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Religious Freedom in Ukraine: The Current Context

23.05.2005, 11:47
Yurii RESHETNIKOV, PhD, Member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Freedom

Yurii RESHETNIKOV, PhD, Member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Freedom

Program Statements

As is known, the issue of religious freedom was included in the addresses of V.A.Yushchenko during his campaign for the Ukrainian presidency. In particular, in his address to the faithful of Christian churches he remarked: “I know that the true faith does not teach animosity and feud. Faith teaches us goodness, love and tolerance… God is one. There are different paths to him and every individual chooses his or her own. Everyone freely chooses a church that leads him or her to God. As a believer, I have a deep respect for the faiths of others. As a citizen, I recognize their right to religious freedom. As president, I will do all in my duty to guarantee the protection of this right for our citizens.”

“Like yourselves, I wish social life in Ukraine to be built on the fundamentals of social peace, tolerance and mutual respect between representatives of different denominations and nationalities. I wish that the intentional agitation of interdenominational and interethnic animosities, as well as the discriminatory treatment of anyone because of his or her religious or ethnic affiliation, would always remain in past.” So declared V.A. Yushchenko in his letter to the heads of the Christian churches in Ukraine.

As for his future policies, the letter reads: “I am convinced that the improvement of legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations needs to progress towards maximum protection of religious freedom and the life of religious organizations in accordance with international norms and standards regarding freedom of conscience and religion.”

Admittedly, it was the very declaration of his loyalty to the principle of freedom of conscience that disposed the faithful of many Ukrainian churches in favor of Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast, the relentless declarations of the other presidential candidate of his favor for one church exclusively - that is, to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate - stirred legitimate concerns among religious groups about the protection of freedom of conscience and equality of Ukrainian religious organizations in case he would come to power. This naturally caused specific electoral dispositions.

The theme of religious freedom also resounded in the inaugural address of Viktor Andriyovych [Yushchenko] on 23 January 2005: “Everyone will be able to pray in his or her own temple. Everyone will be guaranteed the right to hold his or her own views.”

Addressing the heads of Ukrainian churches at the celebration in St. Sophia's Cathedral on 24 January he mentioned in particular that government would in no way interfere in church matters: “We are Europeans. We respect every faith and the spiritual choice of every individual. No one from the secular authorities will point a finger and say which church one should attend. This is not the business of secular authorities,” he announced.

Meeting His Holiness Patriarch Alexis [II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church] the same day in Moscow , Viktor Andriyovych remarked that showing religious tolerance would be the foundation of his policy.

On 8 February on his visit to Zhytomyr, the president of Ukraine declared his intention to liquidate the National Committee on Religious Affairs of Ukraine, for the government should not implement specific policies in denominational matters, and it is a matter of every individual which church to pray at. “The government will openly work with every religion,” Viktor Yushchenko emphasized. “We do not set the goal of creating hindrances for one faith or church or another. The government considers this to be a very delicate matter.”

Similar accents can be found in the program for the government called “Approaching People.” There interdenominational harmony, mutual respect and tolerance are listed among the main slogans of the new government, while the protection of human rights and freedoms, including the spiritual needs of the people, are listed as priorities.

The first chapter of the program “Faith” reads: “We will create conditions for the realization of freedoms of speech and the press. We guarantee the right of our children to choose their own path to a temple. Diversity of cultures, languages and religions will become the treasure of all the country.” The subdivision “Spirituality” of the same chapter talks about the government's desire to see to the constant maintenance of the principle of separation of state and church. It also mentions provision of equal opportunities for the activities of religious organizations and rules out government pressure on them.

These statements taken from addresses of the Ukrainian president and the program for the Cabinet of Ministers can be considered as foundational for the future creation of conditions for full realization of the principle of freedom of conscience and religion in Ukraine.

Policies of the Government

Today we can assert that in the further development of church-state relations the primary direction of state policies should become the promotion of religious freedom combined with a progressive realization of the principle of the equality before the law of religious organizations in Ukraine . In particular, the government should prevent violations of the law on religious freedom and religious organizations and its selective enforcement by local state officials. Likewise, among priorities of the government should be the facilitation of inter-Orthodox dialogue and monitoring the activities of Muslim religious organizations to prevent religious extremism.

It is important that the temptation to make some “executive decisions” about churches and religious organizations which supported the pro-government candidate during the last elections was at once overcome by the state. Both the participation of Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) in the celebration at St. Sophia's Cathedral on 24 January and Viktor Yushchenko's meeting with Patriarch Alexis the same day in Moscow were telling in that regard.

It should be noted that on numerous occasions representatives of Ukrainian churches made public appeals not to take the shortcomings of some clergy for those of the whole church and not to judge the church by the mistakes of its individual members, or its hierarchy for that matter. Likewise, considering the general social atmosphere of the past year, the representatives of churches appealed not to put the mistakes of some religious organizations during the elections into the category of absolute evil. Since the church should work toward the strengthening of society, the representatives of Ukrainian churches spoke unanimously against any form of persecution of religious organizations that supported the pro-government candidate of the last elections, in contrast to what certain non-church-related actors had called for.

At the same time the dialogue goes on about the necessity of undeviating compliance with current Ukrainian law by churches and religious organizations. The state needs to work out a control mechanism of such compliance in order to be able to react adequately in case of violation, regardless of the size or influence of the violating organization.

Liquidation of the National Committee on Religious Matters

Finally, in the context of the present conditions for the realization of religious freedom in Ukraine it is worthwhile to mention some processes connected with the liquidation of the National Committee on Religious Matters of Ukraine.

As we know, on 20 April the president of Ukraine signed Decree # 701/2005 “Matters of the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine ” that, among other things, liquidated the National Committee on Religious Matters of Ukraine. The functions thereof were transferred to the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine , whereas the Cabinet of Ministers was given the task of establishing an appropriate government agency to address these matters within the abovementioned ministry.

For the context of that decree one should go back to the presidential speech of 8 February in Zhytomyr where, as we have noted before, the president of Ukraine announced his intention to liquidate the National Committee on Religious Matters. While at the same time talking about the delicacy of church-state relations, he underlined that it was necessary to form a “balanced approach.”

Apparently, the aforesaid decree has become the expression of such an approach. Notably, there were several scenarios of the possible reorganization of the National Committee on Religious Matters. One of them was practically to preserve the committee with a possible name and staff change. Another was to merge the National Committee of Religious Matters and the State Committee on Ethnic Minorities into one State Committee on Ethnic Minorities and Religions. Finally, a department of religious affairs within the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine could be established. Each of these options had both positive and negative sides. But it was the last option of reorganization that according to many experts was the most logical and expedient.

Another option under discussion was total liquidation of the national committee. However, the predominant majority of Ukrainian churches took a very reserved position on this. They expressed their support for reorganization rather than liquidation of the national committee. At the same time, the representatives of the churches voiced their concern that the absence of any state agency on religious matters may lead to the aggravation of the religious situation in Ukraine given the present complex conditions. It may result in growing tensions between certain churches and religious organizations, violation of constitutionally-guaranteed equality before the law for religious organizations, and in a denominational favoritism of local state officials with the consequence of curbing religious freedom. Thus, the absence of any state agency of that kind may complicate both church-state and interdenominational relations. It may produce negative consequences for both the religious and overall social situation in Ukraine with a particular danger of abuse of religious factors by different political powers. In other words, according to the representatives of most Ukrainian churches, this type of governmental agency is essential in the Ukrainian context of religious freedom. Specifically, it is necessary for the preservation of the principle of equality of Ukrainian religious organizations as well as for the prevention of certain churches receiving regional privileges.

On the other hand, the existence of a state agency for religious affairs is stipulated in the Ukrainian “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” Thus the liquidation of the national committee would be impossible without the introduction of some amendments to this law. However, today raising the question of amendments to Ukraine's “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” is impractical, according to many experts. For the question of further development of church-state relations requires a much more rigorous review of the relevant legislation, rather than a mere introduction of amendments to some articles of the particular law in question. We have to deal with the necessity of conceptual change of the very paradigm of church-state relations that would include an adoption of the appropriate policy concept for the development of these relations. Understandably, such conceptual changes need serious preparatory work and should not be rushed. In addition, the consideration of amendments to Ukraine's “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” is currently inappropriate due to the politicization of religious life and radicalization of political life on the eve of the new electoral campaign. At the same time, it should be noted that churches are extremely cautious about possible hearings on such legislation by the Ukrainian Parliament. Such a position developed over the past seven years, when all the previous draft amendments to the aforesaid law did not take into consideration the views of the churches, and in the case of their adoption were able to aggravate the religious situation in Ukraine.

Presently the structure, type and leadership of the new government agency are not known to be clear cut yet. These issues are still being elaborated. At the same time, some things are clear even now.

First of all, it was reorganization that took place rather than liquidation. As observed by some experts, the national committee received a somewhat lower status but it was preserved in view of its functionality. Secondly, this reorganization was achieved without the introduction of amendments to Ukraine's “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.”

As far as the registration of religious organizations, they do not have grounds to be concerned, either. The duty of local registration lies upon regional administrations (or city administrations in the case of Kyiv and Sevastopol) according to Article 14 of Ukrainian law. That is why the liquidation of the national committee will not affect the registration.

On the other hand, churches have even benefited in some ways from the whole situation. As a matter of fact, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations practically existed under the auspices of the national committee, though this was not specified in its establishment clauses. The liquidation of the state agency brings the council out from under its care and gives it the possibility of reforming into a truly self-ruled organization in the first place. Secondly, this may be conducive to the elevation of the council to the status of an advisory body for the president.

Therefore, now we have all grounds to hope for the future harmonization of church-state relations as well as for the formation of conditions for the full realization of religious freedom in Ukraine.