2016: religion between politics and geopolitics
The year 2016 showed how religion becomes hostage to political and geopolitical intrigue. The RISU correspondent spoke with Victor Yelenskyy, the head of the subcommittee on freedom of conscience and church-state relations of the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Spirituality, on major religious events and processes in 2016. The war in Syria, meeting in Havana, PanOrthodox Synod in Crete, elections in the United States, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine – all these events combine both the religious and political aspects. And the religious is an object here, not subject.
“The war with the Islamic state hereafter becomes a matter not only of governments, military and politicians but also of scholars”
- Throughout, 2016 some interesting theological and religious works were published, despite the war, many churches, people went on pilgrimage, attended mass worship. But now I would like to talk about the events of religious life of primarily political, and even geopolitical importance. Indeed, in 2016 in addition to spiritual feats there were events that struck the world for its inhumanity. I mean the Islamic state, first of all.
“Islamic State” - we conventionally use this name to refer to the terrorist organization that has literally become a cancer of the whole the world. There are no such crimes it would not commit – both against humanity and against human conscience and against human culture. In 2016, the IS committed terrorist attacks in Berlin and Istanbul, Nice and Brussels. In the areas liberated from terrorists last summer 72 mass burials were found consisting of victims tortured by fanatics, approximately 15 thousand people. On the verge of extinction are the Yazidis – a unique ethnic and religious group with their distinctive religion and culture. In March 2016, the first US House of Representatives unanimously declared the action of the IS against the Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslim a genocide.
Last year we learned about the multiple crimes of this organization, whose victims were Muslims and non-Muslims, women, children, journalists, as well as cultural heritage. Last year the study made by the World Bank was published, which confirmed what serious researchers have cried out for more than 20 years. Terrorism under the banner of Islam is not triggered by poverty or lack of education. Only 2% of ISIS fighters are illiterate; many of them have higher or incomplete higher education, immigrants from Europe and Central Asia have an average level of education, and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa are more educated than their compatriots.
Thus, the war with the IS then becomes a matter not only of governments, military and politicians, but of theologians as well. On the one hand, we see a harsh condemnation of IS by such religious authorities as the Supreme Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Chairman of the World Union of Islamic scholars Yusuf al-Qaradawi, 126 Sunni imams from around the world, 70,000 Muslim leaders of India, heads of many national Muslim associations and others. On the other hand, there is no certainty whether the IS has urged mobilization of the forces in Islam which reject not only the atrocities committed by ISIS fighters but militant Islam as such.
- Regarding the two-billion Christian community – was there an event in the Christian world in 2016 that you would clearly highlight?
- Yes, it is the Pan-Orthodox Synod. This is really an outstanding event. Even if the Church historians consider incorrect the often repeated “for the first time in 1229 years” and they point to an important role, for example, of the Councils of Constantinople of 1077-1084, 1156, 1166, 1341, 1347 and 1351, the Synod of 2016 is historic. Thus, it did not become a breakthrough, neither it responded to the challenges of the century posed to Orthodoxy, speaking in the biblical language, “neither cold nor hot,” it rather demonstrated the depth of inter-Orthodox problems than of the Inter-Orthodox solidarity, revealing all vanity and irresponsibility of measuring themselves in fame in the Orthodox world, but it did take place. Orthodoxy is not known to have any superior bishop or some earthly “collection point” so to speak. It manifests its integrity in conciliarity. Orthodoxy becomes a church in its conciliarity, and not a confederation of local churches. Therefore, this Synod, the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, the concept of which dates back to the nineteenth century, is important in itself.
Initially, as we remember, it had to discuss 120 issues, until the 1970s only the list of ten remained, while in 2016 - only the list of six. The decision to adopt the Synod’s resolutions by consensus was very controversial and expectedly counterproductive – it is hard to imagine what would have happened if the Fathers of Ecumenical Councils had endorsed their decisions this way. The Council members would have to seal ready decisions in the stead of debate on the most complicated issues. They did not even mention the codification of canon law or review of the rules, a great number of which cannot be implemented or belong to the reality of slaveholding or feudal formations.
The last stage of preconciliar preparation wallowed in intrigues, vanity strife, hasty calculations. Politics had triumphantly dominated theology. Moscow tried to formalize its special status in the fullness of Orthodoxy, on which Patriarch Kirill had insisted for several years contrary to canon law (“We are legal heirs of Byzantium ...”), capriciously and constantly threatened the See of Constantinople to disrupt the Council. The fact that the Council took place without the participation of the Russian Church (also missing were Antioch, Bulgarian and Georgian Churches), has placed the Moscow Patriarchate in an awkward position. First, it lost an important tool of blackmail on Constantinople, secondly, it participated in the preparation and coordination of all documents of the Council, which ultimately it did not attend. Therefore, its spokespersons failed to adequately explain its absence (apart from “high” politics and lust for Pan-Orthodox domination).
Although the Ukrainian issue was not on the Council agenda (as well as any controversial issue), it was clearly materialized in its atmosphere. A statement by Serbian Patriarch Irenaeus that the issue concerns the entire Orthodox Plenitude, not only the Moscow Patriarchate, was quoted by journalists no less frequently than the Council’s documents on marriage or mission of the Church. However, unfortunately, the Council participants did not find it possible to at least draw attention to the fact that Russia, where the majority are Orthodox believers, and is waging aggressive war against Orthodox Georgia and Ukraine.
“Protection of Christians” in Syria is a suitable legitimation of military presence there"
- The document adopted following the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at Havana airport has turned to be not too friendly toward Ukraine...
- Havana Declaration is a complex and eclectic document. It is apparently made out of two different cloths. Where we find “we are brothers, not rivals,” longing for the lost unity and call for its restoration – it is the Catholic side. The method of “Uniatism,” “parties to the conflict in Ukraine,” “overcoming the schism between the Orthodox Ukraine based on the canonical rules,” etc. – it is, of course, the Moscow Patriarchate.
Moscow’s draft of the Declaration, and I can confirm that, contained also the “civil war” and “dissenters” and condemnation of “the fruit of the union” – that is, primarily, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The final text contains nothing of the kind. But it contains the Middle East and North Africa as regions of persecution of Christians, but does not mention North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea, Iran or Turkmenistan. Because it is not there that Russia is waging "holy war" but in Syria. And “protection of Christians” in this country is its suitable legitimation.
It was very audacious of the UGCC patriarch as a Catholic hierarch to have expressed a principled position regarding the Havana Declaration. Patriarch Sviatoslav said that it was difficult to imagine a weaker team than the one that had drafted the document (Cardinal Walter Koch and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev) and sharply criticized the Declaration’s content. In his opinion, it whitewashes the Moscow Patriarchate, which supports the Russian aggression against Ukraine and sacralizes the war in Syria, not identifying Russia as the aggressor and instigator of war and imposes a shared responsibility on the aggressor and the side that resists aggression. Patriarch Svyatoslav implicitly argues that the Declaration is contrary to the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and promises that his church, which dealt with more than one such statement will stand this as well. Instead, the sacrifice of the martyrs of faith of the twentieth century, which for some is a stumbling block in the foreign policy constructs, is the foundation on which the future of all Christians is being built.
- But the was a lot of criticism of the Declaration from the Orthodox side...
- Indeed, Orthodox fundamentalists simply attacked the text and the very fact of the meeting. But note: responses of the Moscow Patriarchate to the charges were quite in the spirit of Putin’s propaganda. That is continuous surreptitious wink and doublespeak – “Yes, this is just make-belief, we hate them more than you do, but there are higher interests,” etc.
- Does the Pope understand it?
- For the Pope, the meeting and Declaration are a step toward Christian unity. In his view, for the sake of “eternity” you can concede something of the present time. Some believe these concessions are excessive. For example, he said nothing in defense of Cuban dissidents during his visit to the island or in defense of gays during a visit to Uganda, where there are draconian laws against homosexuals. He does not condemn Russian aggression, because he understands that it will make his contacts with the ROC impossible.
But I think that the Pope does not fully realize, what dependent is Patriarch Kirill as a player. How narrow is the passage in which he is to move. Havana for Patriarch Kirill is the performance of Putin's objectives. The country is in isolation and the patriarch is involved to “fight at the foreign policy frontline.” Although it promises him serious internal damage. Despite the fact that he cares about Christian unity the least.
- Does Putin appreciate it?
- I believe that Putin himself does not rely on Orthodoxy as the internal “bonds.” Although as a foreign policy tool, it becomes clear and close to him. Therefore, he stresses that Orthodoxy is what Russia and Ukraine still have in common, the Russian, he personally reunites the church abroad to the Moscow Patriarchate, competing for property of the Orthodox Cathedral in Nice and advising the hierarch of Amur region to convert to Orthodoxy neighboring Chinese people.
In general, Putin's position in the religious issue during his presidency suffered a significant metamorphosis. If you remember, in 2000 answering to the question of CNN host Larry King “Are you a believer? What are your views on religion?” Putin replied that he believes in man, in his good intentions.
In the next stage, he already remembers how he got baptized in the church, behaves in the church as a churched person who knows the peculiarities of Orthodox worship and appears in the temple, where, of course, the television coverage is provided.
Then comes the third stage: Putin considers Orthodoxy as an ideology and instrument for reintegration of the former Soviet Union. However, in his entourage Orthodoxy competes with Eurasianism, which is more “empire-forming” and thus more operational. Putin was trying to connect these lines, so he told in 2010 that our country confesses Eastern Christianity, Orthodoxy, and some theorists say that it is in many respects closer to Islam than to Catholicism.
From there follows the current stage – Orthodoxy as unconditional antithesis of the West. This function of Orthodoxy, so to speak, is a common thread not only in the Patriarch’s speeches, but also in the constructs of Kremlin officials. It was very clearly stated by Foreign Minister of Russia Lavrov: “Russia has returned to its traditional values, its Orthodox origins, and therefore has become even less understandable for the West than in the Soviet times.”
2016 marked another global event – the US presidential election, in which religion usually plays a certain role...
- Americans would not be “a nation with the soul of the Church,” as Chesterton said about them if religion did not play any role in their presidential election. Recall, for example, Trump trying to discredit Mrs. Clinton’s religiosity. At a private meeting, which Republican pastor Jackson shared on web, Trump says that no one knows about Clinton’s religiosity. Although it appears to be just the opposite: Mrs. Clinton once told about her growing faith in the Methodist Church and how this faith led her in political life. While Trump once said he does not believe in heaven and hell, and only during the campaign made the audience laugh referring in his speech to the Second Epistle to the Corinthians as “two Corinthians.”
But in any case, in these elections, unlike, say, those of 2004, let alone 1960, religion has not played such a significant role. And 40% of Americans said that the role of religion in this election is very small. The preferences of American voters based on their religious affiliation remained unchanged compared with 2012 and 2008. “Born again” white Evangelists unconditionally supported Trump, while and Hispanic Catholics, Jews and non-religious Americans supported Clinton. It always has been the case – the first voted for the Republicans, others for the Democrats. The question of the level of support, for example, of Obama in 2008 and was higher both among Hispanic Catholics, and the non-religious, and white Protestants.
Incidentally, the US has consistently performed various assessments of religious influence in certain areas of human life. One of them, carried out in 2016, made interesting conclusions. It turns out that deeply religious Americans devote more time to their families, local communities, are more involved in volunteering and are happier. And this applies to the situation within the same churches and denominations, for example, the Catholics who attend church occasionally, are less “family-centered” and happy than their co-religionists who attend services weekly. However, I should add to be fair, the studies have found no significant differences between the deeply religious and non-religious issues of social consciousness or attitudes towards the environment.
“Mention of persecution, and necessarily – the unprecedented persecution, became indispensable refrain in the speeches of hierarchs of the UOC (MP). However, this Church enjoys absolutely all privileges.”
- This is quite interesting. And what is the religious situation in the Ukrainian context?
- In Ukraine, the war is ongoing, 467 Ukrainian soldiers were killed throughout 2016 and this certainly to a great extent determines the religious and social atmosphere of the country. War always exacerbates religious feelings. Rectors of cathedrals in large cities are talking about even greater number of people on holidays and ordinary days.
Similar observations have been confirmed to some extent, although not completely, by sociological studies. Numerous initiatives and daily service of many churches are connected to the war – care of the military and their families, service in hospitals, assistance to IDPs and victims of hostilities. In November, members of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations visited the ATO zone and approved an important appeal concerning the establishment of peace and progress of the Ukrainian society. Hierarchs and religious leaders urged the international community to do everything possible to preserve the territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of borders of Ukraine, including of Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas; to disarm those who seized them illegally, and those who came to the Ukrainian land as invaders; avoid hate speech in their expressions. The Appeal condemned human rights violations in the occupied territories, provides high assessment of the Ukrainian military and solidarity with the residents of Donbas, the residents of the cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, which were formerly occupied and further liberated Ukrainian army.
- How did the war affect interfaith relations?
- In some way, a common problem consolidated the religious environment. It has produced more common initiatives and less desire to do good only in own confessional circle. The level of religious tolerance also remained high. For example, according to the study by the Razumkov Center in 2016, 47% of respondents indicated that “any religion that proclaims ideals of goodness, love, mercy and does not threaten the existence of the other person has a right to exist.” Interestingly, before the war, in 2013, the same number of respondents chose exactly this answer - 47%. However, those who said that “only the religion I profess is true” was even less in 2016. Incidentally, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that despite the war, the guarantees of freedom of worship in Ukraine are fully complied, including guarantees of alternative (non-military) service for those who cannot take up arms in the case of military aggression against their country for the reasons of conscience.
- But the speeches and statements by hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and its media draw not quite an idyllic picture. They tell about persecution, pursuit, extreme hostility to this Church being stirred up...
- Mentions of persecutions, necessarily unprecedented, became an indispensable refrain in the speeches by hierarchs of the UOC (MP). Although this Church enjoys all the privileges that different religious organizations of Ukraine have, its clergy received state awards in 2016 and participated in ceremonial events, its communities were allocated land plots for the construction of monasteries – hectares of land.
The church – or rather, its hierarchs – remain on the same “earthly” positions that are badly perceived by Ukrainian society. They go on speaking of “fratricidal war,” alluding to the Ukrainian government as culprit of hostilities, constantly criticize Kyiv and never Moscow. They still ignore the annexation of Ukrainian lands and the Russian invaders. Very often the theses they voice are a continuation of the Opposition Bloc propaganda, which, in turn, transmits the statements of the Kremlin propagandists.
“Millions of believers are branded as ‘dissenters lacking God’s grace’ only because they believe in Jesus Christ, and not in the Moscow Patriarchate or the “Russian World.”
- Occasionally, columnists try to discern elements of resistance to the Moscow Patriarchate’s policy among the episcopate of the UOC (MP). How strong is this resistance?
- The resistance exists among the clergy. Specifically, a large mass does not resist, they simply live their life – that is, administers baptism, marriage, burial services. They live the life of their parishioners, not the “Russian world.” With the exception of just a few figures, there is almost no resistance among the hierarchs. Sometimes it seems that Patriarch Kirill is openly testing the limits of their forbearance. It will just suffice to mention the invitation of archpriest Andriy Tkachov to preach to the fathers of the Bishops’ Council in February 2016, who unceasingly repeated that Ukraine is a “vermin” which will “come out as grind meat” from the grinder of war, “disappear like Atlantis” etc. I have not heard any of Ukrainian bishops resent and recall that in their same social doctrine of the Church is opposed to the propaganda of war and violence, of hate that could provoke fratricidal conflicts. Similarly, participants of the said Bishops’ Council unanimously voted for the canonization of Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) – a KGB agent and the author of “Russian Ideology” (1939), who is rightly regarded as one of the forerunners of the “Russian world” doctrine.
And if, say, the leadership of the UOC-KP meets with US Ambassador to Ukraine, it speaks of aggression against Ukraine and the fight against corruption, while the leadership of the UOC (MP) speaks about the alleged persecution of the Church community. If the representatives of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations go to the Netherlands to convince political and religious circles of the country of the need to support Ukraine Association Agreement with the EU, the UOC (MP) attempts to convince the Ambassador of the Netherlands on Human Rights that their freedom of faith was violated. During the religious procession in July 2016, Metropolitan Onufriy generally argued that it was intended for people who hold “different political views.”
- In your opinion, was the religious procession organized as a political event?
- Certainly. Despite the motives that many of its participants were guided by. Check out and hear what was said by its troubadours. “Protest,” “clenched fist,” “revival of public activity,” “avalanche that would sweep the Nazis,” etc. Well, actually, if it is a “march for peace,” why it did not call to stop hostilities, shelling Ukrainian territory, mockery of the people and their religious feelings on the part of the aggressor country? Why the march organizers who continually travel to Moscow receiving awards from Patriarch Kirill and Putin never raise a voice in defense of Christians who are being tortured in the occupied territories and whose prayer building converted into barracks? If it is a “march for union,” then what union is it where the majority of Orthodox Ukraine, millions of believers are branded as the dissenters, devoid of God’s grace only because they believe in Jesus Christ, and not the Moscow Patriarchate or the “Russian world”?
- But UOC (MP) argue that the majority of belong to their Church. They refer to the results of sociological research ...
- It is a different story and it should be approached professionally. A research by “Ukraine Sociology Service” really showed that the believers of the UOC are more numerous than those of the UOC-KP. This contrasts with the results obtained in the survey carried out by the Razumkov Centre, where 25% of respondents identified themselves as faithful of the UOC-KP; about 20% consider themselves simply Orthodox and 15% of the respondents identified themselves as faithful of the UOC MP.
- The survey carried out by the Ukraine Sociology Service states that the number of faithful of the UOC MP prevails over those of the UOC-KP. It means, some of these researches ...
- A renowned Ukrainian sociologist and head of “Ukraine Sociology Service,” Alexander Vyshnyak or the sociological Service of the Razumkov Centre, which is highly reputed and studies religiosity of Ukrainians and their church affiliation since 1990s, can be hardly blamed of incompetence. This fundamental difference in the results is not due to differences in the sample selection and not even the fact that the Razumkov Centre, unlike “Ukraine Sociology Service,” has not carried out a survey in the Crimea and in the occupied territories of Donbas. The main thing is that the “Ukraine Sociology Service” asked about the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and not the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate” as the Razumkov Centre did. And the first service, unlike the second, did not offer respondents a choice “just Orthodox.”
- That is, the mere mention of the Moscow Patriarchate reduces the number of those who declare affiliation with the UOC (MP)?
- Yes, it does, and significantly. It was first observed in the first half of the 1990s. It is no accident, as you know, that Metropolitan Onufriy permitted to avoid commemorating at the liturgy Patriarch of Moscow where it causes confusion of the faithful.
By the way, the trust to Patriarch Kirill in Ukraine has dropped very significantly – by 25 percentage points in 2016 compared to 2010. The UOC (MP) Primate also enjoys much less trust – in this period the confidence level declined by 20 percentage points (more on the dynamics of trust to religious figures see on RISU website). And, accordingly, since 2010 the number of those who believe that the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church should remain an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church” has significantly decreased and the number of those who think that “The Orthodox of Ukraine should rally around the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate” and “The Orthodox Churches of Ukraine should unite as one church to seek independence.”
- To what extent did the Orthodox in Ukraine approached this independence in 2016?
- In Ukraine there is a large request for church unity and a unified local church. Surveys of public opinion show that slightly less than half of all respondents support it. For its part, as you know, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted the Appeal to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to recognize invalid the act of 1686 and to convene under its auspices the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Council on unification and issue the Tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Statements were positively perceived by society and negatively by the Moscow Patriarchate, the leadership of the UOC (MP) and Opposition Bloc. For his part, Patriarch Bartholomew created a special commission to solve Ukrainian issues.
“The Moscow Patriarchate does not separate their interests from the national agenda of the Russian Federation”
- The Moscow Patriarchate claims that the Ecumenical Patriarch is not in the position and is incapable to settle this issue. At least in a canonical way.
- Just in terms of canon law this is not much of the problem. Much has been written and said about it. For what concerns 2016, it is worth pointing out the works of recognized Byzantist scholar and patrologist V. Lurie (Bishop Gregory) and Constantine Vetochnikov of Byzantine Library College de France, which convincingly proved that no transfer of the Kyiv Metropolis to Moscow Patriarchate had taken place in in 1686. Moscow understands the extreme weakness of its claims to Ukraine from the canonical point of view and therefore relies solely on Russian state power and threatens with the internal Orthodox schism. Patriarch Kirill is constantly threatening with the gap between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Ecumenical Orthodoxy – a grand schism. In 2016, Patriarch puzzled the Orthodox world with hysterical, anti-Ukrainian statements, blasphemous from the point of view of Orthodox ecclesiology, that he would never let Kyiv go and never agree to shift the canonical borders of the Church, which he called sacred. This is an obviously non-canonical and anti-orthodox statement, which points to purely political motives of behavior of the Moscow Patriarchate. I am just wondering on what rules of Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church does the Moscow Patriarchate, boasting its observance of canons, relies now in this case?
- It is known that relations between Moscow and Constantinople have never been straightforward. How would you estimate their dynamics in 2016?
- It is not only and not so much relations between the two seats. The Moscow Patriarchate, which is constantly seeking for evidence of Ukrainian state interference in internal church affairs, does not separate their interests from the national agenda of the Russian Federation. The issue of pressure on the Ecumenical Throne became part of the Russian-Turkish intergovernmental negotiations and the campaign of defamation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and linking him to the military coup attempt of 15-16 July 2016 became the matter of Russian business intelligence and diplomacy. Just recall the infamous story of an article allegedly written by former US ambassador to Yemen, Arthur Hughes, who exposes alleged links Bartholomew, the CIA and Islamic theologian Gulen, whom Ankara blames of the coup preparation. The article expectedly led to the Russian media outlet “Oriental Review,” and Hughes expectedly claimed that he had never written anything of the kind. But the Russian media continue replicating this fake. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is no exaggeration to say that the anti-Constantinople efforts at a current stage even exceed those made in the USSR in the second half of the 1940s under Stalin’s Pan-Orthodox project. The Kremlin seriously cherishes the idea to make the Moscow Patriarchate the first in dignity in the Orthodox world and is stubbornly trying to push this issue forward in relations with both local Orthodox Churches, and with governments.
That is, the Ecumenical Patriarch has a tough row to hoe, but it is sincerely trying to help both the Ukrainian Church and Ukrainian people. But obviously, first and foremost, the Ukrainian people should help themselves.