalchuk, rector of the Church of the Great Martyr Demetrius of Thessaloniki in the village of Pilipovichi, helped evacuate over 1,500 civilians during the occupation of the Borodianka district. Archpriest Andrei Pinchuk, a cleric of the Dnipropetrovsk eparchy of the UOC, together with a team of like-minded people saved 725 children from shelling (data as of March 13).

Metropolitan Luke of Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol personally accompanied fifteen buses with evacuees from Mariupol. In response, Alexander Starukh, chairman of the Zaporizhzhia RMA, thanked the bishop and noted: "If you hadn't gone, things would have been much worse... The children, most importantly, were taken away. Thank you."

Furthermore, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry said that "the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, through the efforts of the episcopate, clergy, monks and believers, is ready to organize a prayer procession from the town of Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia region, to the Azovstal steelworks in the city of Mariupol to provide emergency aid and withdraw civilians. The procession could also take out the wounded military and pick up the bodies of the dead”. It later became known that the UOC Primate blessed several dozen clergymen who went to Mariupol in order to carry out this mission.

It would not be out of place to say that a great number of UOC believers defend Ukraine with weapons in their hands on the front lines. Almost every day in temples of the UOC they hold memory services for the dead soldiers, most of whom were its parishioners. On 17 April 2022, Metropolitan Luke received the news about the death of his brother Alexander Kovalenko, who was killed in the line of military duty. In other words, today it is quite clear that the Church, for its part, is doing everything possible to ensure that the Ukrainians have a peaceful sky over their heads as soon as possible

"Yugoslav scenario"?

At the same time, certain forces within Ukraine and in territories where there are no hostilities are trying to play the "religious card". We are talking about numerous seizures of UOC churches, the organization by the local authorities of "transfers" to the OCU according to the "tomos scenario" and also decisions to ban the UOC. There are even outrageous cases in which armed men threaten parishioners and force them to leave their churches at gunpoint. For example, in the Ivano-Frankivsk eparchy alone, seven seizures of churches and monasteries occurred in one week of the war. First, in Tseniava, UOC worshippers were driven out of their Church of the Icon "Vsetsaritsa”. Then – the seizure of the Intercession Church in Holovy, the chapel in Shkyndivsky Grun, the Archangel Michael Monastery in Babianka, St. Nicholas’s Church in Kalush, the Anno-Zachatyevsky (Conception) Church in Verkhovyna and the Trinity Monastery on Mount Dukonia. The abbot and novice of the Dukon Monastery were taken away by armed criminals and interrogated for a long time. And during the seizure in Verkhovyna, people with machine guns dragged believers out of the church, lined them up and threatened to shoot them.

It is obvious that such behaviour is intended to foment religious strife within the country and sooner or later will lead to serious confrontation. The purpose of this confrontation is also clear – to play out the "Yugoslav scenario" according to which the country is divided into parts along religious lines. It means that any aggressive actions against the UOC are aimed at the disintegration of Ukraine as a whole and cannot be approved by the state power, which has been repeatedly emphasized at the highest political level.

In particular, the Advisor to the Head of the Presidential Office Mikhail Podoliak noted that, unlike the ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has a different position: "I would ask people not to speculate on this because we can get an internal conflict, and today the unity that Ukraine has demonstrated to the world is much more principled and much more important to us".

In addition, the need for unity of the people of Ukraine has been repeatedly stressed by the President of the country, Vladimir Zelensky. Thus, in his video statement of March 12, 2022, he said: "It is necessary for all of us, all Ukrainians, need to continue focusing on the defence of our state. To work together. Without internal splits, supporting each other, all over Ukraine, from Uzhhorod to Melitopol, from Chernihiv to Mariupol, from Lviv to Kharkiv.”

At the same time, the head of State thanked the UOC for assistance to Ukrainian citizens who find themselves in the war zone: "This day we sent another humanitarian cargo to Mariupol. I am grateful to every driver who is trying to implement this difficult mission, to the representatives of the Church, who joined in trying to protect the humanitarian corridor to Mariupol from shelling." This is the same convoy that was accompanied personally by Metropolitan Luke of Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol.

In other words, the state authorities constantly emphasize not to stir up religious conflicts, because it will lead to serious problems inside the country. On the other hand, if certain forces manage to play on religion, it will be very difficult to keep Ukraine from falling apart. This means that the primary task of all state structures is to prevent confrontation within the country.

Why are security officials silent?

However, in reality, especially on the ground, we see that representatives of the security forces, who are supposed to put a stop to any internal conflicts, most often turn a blind eye to religious confrontation. However, history and the experience of other countries (such as Yugoslavia) show that such conflicts are the most unpredictable and problematic. Why don't the security forces intervene, or if they do, why don't they get involved?

There are several reasons for this.

  1. There are no direct instructions from higher authorities on how to behave in the event of a conflict on religious grounds. Under Poroshenko, the security forces were given orders not to intervene in situations around seizures of Orthodox churches. All they did was to prevent bloodshed. Now, the central authorities demonstrate their neutrality with regard to the Church and try to follow the Constitution, not interfering in religious matters. However, some security officials, either for the safe side or for some other reason, continue to follow Poroshenko's methodology. There are other situations in which neither the SBU nor the National Guard can act according to the letter of the law because there are structures or individual representatives of the authorities who are not interested in this. For example, in at least four eparchies of the UOC, there have been documented cases in which employees of the State Bureau of Investigation promised UOC priests assistance in protecting a church from seizure if they made a statement against the SBU. Otherwise, they hinted at problems.
  2. A priest from the Shepetivka Eparchy told the UOJ that he was contacted by an investigator from the SBU and hinted that he should file a complaint against the SBU officers. If he did so, he was promised assistance in preserving the parish and resisting the takeover by the OCU. Similar reports have been received from clerics in the Ivano-Frankivsk, Kamyanets-Podilsky and Khmelnytsky eparchies.

GBI investigators demand that the priests testify against representatives of the SBU as well as the National Guard in exchange for security guarantees. "They came to me, persistently asked about my children, and then hinted for a long time against whom and what exactly I should say," one of the priests told the UOJ.

It turns out that Ukraine's law enforcement agencies, solving their own problems in the confrontation with each other, use the Church … as a bargaining chip.

There is a proverb that "all is fair in war", but it should hardly be applicable when it comes to the body of Christ. Because religion is the field of heart and soul, and by touching this field, one can harm a person a lot. We would very much like for the State Bureau of Investigation to be on guard of the law and protect the citizens of Ukraine, including believers, and not create problems for them by using the Church for their own purposes.

In turn, SBU employees, as well as representatives of other security agencies, need to do everything possible to ensure that state laws are observed in Ukraine, regardless of religious or political beliefs, and even more so in times of war. We need unity at all levels now more than ever and we do not need conflicts at all. If this is achieved, most of the country's problems will be successfully solved.

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How has your life changed since the outbreak of war?
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