Viktor Yelenskyi's column

Interference impossible to ignore, or what should the state do with religious policy?

10.09.2019, 11:16
Interference impossible to ignore, or what should the state do with religious policy? - фото 1
All states of the world have in place a policy regarding religion and associations that citizens set up based on this religion's ground. The atheistic government of China and theocratic government of Iran, the mighty United States and tiny Andorra – just every one of them.

Victor YelenskyyIn Ukraine, such a policy, as well as the state body to implement this policy are provided for by law. There have also been repeated attempts to formulate the principles for such a policy. In the case of democracies, it obviously needs to be a concentrated managerial activity aimed at full implementation of the Ukrainian law on freedom of conscience, granting religious organizations full capacity to exercise the essential functions inherent in the spiritual, social, caritative, educational, cultural sectors, promoting the Church as an institution in the consolidation of society, strengthening its morals and also activities in defending the interests of the country in the international arena.

Finally, in recent years, a significant and sometimes the most significant aspect of this policy of all Western democracies is constituted by what is called securitization of religion. We are referring to actions (sometimes – extraordinary actions, associated with the increased control by law enforcement agencies) aimed at eliminating, or, at least, neutralizing threats to lives and freedom of citizens, resulting from the abuse of religion by state actors, quasi-state and non-state actors.

To understand how successful/unsuccessful the policy of the Ukrainian state in the designated area has been in recent years, we must refer to objective indicators: changes in the legislative and regulatory framework, their modification and implementation; sociological research; international ratings; assessments of state and non-state reports on monitoring freedom of religion and belief.

For the sake of justice, let me note that the last years did not represent a leap from total darkness into the Realm of Justice. Therefore, it is crucial that during the years of Independence, Ukraine has occupied a decent position in the world rankings of religious freedom, and religious pluralism, while high competition between the centers of religious power undermined Yanukovych team's plans to plow the religious landscape of the country. However, it was throughout 2014-2019 that all the requests for a worthy presence of religious institutions in the public sector, which were put forward by the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and religious organizations to governments, Presidents and the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) for almost a quarter of a century, have been realized. Let me remind that during this time laws and regulations have been passed, which made possible the military chaplaincy and chaplaincy in the penitentiary institutions; the founding by religious organizations of educational institutions – from universities to kindergartens; licensing of theological educational institutions; recognition for clearly defined terms of their diplomas and defended dissertations; in a hundred years, Theology retuned back to national universities; religious communities got the opportunity to change their jurisdiction without hindrance in accordance with the international understanding of freedom of religion; the layers, which complicated the activities of religious associations (e.g., the notorious double registration) have been removed. Moreover, during the war, the state not only provided religious organizations with financial relief but also confirmed the right of their members to non-military (alternative) service.

A truly important breakthrough in the field of religious freedom was the recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as the 15th Autocephalous Church of the Orthodox Plenitude by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This removed the burden from the conscience of a large number of Orthodox believers in Ukraine, who were branded as “devoid of grace”, non-canonical and created further conditions for the withdrawal of the entire Orthodox community from the control of the religious center, which “by word and deed proved its dedication to the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.”

From 2014, the international ratings of religious freedom have been “measuring” it for Ukraine without Crimea (with the emphasis that this does not mean non-recognition of the Peninsula as part of Ukrainian territory), but with the occupied part of Donbass (again, stipulating that the Ukrainian state can not be responsible for the brutal violations of religious freedoms there). Specifically, the most authoritative rating of “government restrictions on religion” drawn up by Pew Research Center, defines these restrictions for Ukraine as ‘moderate’ and less tangible than in European countries such as Spain, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, France, not to mention Moldova and, especially, Belarus.

The latest rating also records an improvement in the rating of "governmental restrictions on religion" for Ukraine from 4.2 to 3.8 (for comparison-the worst among European countries is in Russia - 8.1, the best is 0.6 in San Marino, Belgium has 3.8 as well).

Among the sociological studies, it is worth to refer to the surveys by the Razumkov Center, which measures the religiosity of Ukrainians and their perception of state policy in the field of religion systematically, since 2000. Thus, in 2013, the statement “Ukraine maintains complete freedom of conscience and equality of religions before the law” was supported (in full or in part) by 65% of respondents and not supported by 21%. In 2018, 70% agreed with this statement, while 16% disagreed.

President Zelensky outlined the priorities of his religious policy in quite a lapidary manner: "the government should not interfere in church affairs, and I will protect the independence of the Church." It's hard to disagree. However, the Russian authorities do not refuse to interfere in church affairs – in the Ukrainian church affairs, too, doing it boldly, severely and on a large scale. Putin's convening of a meeting of the Security Council on Ukrainian autocephaly, the Chairman of the State Duma Committee, which bombarded Orthodox capitals requiring to ‘torpedo the Ukrainian scenario’, Russian hackers who tried to hack the e-mail boxes of the Constantinople hierarchs settling the Ukrainian issue, Russian diplomats who were expelled last year from Greece for the intention to bribe the metropolitans and so on constitute only the tip of the iceberg. At its foot is a whole army of diplomats, intelligence officers, counterintelligence agents under cover and without it, powerful and extensive propaganda networks, oligarchs and semi-oligarchs, who make multi-million dollar donations to the “religious front” of the war against Ukraine with varying degrees of voluntariness. Therefore, “protecting the independence of the Church” in Ukraine is impossible without a strong and well-articulated policy in this area. Moreover, without such a policy, outside the “social engineering” freedom of conscience as such can not be considered unthreatened. For none of the individual premises of such freedom, which are considered objective by its theorists, are really decisive. Economic freedom, political stability, legitimacy of the ruling regime, religious pluralism, etc. do not automatically entail the flourishing of freedom of conscience.

Therefore, first of all, in the implementation of policy in the field of religion, one needs to be aware that securitization of religion is not just about ISIS and Islamist terrorists, but also about the church policy of the Kremlin and the organized structured groups in Ukraine with relevant funding. These are the specific entities and people with known surnames who managed the process impeding free expression of religious feelings, conscious religious choice and exercise of the right to freedom of conscience by Ukrainian citizens. They did it, among other things, by blocking access of the faithful to their churches, including direct physical obstruction of religious sacraments and ceremonies, which is a direct violation of the Law “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations”, which is punishable under Article 80 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine; by preventing the Ukrainian Orthodox to enter the Orthodox Plenitude; by inciting enmity on the basis of attitude to religion; by discrediting Ukraine on all international platforms.

The aforesaid is being done to appoint thugs (titushkas) at the local level, who prowl in Ukraine, accompanied by the propagandists, and prevent believers from leaving the Moscow Patriarchate using clubs, no need for new laws implied. It is also being done for the purpose of taming the hierarchs who directly urged to disrupt conscription to the Ukrainian army. The fact that all the above has not been achieved is an obvious disadvantage of the religious policy implemented so far.

Once again, we are dealing not only and not so much with the Moscow Patriarchate, as with the Russian state. It doesn't miss the slightest chance to strike the most painful blow possible against Ukraine at the church front. The author had a "good" opportunity to repeatedly get ascertained thereof personally: both in Ukraine and abroad, in such different places as Strasbourg, Tbilisi or Dunhuang in the Chinese province of Gansu.

Securitization of religion in my understanding is not limited to police actions, to a strict application of laws in respect of those who pose a threat to the rights and freedoms of citizens and to the development of new laws that close loopholes for perpetrators. This is quite a complex set of measures, which includes the struggle for the minds of those who are the main object of religious abuse, and religious education, which makes society more tolerant and less vulnerable to manipulation.

Next, the second. The state should effectively support Ukrainian hierarchs and religious leaders in their efforts to strengthen the international coalition in support of Ukraine. It is difficult to overestimate what they have done to educate the Western public and religious media about Russian aggression, to contribute to the well-known UN Resolutions, the European Parliament, PACE, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, condemning religious persecution in annexed Crimea and occupied territories of Donbas. Moreover, not only primates and heads of numerous Churches but also representatives of denominations, the number of whose members in Ukraine is not large, have been doing a very important job here. Don't forget that in the U.S. Congress, for example, comprises now 10 Mormons, whose co-religionists mercilessly persecuted in the so-called ORDLO, and 72 Baptists, who are declared a "harmful Pro-Ukrainian sect" in "Luhansk People's Republic". An item on the agenda is the establishment of the Representation of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and religious organizations in the EU structures, which requires some assistance from the state. Again, this Representation will experience an extremely hostile attitude on the Part of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church. At least because the Representation of the ROC at the European international organizations pursues an absolutely political agenda. At the time, one of his supervisors Fr. Antony Ilyin said that he sees as its goal to organize "Orthodox intergroup" in the European Parliament; to achieve proclamation of Russian as the official language of the European Union; to ensure trilateral dialogue between the Orthodox Church, the European People’s Party and Putin's United Russia.

Third, state policy should unconditionally promote the active involvement of the Church institution in the development of the country. During the time of Independence, Ukraine has made significant progress towards the formation of a model of Church-state cooperation. This is natural because the regime of separation of Church and state implies in no country (except, perhaps, China and North Korea) that these two institutions can not and should not cooperate. Now such separation in Ukraine is predominantly perceived as an absolute marginalization of the institution of the Church than it was 25-20 years ago. But it is still perceived. Meanwhile, as Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler concluded in their study, only in 3.8% of the Western democracies the Church is firmly separated from the state. Moreover, I would add that in two of these democracies, which historically have the most consistent regime of separation, the nature of this regime differs significantly. If for France the separation is primarily non-interference of the Church in state matters, for the US it is the government's non-interference in the affairs of religious organizations. But neither France nor the United States has fundamental problems regarding the understanding of the need to finance military chaplains, as it was the case in Ukraine at the stage of discussing the concept of military clergymen service. I would also like to note that half of Western democracies pay salaries to clergyman, one-fifth of the countries restricts business activities on religious holidays in one way or another, one-third of them finance church charities, and more than 90% finances religious education or religious schools in different ways. In Ukraine, it seems that the introduction of the principle of subsidiarity, which organically fits into the policy of decentralization, will contribute to productive cooperation between Church and state. It is obvious that the implementation of the principle that social problems are solved at the grassroots level, making the solution possible and effective, will make hundreds, if not thousands of religious organizations the subject of direct social action. That will lead both to the rise of their members ‘social activity, and to the common good.

Under this review, it would be relevant to introduce the principle of percentage charity (the principle that the 8th convocation of the Verkhovna Rada has embodied in several bills, which never became a Law). We are talking about the principle when a citizen deducts one to one and a half percent of their personal income tax (this varies in different countries) for charitable purposes: culture, Church or sports. It does not just strengthen the material base of religious organizations, theaters or art schools, but “decentralizes” the country, contributes to the development of civil society and awareness of every citizen and taxpayer.

Fourthly, we must not forget that the human being is at the centre of the policy we are considering. They should enjoy the right to believe in what they consider worthy of belief and whose freedom of conscience can be limited only when they undermine the freedoms and rights of others (and even then, let me remind you, such restrictions should be clearly specified by law and be adequate for a democratic society). Therefore, one cannot rest satisfied that the right laws have been adopted, the necessary standards are effective, international ratings are not bad, and the leaders of various religious associations are happy. In fact, the architecture of this freedom must be constantly maintained, because the temptation to limit it is in the blood and flesh of the state. Especially if it concerns minorities or so-called “non-traditional religions”. Especially when the conventionality or unconventionality is determined by the taste of some official.

Therefore, in discussions about the body that should implement state policy on religion, I uphold the view that it should be strong. It should be strong to be able to protect country from disasters in this segment in case of the serious changes; in order to effectively promote the actualization of the social potential of religious organizations; to be able to protect the religious environment of Ukraine from continuous and violent attacks from outside and to protect the interests of the country and its religious organizations both inside and outside the arena; to be able to work out an effective model that would balance individual and group rights to freedom of conscience with reliable protectors of abuse of religion; in order not to admit a ‘Ternopil’ or ‘Zaporizhzhia’ policy in the religious sphere, and to advocate only and exclusively the Ukrainian one. To finally protect a believer, who despaired due to the inability to defend their religious rights in different instances.

This, perhaps, is the main thing. Everything else is details.

Recent columns