Ukrainian Orthodox Church under pressure in Crimea
When Russia took control of Crimea in 2014, its forces * took control of key military and government sites on the Ukrainian peninsula. They also targeted another institution – the branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is centered in Kiev and not Moscow.
Russian forces have singled out churches, looting some, while calling their leaders “Nazis” and “rozkolniki” or “those who broke,” a reference to the church’s split from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).
Today, leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), as it is officially called, claim that the de facto Crimean authorities are persecuting what remains of their church, pushing them to the brink. of oblivion.
“The Russian occupation authorities have done everything to ensure that the religious atmosphere of the peninsula is similar to theirs [Russia]; that is, loyal and controllable, âArchbishop Yevstratiy (Zorya), official spokesperson for the church, said in a statement. recent interview with RFE / RL.
Archbishop Klyment, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea, told RFE / RL that eight churches and four priests were all that was left of their church on the Black Sea Peninsula.
Only those who show allegiance to Moscow enjoy religious freedom in Crimea, according to a leading human rights group based in Ukraine.
Others speak of a larger campaign.
According to the US Democracy Observatory Freedom House, the persecution of the church is only part of the Kremlin’s crackdown in Crimea against everything associated with Ukraine, while Human Rights Watch says Russian authorities in Crimea have created a climate of fear and repression. “
For many Ukrainians, this is just a battle in the Kremlin’s war against an independent Ukraine and comes as President Petro Poroshenko lobbies to institutionalize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s break with Moscow. “Ukraine is closer than ever to establishing its own autocephalous local church,” Poroshenko said on April 17 at a meeting with Ukrainian party leaders.
Favored Moscow Friendly Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is being offered any help by the local de facto authorities, according to Archbishop Yevstratiy. “Their priests were even honored for their role in the annexation of the peninsula,” he adds.
The new Crimean rulers have created bureaucratic roadblocks to screen religious organizations suspected of disloyalty.
After annexation in 2014, they demanded that all religious organizations and communities in Crimea re-register under Russian law, including the obligation to add in official documents that Crimea is part of Russia, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).
“Our church did not recognize Crimea as Russia. We refuse to register in accordance with their legislation,” Archbishop Yevstratiy said, adding that this would effectively legitimize the occupation of Russia.
Church priests rejected Russian citizenship, prompting many to flee to other parts of Ukraine. All this prevents the church from paying the communal charges, which are then used to allow confiscation of property, according to KHPG.
Remaining churches targeted
Archbishop Klyment says there are three cases against the church currently pending in Crimea. âOne concerning a church in Sevastopol; another against a church in the village of Perevalne; the third on the legality of the actions of the judicial officers, which on August 31  in fact, committed theft on the administration of the diocese, “he explains, referring to a police action on the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha, the main cathedral of the church in Simferopol.
At the start of that fateful day, armed men, some masked, acting on the orders of the Russian authorities who control Crimea, burst into the cathedral in an attempt to gain control, injuring Archbishop Klyment in a scuffle as he attempted to block them. They took away icons, crosses, rugs and other valuables.
The action came after Russian-installed courts in Crimea ruled in January 2017 that the church must move out of the cathedral’s first floor and pay a fine of one million rubles ($ 16,000) for not have re-registered with the new authorities.
Ukrainian identity symbol
Archbishop Yevstratiy said the church was the target of authorities installed by the Kremlin because it is a symbol of Ukrainian identity. âThe Kyiv Patriarchate – it is not only a religious community, but a bulwark of the Ukrainian community. It is for this reason that the UOC-KP is such a thorn in the side of the Kremlin, which tries to all possible ways to limit and expel us from Crimea, âhe explains.
Freedom House says that “anything associated with Ukraine” is “now taboo” in occupied Crimea. âThe Ukrainian language, Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches, Ukrainian political parties, Ukrainian-language media and virtually everything associated with Ukraine are now taboo in occupied Crimea, preventing residents from enjoying a free social, cultural and political life. , he said in a 2017 report.
“Not only is the Ukrainian identity suppressed, but a Russian is supported in a far-reaching effort to Russify the peninsula,” Freedom House concludes.
Human Rights Watch says the Russian authorities “have severely restricted the protection of human rights and created a climate of fear and repression in Crimea.”
âThe space for freedom of expression, freedom of association and the media in Crimea has shrunk considerably, and the majority of pro-Ukrainian activists and media have been expelled. Under international law, Russia, as the occupying power, is responsible for the influx of human rights violations in Crimea, âsays Yulia Gorbunova, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Where is the Archbishop of Moscow?
Metropolitan Lazar of the Moscow Patriarchate in Crimea largely refrained from commenting on the annexation or the wider conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Archbishop Yevstratiy said.
But Lazar has been praised more than once by the authorities installed by the Kremlin on the peninsula, he continues, adding that Metropolitan Lazar has participated in official events in Crimea.
Additionally, Lazar is free to travel to the rest of Ukraine to meet metropolitan residents from across the country. After the annexation of the peninsula, the Crimean dioceses of the UOC-MP did not officially become the âcanonical territoryâ of the Russian Orthodox Church and remained under the metropolis of Kiev.
The capture of Crimea as well as the Euromaidan revolt before it broke a religious rupture that first appeared during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Primate Filaret broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. He argued that an independent Ukraine deserves a truly independent national church from Moscow.
During the 2014 protests that led to the ousting of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, clergy from the Kyiv Patriarchate blessed anti-government protesters and helped build barricades themselves.
The Moscow Patriarchate remained above the fray, pray for reconciliation and encouraging dialogue.
However, the split between the Moscow and Kiev branches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has never received the blessing of the international Orthodox community.
In the midst of the ongoing conflict with Moscow, Poroshenko gives new impetus to Bartholomew I, head of the Pan-Orthodox Council, to recognize the UOC-KP as the only official Orthodox church in Ukraine. âAs President, I have decided to ask the Ecumenical Patriarch, His Holiness [Bartholomew] to grant the “tomos” of an independent Ukrainian church, more precisely local autocephalous, “Poroshenko said at a meeting with parliamentary party leaders on April 17.
Returning to Crimea, despite the current difficulties, Archbishop Yevstratiy and other church members remain defiant and surprisingly optimistic. “We believe that every day brings us closer to the time when in Simferopol, Sevastopol and other Crimean cities it will be possible to pray in Ukrainian.”
* CORRECTION: This article has been amended to remove reference to âRussian-backed separatistsâ in Russia’s takeover of the Crimean region of Ukraine.
Written by Tony Wesolowsky using material from RFE / RL’s Crimean office