Interview with Viktor Bondarenko
“Journalists Should Not Initiate Conflict”
Interview with Viktor Bondarenko,
head of the Ukrainian State Committee on Religious Matters
– Mr. Bondarenko, what role do you think the State Committee on Religious Matters should play?
– V.B. The role of the Ukrainian State Committee on Religious Matters is defined by the regulation on the committee that has been confirmed by the Ukrainian president. In general, we should ensure the normal development of the religious environment in all its aspects.
First of all, the committee's role has to do with the performance of certain formal functions. The committee itself, its central board and its local departments in the various regions and in the cities of Kyiv and Sevastopol, register religious organizations. Accordingly, local authorities register communities, and we register religious organizations, religious schools, monasteries, and religious societies, according to the distinctions determined by Ukrainian legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations.
Secondly, we perform a number of functions as intermediary between religious organizations and other institutions, including government. I think this is one of the most important tasks of the committee. We have much broader information about the activities of religious organizations and the character of their work than other ministries and departments. Hence our activity covers a whole range of issues, from helping religious organizations at court trials, to a number of questions which arise in the process of their interaction with local and central authorities.
The third function is connected with the development of the charitable and volunteer activities of religious organizations. We participate in the work of the appropriate cabinet commission and assess the material goods and spiritual literature brought to Ukraine by religious organizations. We also deal with some current questions: I can mention, among the most important activities last year, the work of the committee in preparing for the celebration of the 950th jubilee of the Kyivan Monastery of the Caves, the organization of the Pope's visit to Ukraine, and other such things.
Also I would like to mention the work of the committee in ensuring the legal solution of various problems. We have, by virtue of our official responsibilities, probably the most complete picture of the activities of religious organizations in Ukraine. We know the nature of their activities and thus we can easily solve the most immediate questions connected with them. In doing so, we rely on the conclusions of the All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, recognizing that, because of its structure, this representative body is a good mechanism for informing the government and higher Ukrainian officials about problems that are troubling the religious environment. We relay the mood of religious communities, in order to make known, to emphasize and announce either some major trends forming within the religious environment or certain symptomatic changes occurring in it.
– On specific issues, does the president or the parliament give any official instructions with respect to the committee’s activities?
– Of course, there is interaction. This especially concerns questions that might create social tension. In such cases we consult with both the president and the head of parliament. This is only natural, because the Ukrainian State Committee on Religious Matters is a central organ of the executive power, and it is our responsibility to carry out all the provisions of the president and the cabinet.
At the same time, since we are informed about the real state of affairs, we understand that, to a certain extent, the basic legislation should be changed. The government accepts our propositions positively and treats our initiatives or the initiatives of the All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations as interpretations of the faithful's real feelings. I would like to remark that it has become customary for the president to hold meetings with the All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, as well as with individual leaders of religious organizations or with groups of leaders of related churches. Last year, for example, on the eve of Easter, the president received the leaders of the Orthodox churches, then separately received the heads of the Greek Catholic and the Roman Catholic churches, and also the leaders of the three largest Protestant churches, Baptist, Pentecostal and Adventist. As a consequence of these meetings, the president entrusted the heads of the central organs of power and territories with corresponding tasks.
– What kind of collaboration exists between your committee and the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies named after Olexander Razumkov? How should we understand the information provided by the Centre: as information which is close to governmental sources or rather as private or public opinion?
– The nature of our collaboration with the Razumkov Centre has differed at different times. Thus, once, in the presence of the president, religious organizations signed a memorandum to prevent violence and the use of force in their mutual relations. This action was entirely initiated by the center. In my opinion, it was not properly drawn up. That's why this document is more descriptive than prescriptive in nature. It reflected, probably, the will of the churches, but did not provide any mechanisms for the implementation of this desire. Our last joint meeting dealt with some urgent problems of religious life, in particular, the improvement of legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations, shared space for liturgical services, the realization of the moral potential of the church in the upbringing of young people, and other questions. For the first time, we and representatives of the center in solidarity agreed upon what were the most urgent questions and discussed them. Certainly, we have different approaches for solving these questions, as well as for arranging or defining which are of primary importance and which are not. Nevertheless, I think this is the most fruitful way, since our institution should be promoting the development of the religious environment. That's why we collaborate with everyone, including the Razumkov Centre. However, the information provided by the center, in my opinion, may not be referred to as information close to government sources. The center performs its own independent studies.
– RISU sees your committee as one of the most important sources of information, the expression of official opinion and the judge in controversial situations. What is your attitude with respect to collaboration with the media?
– I greatly appreciate the agreement we have achieved regarding collaboration [with RISU] and I would be very happy to see other religious organizations and centers that publicize information about Ukrainian religious life collaborate with us as well. I support the view that we should widely disseminate our information in the media. One of our aims is to ensure, as completely and with as much quality as possible, the development of the religious environment. If we are going to work according to our declared aims, why shouldn’t we present our view in newspapers or on the Internet?
We have suggested to everyone looking for all sorts of information about Ukrainian religious life that this kind of information should be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible: it should include the views of the government, confessional views, the views of experts, lawyers' views, and so on. In other words, one should avoid one-sided information. We have already gone beyond the characteristic Soviet conditions when certain institutions put out tendentious, specially prepared and corrupt information, which it was impossible to take seriously. I would not presume to say that our information or our data are complete and objective. Nevertheless, I think that this information should serve to develop the religious environment and have the right, together with information from other sources, to take its place in the mass media.
I would like to speak more about the press’s influence on life. We have very little objective information in general and I would like to emphasize (I have already said this to the ARI) that the ARI accomplishes its function very well in providing society with objective information about religious life.[ARI, the Agency of Religious Information, publishes a monthly news bulletin in Ukrainian covering events in world religion. – editor’s note] In our situation, since problems concerning religious life were not publicized in Soviet times, even a partial view plays a positive role in providing discourse about religion and religious life. However, it is unfortunate that many publications are inappropriately involved (in a biased way). I think this is a problem of our society's growth, a problem directly connected with the profound, constant causes of conditions that generate conflict in the religious environment. Various publications present their “evaluation” of situations. This cannot be forbidden. However, I think that journalists should not initiate conflict. They have a great responsibility: journalists express their opinions, which immediately enter society in thousands of copies. And then the citizens choose sides according to the statements in these publications. This is a very complicated phenomenon.
Interview conducted in Kyiv, 25 March 2002
by Taras HRYNCHYSHYN