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Church-state relations: What the new year has in store for us.

08.01.2008, 14:41
Volodymyr MARUSHCHENKO, national deputy of Ukraine, senior assistant head of the Christian Democratic Union

Volodymyr MARUSHCHENKO, national deputy of Ukraine, senior assistant head of the Christian Democratic Union

On the eve and at the beginning of the new year, we traditionally express our wishes and expectations for the year both in the personal and general social context. The religious sphere is undoubtedly an integral and important part of it. Therefore, it appears quite natural to share one’s thoughts about the near prospects of further development of church-state relations.

First of all, one would like to express the expectation that Ukraine’s Parliament of this convocation will prove to be more sensitive to the urgent questions of development of the above-mentioned relations, and the respective expectations of churches and their faithful. Let me recall that 70-75 % of the citizens of Ukraine, that is, the overwhelming majority of our electorate, declare religious belief. And, despite the fact that not all of them are really part of a church, questions regarding the possibility to freely confess one’s faith, realize one’s religious convictions in practice, and freely conduct the socially significant activity of the churches are undoubtedly dear to a considerable part of our fellow-countrymen. Ignoring that fact is hardly a responsible attitude to society and the state. Nevertheless, as we know, during the year of its activity, the Parliament of the previous convocation never managed to approve a single bill aimed at ensuring freedom of worship and promoting the activity of religious organizations, or to solve at least one of the urgent questions in this area. The majority did not support proposals on granting churches and religious organizations the right to establish general educational institutions and granting religious organizations the right to permanent use of land lots of state and communal ownership, which were formulated both by the head of the Christian-Democratic Union, National Deputy V. Stretovych, and his colleagues from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc faction.

Of course, corresponding legislative initiatives will be submitted for Parliament’s consideration at the beginning of this year as well. I hope they will be supported both by the members of the democratic coalition and by our colleagues from other factions, especially those who declare that they are not indifferent to social-religious questions. Let me recall that the above-mentioned bills were supported by the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which include religious associations representing 90-95 % of religious organizations in Ukraine, particularly, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church[-Moscow Patriarchate], Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and others, particularly leading Protestant religious associations.

Solving urgent questions of the further development of church-state relations will depend to a considerable extent on the realization of their importance for the whole Ukrainian society not only by the deputies but also by the members of the government. The previous government was not known for its sensitivity to the proposals and expectations of religious organizations. I sincerely hope that, having proclaimed spirituality as one of its foundation stones, this government will implement it in its practical activity in the interests of the spiritual rise of our society. Let me recall that, during the discussion of the draft state budget for 2008 in the session hall, I raised the question of religious organizations being put in an unequal position compared to commercial structures due to the introduction of the practice of letting out land lots of state and communal property exclusively through the mechanism of auction. On the other hand, as of today religious organizations have the chance to receive land lots for their use only on a rental basis. Therefore, it seems, they should be an exception; otherwise few of them could receive more or less fitting land lots for the construction of church buildings, not having funds necessary for victory in an auction. I hope that the necessity of making such an exception from the general rule will be supported by the government and will find its reflection in the draft alterations to the law “On the state budget of Ukraine for 2008.” For if the present system is preserved, an attractive land lot will be used for the construction of another casino, restaurant, or commercial and entertainment center rather than a new church.

It would also be expedient for the government to envisage in the above-mentioned draft alterations to the law on the state budget regarding charges for renting real estate of state and communal ownership, which charges are established for religious organizations. For it is not a secret that many of them, regardless of their denomination, are compelled to rent buildings of state and communal organizations to hold religious services and conduct other socially significant activities there, particularly charitable and social activities, due to the lack of their own buildings and difficulties in receiving land lots for their use. At the same time, due to the current system, they have in many cases to pay so much money to cover rental costs that they are compelled to close their charitable programs.

Of no less importance for religious organizations, and especially urgent in view of another rise in the price of natural gas, is the problem of paying for natural gas. As we know, as of today, religious institutions pay for gas equally at the same rate as commercial structures, even though religious institutions have non-profit status and are by nature not subjects of business activity. All the previous attempts of the religious community to solve that problem through fixing for them the same gas rates as for the general population were not successful, because the government just gave formal replies instead of solving the problem, as it apparently was not willing to reduce slightly the profits of the gas suppliers. At the same time, the members of the government will hardly be comfortable in churches without heat, where they will come at least on holy days, not to mention people who regularly attend services.

For this government, the necessity to repair the mistake of 2005 is a question of honor and responsibility for the churches and their faithful. I mean the abolition in March 2005 by the law “On the state budget of Ukraine for 2005” of benefits for religious organizations as regards the exemption from the value-added tax of objects of religious use which are brought into Ukraine. As a result, religious organizations have to pay the tax in question also when they bring in prayer books, particularly Bibles and Gospels, which have to be printed abroad due to the lack of technical possibilities in Ukraine. It is obvious that the interests of the spiritual education of our fellow-countrymen, raising the spiritual and moral level of society, require the renewal of the above-mentioned benefit for religious organizations as soon as possible, which would help to spread spiritual literature among the citizens.

One would like also to hope that, at the latest during this convocation, we will be able to pass in Parliament a law on the restitution of former religious property to churches and religious organizations, as well as a new wording of the law of Ukraine “On freedom of worship and religious organizations,” which will better fit the present social realities, and the interests of all-around ensuring freedom of worship and promoting the activity of religious institutions. It would also be expedient to return to the discussion and, later, to passing the plan of further development of church-state relations in Ukraine as a law.

The one and a half months of activity of the Parliament of this convocation have already demonstrated the greater attention of the deputies to questions of social and religious life than in 2006-2007. I mean the submitted bill of a member of our faction, R. Tkach, on the procedure of registering religious organizations and the bill of O. Feldman on the restitution of religious property to religious organizations, which documents now belong to the National Archive Foundation, and the establishment of an inter-faction association “in support of the canonical Orthodox church in Ukraine.”

As for the latter, there is no doubt that each person, including a national deputy, may have his own religious beliefs and belong to a particular religious community. At the same time, proceeding from the Constitution of Ukraine and from the very notion of “national deputy of Ukraine,” it appears that national deputies should care in their activity not only about the interests of their own religious structure, but of the whole Ukrainian society, which is multi-denominational. If representatives of the Party of Regions really aspire to be a party of all-Ukrainian scale, they should not forget about this. As for the Communist Party, which has recently positioned itself as the only defender of the interests of the Orthodox in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, one is sorry for a church which is “defended” by yesterday’s aggressive unbelievers of the Communist Party or the “Progressive Socialist Party.” In this context, one may only welcome the courage and determination with which the church community of the UOC[-MP] has separated itself from another “defender,” V. Kaurov [head of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine].

Let me remind you that similar associations were also established in the past, during the 3rd and 4th convocations of Parliament. At the same time, in practice they never managed to do anything in the interests of the whole religious community or the development of church-state relations, or even in the interests of the religious association in “defense” or support of which they were allegedly established. As for the previous convocation, the factions of the Communists and the Party of Regions unanimously voted against the mentioned bills, despite letters in support thereof which were sent to the heads of the factions and signed personally by Metropolitan Volodymyr [Sabodan, head of the UOC-MP]. Therefore, it seems important not just to make advances to certain believers pretending to be their “defenders,” but to feel genuine responsibility for them and to work daily in the interests of the whole religious community of Ukraine.

In conclusion, I would like to note that the position of national deputies on religious questions, as well as that of a considerable part of other citizens of Ukraine, is to a considerable extent conditioned by the information which they get from the mass media of Ukraine. Therefore, their role in the formation of public opinion, especially in this context, is extremely important. That is why I, as well as my other colleagues from the Christian Democratic Union, am concerned over the increase of the number of cases of intolerant and biased coverage by the mass media of the activity of religious communities, questions of church-state and interdenominational relations. Such cases not only hurt the religious feelings of many citizens of Ukraine but also are not conducive to the establishment of social harmony and provoke interdenominational and ethnic conflicts and manifestations of biased attitudes of officials. It is no accident that such manifestations of intolerance of certain media have provoked corresponding reactions from interdenominational, religious, and civic organizations. We undoubtedly support freedom of speech, but that freedom should be inseparably linked with the realization by workers of the mass media of their high social role and, consequently, their responsibility to society and the citizens forming it, regardless of their religious identity. However, one rarely comes across objective coverage of socially significant activities of religious institutions in our media, despite the tremendous scale of the charitable and social ministry conducted by them. Therefore, I am pleased to mention the RISU site, whose work is a worthy example of professional, objective and tolerant covering of events of religious life, the activities of religious communities, and collisions of church-state and interdenominational relations.

I would like to use this opportunity to greet all the readers on occasion of the beginning of the new year and Christmas and to wish us all new strength, inspiration, and dedication in the development of Ukraine and serving our people.