Religion as Policy Instrument

09.11.2014, 17:34
Two fundamental concepts were presented by the speakers.Especially interesting was the notion of instrumentalization of religious institutions by political powers. The other – “Russkii mir” (“Russian world”) –in the final analysisserves as an ideological smokescreen for the first.

Roma M. Hayda

Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center in New York hosted on November 4, 2014 an international panel of experts to discuss the complicated role of religion in the current Ukrainian – Russian conflict. Under the heading “Putin, Religion, and Ukraine” the panelists sought to clarify the religious factors in the crisis, both those that are positive and authentic, and those that have become an instrument of Russian foreign policy. Olena Nikolayenko provided a statistical overview covering some ten years demonstrating that the economy has been the dominant issue in the Donbas region, and not religion, as some would want us to believe. 

Two fundamental concepts were presented by the speakers. Especially interesting was the notion of instrumentalization of religious institutions by political powers. The other – “Russkii mir” (“Russian world”) – in the final analysis serves as an ideological smokescreen for the first. 

Speaking of the drive to coopt religious institutions, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich of Kyiv cited the Kremlin’s effort to create a “patriarchate” for Jewish believers a la the Eastern Christian model. Under the auspices of the Moscow government an elected chief rabbi with residence in Russia was to head the Judaic community in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, for a while Moscow employed one chief rabbi enjoying government salary, but the artificial structure failed. The Soviet legacy of state interference in the life of religious organizations was also the norm in independent Ukraine until 2004, when the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations rejected government intrusion and has worked independently since. Jews in Ukraine today identify with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

In the view of archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, statements by Patriarch Kirill and Moscow patriarchate’s foreign affairs spokesman Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev that the conflict is a religious war inspired by the Greek Catholic and non-canonical Orthodox Churches is not substantiated by facts. The vast majority of Kyiv’s residents supporting the Maidan and unprecedentedly large numbers in Ukraine’s East–South region, are Orthodox. On the other hand, Moscow’s 2008 war with Georgia was against another Orthodox nation. For the Orthodox world this creates serious crisis.

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun presented the Maidan as a religious event of collective prayer, full of icons and biblical quotations, stressing the compatibility of religious beliefs and democracy. The anti–Maidan assumed a distorted view of the Maidan, with its own religious symbols. Fr. Hovorun regards the religious narrative in the East as socio-political,expressed in terms of a civil religion, like the “Russian Orthodox Army” or the “cause of Orthodoxy”. Constructed to use as a weapon, this combines old imperial Russian narrative, Soviet central control of religion through the Council of Religious Affairs, and some modern terminology to legitimate Putin as “prophet” to further mythologize the “Russkii mir’s” exceptionalism. 

Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza finds the enforced ethnocentrism in Putin’s “Russkii mir” concept problematic, as ethnocentrism is contrary to a Christian understanding of the church. Even the Russian tsars never spoke from the ambo. Yet, on the occasion of unification of the ROC with Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 2008, Putin spoke from the royal doors of the iconostasis charging the Church with the responsibility for the nation’s Russo-centric patriotism. 

Adrian Karatnycky’s talk reflected the civil perspective. He illustrated the construction of instrumentalization of religious institutions by political authorities that have accelerated in the last decade. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was subjectedto a long campaign by Moscow – both the Kremlin and the Patriarchate – to“Russkii mir” policies,further supported by the Party of Regions. President Yanukovych’s agenda included a cultural war to mobilize Eastern Ukraine. 

In the Q & A portion, Karatnycky completely rejected the anti-Western argument of a NATO encroachment or an imagined invasion. Considering Russia’s nuclear might, it is Putin’s fear of political and economic liberty that called into action religion as an instrument of his policies. 

The Maidan was a deeply spiritual experience that united its participants across religious affiliations – Orthodox of different jurisdictions, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim, and even non-believers. It is also true that the Anti-Maidan hada  religious dimension whereby religion became the tool of a political power. It is Putin’s instrumentalization of religion and religious institutions that has sent the Orthodox world into real crisis.

Olena Nikolayenko – Assistant professor of Political Science, Fordham University

Rabbi Yaakov DovBleich – Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and all Ukraine, Vice President (Ukraine), World Jewish Council

Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza  – Kule Family Professor of Liturgy, Metropolitan AndreySheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, St. Paul University

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun – Research Fellow, Yale Divinity School (Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate)

Adrian Karatnycky – Nonresident Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Relations Program, Atlantic Council, Washington, DC