The Complexity and Duplicity of Deciphering the New Ukrainian Law on Religion

by Anatoliy Babynskyi

Ukraine kiev church

The problem of conversions between religious communities has existed in Ukraine  since the late 1980s and early 1990s,  when the country was struggling for independence and its religious map was being formed. The rise from the underground of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) raised questions about the restitution of property lost as a result of the forced liquidation of the Church in 1946, when almost all Church property had been transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The resurgence of the underground Greco-Catholics coincided with the revival of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). This meant that conflicts over property arose not only among Greco-Catholics and Orthodox, but also within the Orthodox Church between the Ukrainian Exarchate of the ROC, which was renamed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in 1990, and the UAOC. In 1992, part of the UOC—including Metropolitan Filaret Denisenko—merged with part of the UAOC, which resulted in a third Ukrainian Orthodox denomination: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which, like the UAOC, is not recognized by the rest of the Orthodox world. The emergence of another Orthodox jurisdiction led to a new wave of parish conversions.

The interfaith limits of Ukrainian Christianity coalesced mainly in the second half of the 1990s. While the clearly-existing identity boundaries between Greco-Catholics, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox mean that conversions occur mainly at the individual level, confessional boundaries are weaker between the three Orthodox jurisdictions. Parish transitions between the UOC-KP and UAOC are quite frequent. Boundaries of identity between the UOC-KP and the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate) are clearer, but even here transitions have occurred in the last decade. Nevertheless, they never gained widespread traction.

The situation changed dramatically after the Russian invasion of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas. Russia’s support of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as its involvement in the occupation of Crimea, is not acknowledged by the leadership of the UOC (MP). This has prompted many people—the majority of parishioners in some villages—to  withdraw from the jurisdiction of the UOC (MP).As of today, the Ministry of Culture has officially registered 80 such transitions. Typically, these transitions are accompanied by local religious conflicts. Since religious communities have no fixed membership lists, it is not clear to whom the church building should belong: to those who wish to transfer—even if the majority—or to those who want to stay in the UOC (MP)?

Against this background, two bills appeared in the Ukrainian parliament, one of which (№ 4128) aims to regulate the mechanisms of a local community’s transfer to another denomination. This bill would help a community to preserve its property if the majority want to change jurisdiction. Another bill (№ 4511) proposes a “special status” to churches that are subordinate to centers that are in aggressor states. The latter has received significant criticism because under its rules the state would have the right to interfere in the appointment of bishops of Churches that come under this “special status.” Since this involves considerable interference of the state in the autonomy of religious denominations, it can pose grave threats to religious freedom, which in today’s world can hardly be perceived positively.

In response to these initiatives, the Moscow Patriarchate is trying to register new charters of local religious communities that would cede church real estate to the diocesan center, since today church buildings are often the property of the community itself. These revised statutes would make it impossible to lose a church building, even if the whole community decided to join another Church.

As of today, neither of the bills has been adopted or considered by the legislative body of Ukraine. Both bills face significant criticism from the UOC (MP), and pro-Russian politicians promise mass protests against the government and even speak of a religious civil war should the bills pass.

It is worth noting that the debate around bill № 4128 recalls another case that took place in 1990 concerning property conflicts between the UGCC and the ROC. To this day, this case remains the reason for the Moscow Patriarchate’s criticism of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics at the international level, especially in dialogues with the Vatican. In 1990, a quadripartite commission was formed that included representatives of the UGCC, the Vatican, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). One of the key points of contention was how to distribute church property. The UGCC insisted on returning churches that were forcibly taken from her in 1946 and transferred to the ROC. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate refused to negotiate with the UGCC as an institution that could claim lost property and insisted that the fate of the church buildings should be decided by the communities themselves locally. In other words, individual Greco-Catholics—but not the Church as an institution—could claim the property of their own communities. Following this logic, where most of the community identified as Greco-Catholic, the church building was transferred to the Greco- Catholics, and where the majority was Orthodox, the church building was theirs. Suffice it to say that while the Soviet Union still existed, the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate could count on the help of state administrative resources to organize appropriate parallel communities to the Greco-Catholics. Since the ROC insisted on the transfer of certain churches already returned to the Greco-Catholics and did not want to recognize the UGCC as a separate ecclesial body, representatives of the UGCC abandoned the work of the quadripartite commission.

If we compare the current situation with that of the 1990s, it is difficult not to notice that today the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate acts precisely against the principle that church buildings belong to the local community, upon which they themselves insisted during conflicts with the Greco-Catholics in 1990. As they say in Ukraine: “If a chicken runs into my garden, that’s good; but if into a neighbor’s—that’s bad.” Sapienti sat.

Anatoliy Babynskyi is a PhD candidate in church history at the Ukrainian Catholic University and editor-in-chief of The Patriarchate Magazine.