To save his sagging political fortunes, the man responsible for the failure of Ukrainian reforms, violations of human rights and corruption is putting on a priestly robe.

The sins of graft, lawlessness, and authoritarianism are now absolved. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is busy putting on the unholy halo of a fake saint. He has claimed a saintly status while heavily meddling in the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is fully independent from Russia.

In December, the representatives of two unrecognised Orthodox churches – the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – and of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian branch set up the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

They also elected Metropolitan Epiphanius as the head of the new church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the highest authority in the Orthodox world, granted independence to the new church on January 6.

While the Ukrainian church’s break with Russia, a semi-totalitarian state that’s waging an aggressive irredentist war against Ukraine, is a positive development, the degree and context of Poroshenko’s involvement in the matter have many negative aspects.

Poroshenko’s private church

Poroshenko (who had been ironically a Moscow Patriarchate supporter until recently) has turned the newly-established Orthodox Church of Ukraine into his own personal propaganda tool ahead of the March 31 presidential election.

The number of omnipresent ads promoting Poroshenko’s role in the Ukrainian church’s independence on the Internet and in the streets is mind-boggling. It seems that he’s trying to ram his newly-acquired status of a “saint” down Ukrainians’ throats.

As a wannabe Byzantine emperor, Poroshenko sat in the presidium at the assembly that set up the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on December 15.

Poroshenko also went to Istanbul with Metropolitan Epiphanius to receive the tomos – a document on independence from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – on January 5-6.

When Epiphanius was supposed to bring the tomos into Kyiv’s St. Sofia Cathedral on January 7, Poroshenko couldn’t miss the opportunity and desperately seized the piece of parchment, with the audience having to watch the absurd spectacle of two people carrying the tomos at the same time. He appeared to be on the verge of snatching it away from Epiphanius and putting on a bishop’s mitre.

Indeed, Poroshenko resembled Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, leering at the tomos and almost saying “my precious.”

On January 10, Poroshenko started his “tomos tour”, travelling with the document around Ukraine and delivering speeches in churches like a priest.  He has also enjoyed myriads of insane panegyrics and extravagant praise in the best traditions of those lavished on Soviet dictators.

In October Metropolitan Macarius, then head of the unrecognised Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, urged Ukrainians to “bow to Poroshenko,” while Metropolitan Epiphanius on January 7 compared Poroshenko to Prince Vladimir the Great, who Christianised Kyivan Rus in 988.

Poroshenko’s political tricks will reduce the legitimacy of the new church and slow down the transfer of Moscow Patriarchate parishes to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Believers will be less likely to switch to Poroshenko’s political church than to a neutral and apolitical arbiter.

Moreover, the aggressive and pushy publicity for Poroshenko’s fake piety may have the opposite of the intended effect for many: they are realizing that his church rhetoric has nothing to do with genuine faith.

In a way, his evolution into a quasi-bishop resembles that of businessman Alexander Petrovsky, known as Narik (Junkie).

Narik, who has been described by Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko as a mafia boss, stood by the side of Poroshenko and Epiphanius in Dnipro in December and during the granting of the independence tomos on January 6. Narik, a major sponsor of Orthodox churches, is closely connected with top government figures and denies being a mafia boss.

A copy of Russia

The irony is that, while banging on about independence from Russia, Poroshenko is thus turning the Orthodox Church of Ukraine into an identical copy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church is a subservient political tool of the Kremlin, and Poroshenko is transforming the Ukrainian church into his own public relations firm.

Just like Poroshenko, Russia’s eternal president, Vladimir Putin, has used religious agenda to divert attention away from the corruption and authoritarianism of his regime, economic difficulties and rigged elections. This included hysteria over the case against members of the Pussy Riot punk band who were jailed in 2012 for two years for singing in a church.

In the same way as Putin and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, Poroshenko has bussed in public-sector employees to attend his tomos tour rallies to imitate sincere popular support.

Poroshenko’s religious agenda is a fig leaf intended to offset and replace much more important issues: Poroshenko’s utter failure to reform Ukraine and his efforts to block and sabotage the reforms; his decision to spearhead corruption rather than fight it, with Ukraine remaining as one of Europe’s most corrupt countries; the utmost poverty of Ukrainian citizens, with Ukraine being one of Europe’s poorest countries; the Poroshenko regime’s crackdown on human rights and liberties and his increasing authoritarian tendencies.

When asked by an activist on January 18 when he would start fighting corruption instead of staging his circus tricks with the tomos, Poroshenko called him an “unbeliever” and “Russian provocateur” and urged him to go to church and pray. Poroshenko’s use of sham devoutness to make up for the greed and corruption of his government is so ridiculous that it requires no comment.

The theater of the absurd reached its apogee when a pensioner was photographed kissing Poroshenko’s hand during his tomos tour on January 17. In his new imaginary world, he now sees himself as a medieval king blessing his slavish subjects with divine grace.

Another peak of insanity came on January 16, when Poroshenko claimed that the tomos was more important than victory in the war with Russia.

With this tirade Poroshenko shot himself in the foot since he’s always been using the war with Russia as the most important thing ever and a universal excuse for all his failures. But it has also offended veterans of the war with Russia and those devoted to fighting the aggressor.

Pseudo-religious babble has now superseded everything else. Poroshenko has apparently forgotten his claim in November that Russia was on the verge of launching a full-blown invasion of Ukraine.

In November, Russia committed an act of open aggression, illegally seizing three Ukrainian boats on the border between Ukraine’s internationally recognised territorial waters and neutral waters and capturing 24 Ukrainian sailors. Poroshenko also seems to have forgotten the fate of the sailors: he’s busy donning priestly attire.

Back to the Middle Ages

Religion is part of the increasingly archaic and outdated agenda that Poroshenko is pushing: it is summarised in the triad “faith, language, army.” As developed countries are making progress on space technology, 3D printing and genetic engineering, Poroshenko – like Putin – is embracing an increasingly obscurantist, irrational and obsolete ideology.

Poroshenko’s religious circus is yet another proof that, contrary to his claims, he’s steering Ukraine away from Europe, Enlightenment rationalism and the European liberal values of the separation of church and state and freedom of worship. Instead of modernising and reforming the country, he is turning the clock back and trying to transform it into an isolated island of archaic bigotry.

If Poroshenko is re-elected, this irrational illiberalism will be set in stone, and Ukraine will drift further away from its people’s aspirations to be part of a secular and free Europe. Thus the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted Yanukovych, the brutally authoritarian and pro-Russian archetype of a post-Soviet oligarch, in favour of European values, will be ultimately defeated.

Indeed, European officials and taxpayers should pay more attention to Ukrainian politicians walking the walk rather than them talking the talk.

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