The war in Ukraine, which was until October 7 the only foreign news we could think about, is no longer center stage but is continuing in an increasingly attritional way. And Ukrainian politics continue, inevitably, to be dominated by the war with the result that fundamental freedoms are now a casualty of the conflict. Specifically, there is a bill before the Ukrainian parliament, which has already passed its first reading, that would ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This historically has been located within the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, is notoriously invested in the war, on the Russian side. He is, moreover, close to Vladimir Putin. The bill would ban the activities of religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence “in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine.” I think we know who they have in mind.
But even if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were under Russian control, it would not warrant the state seeking to replace it with a more congenial institution, the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, founded in 2019 (which confusingly, has been given independent status by the Patriarch in Constantinople). The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has gone to some pains to keep the Russian Orthodox Church at a distance. Since May last year, it has operated independently of the Russian Church. Its leadership and priests have condemned the war, though doubtless there are elements within it that are pro-Russian.
Yet even if these things haven’t happened — and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church hadn’t distanced itself from Moscow — the Ukrainian parliament should not be shutting down a church. As Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who represents the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has observed, “this legislation would require people of one faith to abandon their church and instead worship under the government’s preferred branch of Orthodoxy…Telling people how they must worship is blatantly inconsistent with international human rights.”
To be more pragmatic about it, part of the Russian take on the war it is that it is being fought in support of Orthodoxy. It would be misguided, at the very least, for Ukraine’s president Zelensky to substantiate these fears by banning an historic church. It’s not his business. It’s not parliament’s business. If Ukraine wants to maintain Western support, it should take on board that freedom of religion is one of those things that a democratic state doesn’t, shouldn’t, meddle with.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.