The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, adopted a bill on January 17 that changed the affiliation of the religious communities in Ukraine.

Ukraine has three main Orthodox denominations: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which remained subordinate to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and two breakaway entities – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

The new legislation reportedly provides for specific limitations on the activities of certain religious authorities and organisations that continue to have a presence in Ukraine.

The new laws specifically mention the parishioners from “the structure of a religious organisation whose governing centre is located outside Ukraine” – a reference to the Moscow Patriarchate.

These latest developments have added to the already poisonous relationship between Kyiv and Moscow, which have been in a state of war since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea region of Crimea and the Kremlin’s participation in the ongoing the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed nearly 11,000 people as Ukraine’s armed forces have battled Moscow-backed separatists and Russian military units.

The wording of the new law defines the ‘religious organisation’ as an organ of a state that has committed military aggression against Ukraine. Among other things, it restricts access to military units for the Moscow Patriarchate’s clergy.

Some rights campaigners have argued that Ukrainian lawmakers are specifically targeting members of the Moscow Patriarchate because of their perceived loyalty to the Kremlin – a charge that the Moscow Patriarchate churches in Ukraine have denied.

The limitations that have been imposed on Moscow Patriarchate officials have been condemned by the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, with its director, Willy Fautre, saying, “Interreligious conflicts would be highly detrimental for the social, political, and regional stability of Ukraine.”

“Neither (Ukrainian) President (Petro) Poroshenko, who personally deployed huge efforts to obtain the autocephaly of a ‘truly’ independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church before the presidential election, nor the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, should instrumentalise religious divides for political purposes,” said Fautre, who added, “It is, unfortunately, the trend that we are witnessing on both sides and the EU should not remain a passive observer of such a situation.

Fautre and Human Rights Without Frontiers were also highly critical of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a close Kremlin ally and a former KGB informant, who has played a significant role in spearheading Russia’s turn towards irredentism and arch-conservatism that targets both religious and sexual minorities that the church and Kremlin consider to be threatening ‘extremist’ elements whose goal is to threaten the unity of the Russian Federation.

Kirill has repeatedly said that he plans to visit Ukraine in order to meet with the followers of the Moscow Patriarchate. These proclamations have not been welcomed by the Ukrainian authorities, most of whom consider Kirill to be far too closely aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin and who also point the finger at the Moscow Patriarchate for helping to incite anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Russian society.

The Russian Orthodox Church has countered these claims by calling on international leaders to “protect” its followers in Ukraine in the face of what it called official pressure against Moscow-appointed clerics.

The letter was issued the day before a meeting of senior figures from the various Orthodox Christian communities in Ukraine who were meeting to form a new, unified and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church with an officially recognised elected leader, known as a Primate.

The meeting, which saw Metropolitan Epiphanius I elected as Ukraine’s Primate, was a crucial step in creating a church in Ukraine that is now independent of Moscow. His election and subsequent enthronement were immediately sanctioned by Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople and, according to tradition, the first among equals in the Orthodox world.

The Greek-educated Epiphanius was elected by bishops from the country’s three divided Orthodox denominations at a council on December 15, 2018, and handed a “tomos of autocephaly” by Patriarch Bartholomew on January 6, which formally established the world’s 15th independent Orthodox church.

Kirill response to the establishment of a Ukrainian Primate was to send a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Thomas Greminger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, and other leaders in which he requested their assistance in helping “to protect parishioners of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine”.

On the eve of the key presidential election in Ukraine, Fautre believes the Russian Orthodox Patriarch “should not make such a statement for multiple reasons,” as “his words will be perceived in Ukraine as covert support for candidates who oriented towards Russia.”

Fautre also believes that Kirill’s comments will be seen as an attempt to influence the votes of local populations in areas of Ukraine where Russian is predominantly spoken.

“Hopes for a change of the head of the Ukrainian state are clearly expressed in the Patriarch’s words. In the current geopolitical context, it will be viewed as another blatant intrusion by the Kremlin in the electoral process of a foreign country,” said Fautre, who also added, that Kirill’s comments come at a time when Putin is using “his political weight to dissuade Orthodox Churches in the European Union from recognising the autocephaly granted to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”

“Patriarch Kirill is also bringing water to the mill of those who accuse the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate of being the ‘foreign agent’ of an ‘aggressor country’ and of being instrumentalised by Moscow,” said Fautre. “This move by Patriarch Kirill will also put Metropolitan Onufry (of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine) in a very uncomfortable situation given the tenuous ecclesiastical links to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

According to polls conducted in mid-January by Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency, support amongst the Ukrainian population for the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church has surged since Russia’s invasion of Crimea just over five years with 54% of the population in favour of its creation.

The Moscow Patriarchate still has the largest number parishes in Ukraine, counting 11,000 under its jurisdiction, compared to the 7,000 that fall under the authority of the now-united Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The latter, however, has a far lower level of regular participation from its parishioners with only 12% saying they actively identify with the Moscow Patriarchate.

This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition