Does the Ukrainian Government Fight against Orthodoxy or the Influence of Russia?

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At the end of November 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine began conducting searches in the churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (УПЦ МП) of the Moscow Patriarchate in various regions of the country. According to the security service, in November, counterintelligence operations were carried out in 350 churches, checking 850 people. According to the agency, the investigation identified a case of a clergyman providing information to the Russian side during the war, as well as propaganda literature and documents containing calls to switch to the Russian side.

On December 1st, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree on specific aspects of the activities of religious organizations in the country. According to the document, the representatives of religious organizations connected with Russia will be sanctioned. In his December 1st address, Zelenskyy stated that the complete freedom of Ukraine, including spiritual freedom, would be ensured, and no one would be allowed to “build an empire in the soul of Ukraine.” The security service continued the search in the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church in December. Based on the decree of December 1, sanctions were imposed on a number of clerics.

Kremlin propaganda media started labelling the investigative actions of the Security Service of Ukraine as “repressions against the canonical Orthodox Church” and persecution against it (1,2,3,4). According to the Russian media, the persecution of UOC serves to destroy the Orthodox identity of the Ukrainian population, because Orthodoxy is one of the main components of the “Russian world.”

After the activities carried out by the Security Service of Ukraine and the decision of President Zelensky, pro-Russian actors in Georgia actively started amplifying the narrative that “Zelensky’s regime” is fighting Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

On November 29th, in the “Alternative Vision” program of the pro-Kremlin “Alt-Info” TV, the host, Jaba Zhvania, stated that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (ПЦУ), which has obtained autocephaly, is “heretic,” while the church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate is canonical and is the one being persecuted. This topic was also discussed in the program of “Alt-Info” on December 15th, where the leader of the “Conservative Movement” party, Giorgi Kardava, asserted that Orthodox churches in Ukraine are being closed because of the alleged Russian influences.

On December 2th, the guest of the “Day Summary with Nikoloz Mzhavanadze” program of the pro-Kremlin Sezoni TV, Alexander Palavandishvili, said that the Orthodox Church is being persecuted in Ukraine against the background of pressure, pressure and censorship. Palavandishvili connected the “banning of the church” with the “Jewish origin” of the President of Ukraine; also, according to him, Zelenskyy himself declared that he is not a believer. On December 9th, in the same program, guest Tristan Tsitelashvili stressed that persecution of Orthodox people, destruction of churches and arrests of priests have started in Ukraine.

On December 12th, the Facebook page of Gia Gachechiladze, “აი უცნობი • i ucnobi,” published a fragment of the American channel Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight (1,2), in which the host of the program and his guest, journalist Glenn Greenwald, criticize Zelensky’s government and blame him for making tyrannical decisions. According to Tucker Carlson, Zelensky is fighting Orthodoxy and alternative opinions in the country, and in addition to fighting faith, he also banned all opposition parties.

In parallel with the security services of Ukraine entering the churches, the narrative about Zelenskyy fighting with Orthodoxy has been disseminated by individual Facebook accounts as well (1,2,3).

The claims that followed the activities of the security services of Ukraine, that the Government of Ukraine is fighting against Orthodoxy, are being disseminated in a manipulative way and present the existing situation around the Orthodox Church in Ukraine without the whole context.

  • Two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and the Russian Influences

There are two Orthodox churches in Ukraine – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of Moscow (Українська православна церква Московського патриархату – УПЦ МП) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Православна церква України – ПЦУ). The latter, in its current form, was formed on December 15th, 2018, at the Council, by uniting all the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, as well as two metropolitans of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). On January 5th, 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople signed the Tomos of Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Currently, the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is recognized by the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus and Alexandria, and the Orthodox Churches of the whole of Africa.

The majority of the Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are followers of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (ПЦУ). As of 2021, according to a survey by the Kyiv Institute of International Sociology, 58.3% of Orthodox Christians identified themselves as followers of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (ПЦУ) compared to 25.4% who follow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). The institute’s data show that between 2020 and 2021, support for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine increased, while support for its Russia-linked counterpart decreased. It is also worth noting that after the start of the war in 2022, the support of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in the country decreased even more – by May, about 400 parishes left the church and became part of the OCU.

On the day the war started, Patriarch Onofre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) condemned the Russian aggression and called on Putin to end the war. However, he called this war “the repeated sin of Cain”, which emphasizes the “brotherhood” of the Ukrainian and Russian people. Political independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, but not autocephaly, was declared by UOC only on May 27th. However, in a later statement, it was explained that the institution benefited from independence for the last 30 years; the church simply emphasized this status once again but never broke the “spiritual bond with the Moscow Patriarchate.” According to Sergey Bortnik, professor of the Kyiv Theological Academy, the UOC no longer considers the decisions of the Moscow Patriarchate as binding, but it does not completely cut ties with it either. According to him, the church made this decision for the state and the Ukrainian people. The professor also noted that the church needs to declare its independence so that the state does not accuse it of being connected with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Notably, the desire of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to separate from the Moscow Patriarchate did not only serve the purpose of avoiding the deterioration of relations with the Ukrainian government. The church also needed the support of the people, which has been decreasing in recent years. According to a poll conducted in April 2022, 74% of Ukrainians wanted the UOC to completely cut ties with Russia, while 51% supported banning it altogether.

In response to the declaration of independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarch Kirill of Russia noted that he “understood” the need for the UOC to act “wisely”, although the dioceses of the UOC in the annexed Crimea soon came under the direct jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill. Indeed, such actions raise the fear that in the event of the Kremlin’s success in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate will allow the existence of neither the autocephalous Church of Ukraine nor the Moscow-affiliated UOC.

Against the background of the desire to separate from the Moscow Patriarchate, the statement made by the UOC on May 12th, shortly before the declaration of independence, is significant. The statement says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was, to some extent, caused by the actions of the Ukrainian government and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It should also be taken into account that for years the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Onufri was a supporter of the “Russian world” doctrine. The concept of the “Russian world” is mainly based on the cultural, religious and historical unity of the Slavic people, and after the collapse of the USSR, it was significantly associated with the Russian diaspora in various countries. The idea of the Russian world makes the internationally recognized borders relative and brings all the states that had a common historical past with Russia into the sphere of Russian influence. Patriarch Kirill of Russia is an active supporter of the “Russian world” concept, and the church represents a soft power instrument for the Kremlin. The Russian Patriarchate actively repeats the Kremlin’s narratives. After the start of the war in February, Patriarch Kirill not only did not condemn Russia’s aggression but justified and supported it. He linked the emergence of the war in Donbas with the non-acceptance of Western values, “gay parades”. Patriarch Kirill also blessed the Russian generals, and in September, he announced that all the sins of the soldiers killed in the war in Ukraine would be forgiven.

Against the background of the fact that the clergymen of the UOC call the congregation to pray for peace and emphasize the brotherhood of the Russian and Ukrainian people, the position of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is unequivocal – it is necessary to fight for the protection of Ukraine.

  • Counterintelligence measures of the Security Service

The pro-Russian narratives seek to portray the investigative activity against the UOC as a fight against Orthodoxy in general, which in fact, ignores the majority of the country’s Orthodox Christians who are the followers of the Autocephalous Church.

Representatives of UOC deny any connection with the Kremlin; however, according to the security service, various pieces of evidence and documents were found on the territories of the churches, which connect the church with the aggressor. Among them: propaganda brochures, Nazi symbols, propaganda brochures of the banned party in Ukraine, “Opposition Party for Life”, propaganda books by Russian authors that justify aggression against Ukraine and calls for joining the Russian military forces, propaganda brochures with calls for peace with the “Brother Russian Nation” and Russian With texts in praise of the land and Russian soldiers, as well as dry food for the occupation groups. According to the security service, individuals connected to the Russian Federation were identified, and an investigation of these connections is underway. The documents, which contain calls to go to the side of Russia and justify the actions of Russia, are sufficient grounds for the initiation of criminal proceedings. Such documents can be classified as “production and distribution of information products intended for the propaganda of Russia’s actions” and “to justify, deny or consider Russia’s actions against Ukraine as fair.”

Source: Security Service of Ukraine (1,2,3)

Based on the information obtained by the security service, one of the priests of UOC was sentenced to 12 years in prison for passing information about the positions of the Ukrainian army to the Russian military forces. A criminal case was also initiated against one of the deacons of the UOC. According to the security service, he was agitating in the Zaporizhia Oblast to join Russia, denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian language on social media, and questioning Ukraine’s sovereignty.

  • Banning Russian-linked parties in Ukraine

Notably, among the documents listed by the Security Service of Ukraine were pamphlets of the “Opposition Party for Life” (ОПЗЖ) party. This party is among the 11 parties whose right to party activity was suspended due to the connection with Russia. ОПЗЖ leader is Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is his son’s godfather. Ukraine imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk in 2021. In addition, Medvedchuk is suspected of treason and financing terrorism. Ukraine’s Security Service arrested Medvedchuk in April. In September, Ukraine exchanged him with 55 Russian soldiers for 215 prisoners, including five commanders of the Azov regiment.

Due to the connection with Russia, the following parties have suspended their party activities in Ukraine:

  • “Opposition platform – for life” (ОПЗЖ)
  • “Sharia Party” (Партия Шария)
  • “Ours” (Наші)
  • “Opposition bloc” (Опозицийний блок)
  • “Leftist opposition” (Лива опозиция)
  • “Union of Left Forces” (Союз ливих сил)
  • “State” (Держава)
  • “Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine”
  • “Socialist Party of Ukraine” (Социалистика партия Украины)
  • “Socialists” (Социалисти)
  • “Block of Volodymyr Saldo” (Блок Володимира Сальдо)

Among the suspended parties, “Opposition platform – for life” is the only one that entered the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine after the 2019 parliamentary elections. Apart from the parties connected with Russia, the right to political activity for other opposition parties in Ukraine has not been suspended. Among the opposition parties represented in the parliament are former president Petro Poroshenko’s party “European Solidarity” (Європейська солидарніст), Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Batkivshchyna” party (Батькивщина) and “Voice” party (Голос).


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Violation: Manipulation
Country: Ukraine
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