Tips for Covering Orthodox Churches in Ukraine

01.07.2019, 12:16
Religion regains its importance in post-secular countries, and media should respond to this trend. “Religion in itself” does not sell. Do not overestimate the significance of religion news in a post-secular society. In democratic society the media may strongly affect the public agenda but cannot define the reaction(s) to the matters discussed. Be aware of that and address the core needs of the audience.

Maksym Balaklytskyi

Religion regains its importance in post-secular countries, and media should respond to this trend.

For centuries Ukrainians perceived Orthodox Church to be the main substitute and element of missing statehood. Church became one of the symbols of “Ukrainness”.

During Ukrainian Independence “Church” has been and is one of the leaders of public trust (the others are mass media, recently the Army and volunteer movement). 72% Ukrainians declared themselves believers in 2018, 67% declared adherence to one of Orthodox strands. 58% attend church services.

Ukraine has one of the most complicated religion landscapes in Europe.

From the Soviet times the majority denomination was Ukrainian Orthodox Church (hereafter UOC), a branch of Russian Orthodox Church. Pro-nationalist analysts blame it as the Empire Church, the “Third Rome”, a voice and symbol of the “Russian World”. It is the first.

Besides this, historians track the recurring willingness of Ukrainians to have their own Church. During National Revolution in 1920s, unrecognized Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was formed. As Bolsheviks had seized the power, this denomination moved to emigration and came back with state independence of Ukraine. The second attempt to declare autocephaly happened in 1943 under Nazi occupation. It is the second.

On the onset of Ukrainian independence one of UOC leaders, Kyiv Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko, called its clergy to form ‘an independent church for an independent Ukrainian state’. UOC leaders had refused, albeit Filaret managed to get the stable support of politicians of new state. Being anathematized by UOC, he nevertheless organized unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. It is the third.

Moreover, Ukrainian lands is home of two Catholic-Orthodox unions — of 16th and 17th centuries respectively. The former union brought about more visible results in forming Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with Eastern rite, confessing the primate of Pontiff of Rome. Actually it is the forth.

In 2018, Tomos, the document by Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew endorsing autocephaly (e.g. self-governance) for Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was named the main neologism of the year in the Ukrainian media. Ukraine issued a special coin to commemorate this fact. Then President Petro Poroshenko voiced the intent to include the mention of Tomos in school history textbooks.

Two unrecognized Orthodox churches announced dissolution and forming new common denomination, Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The latter was declared the receiver of Tomos and the independent recognized Orthodox church.

Religion in itself” does not sell. Do not overestimate the significance of religion news in a post-secular society.

Politics, economics, culture, social issues, human interest topics can lead the story on religion.

Tomos topic mattered for mass media because it engaged the top politicians of the country. Moreover, it was positioned as an integral part of ongoing split and conflict with Russia.

During the Euromaidan, Revolution of Dignity, Crimea annexation and war in Donbas religion affiliation has been used as a source of national identify. Since 2014 for the first time the UOC of Kyiv Patriarchate outnumbered the UOC of Moscow Patriarchate despite of the former’s Patriarch Filaret’s odious personality. Clergy and activists of religion bodies, Orthodox in particular, participated in protest movements as protectors, mediators and envoys, in war zone as volunteers, benefactors, social workers, humanitarian agents, chaplains, martyrs, soldiers.

In democratic society the media may strongly affect the public agenda but cannot define the reaction(s) to the matters discussed. Be aware of that and address the core needs of the audience.

Poroshenko had not completed the so-called “Tomos tour”, visiting regions of Ukraine together with Bartholomew, and before long lost the presidential race. His opponent, secular Jew Volodymyr Zelensky, won the election with two thirds of votes more than that of Poroshenko. Zelensky had even mocked the Tomos, calling it a thermos, for which he later apologized.

The critics say that that Church issue was not connected to the most felt needs of the population: to end the war in Donbas and raise the standard of living.

How can journalists find Orthodox sources who are open about the struggles and challenges within the church?

Such sources mostly were clerics of different ranks.

Cyril Hovorun, Ukrainian researcher at Yale University, noticed the appearance of so to say new church activists. These Orthodox laymen are representatives of intelligentsia circles keen to express their views on the way their church should move. These are sociologists of religion, public activists, NGO leaders, journalists, artists, educators. As Hovorun put it, they are active members of fledgling civil society in Ukraine and extrapolate its norms on the church life.

The main feature of Ukrainian religion landscape is split and competition among Orthodox churches. The likeness of these denominations makes this conflict mostly a political and cultural one. Choosing a church, Ukrainian citizens expresses their national and political orientation.

This competition makes churches more transparent and ready to communicate and work with the society and not only with the elite.

How can journalists recognize biases, their own and their readers, when writing about Orthodox?

Readers should distinguish between fact and opinion and compare sources. Ukrainian society is polarized according to national, lingual, religion aspects, and journalists predominantly adhere to some of the existing options. In the face of ongoing war in the east of Ukraine the willingness the stand over the conflict and split does not gain much popularity and support.

News is mostly delivered as it is, whereas impartiality in opinion section still is not a norm when talking about public dimension of religion, Orthodox in particular.

In the Soviet Union propaganda stated the superiority of atheistic worldview over religious beliefs. During independence of Ukraine the mass media undergo the process of secularization and distancing from all religious bodies, including Orthodox. In post-atheistic Ukraine popular religion exists in two main forms: the first, rituals and traditions with minimum self-reflection and evaluation, and the second, the expression of social belonging, adherence and identity: we are Orthodox in the sense that we are Slavic people or Ukrainians or Russians, we are patriots of Ukraine or the so-called 'Russian World', we want to speak Ukraine or Russian, we want to loosen or to tighten the ties with Russia or with Europe, etc.

How can reporters find good sources among minority faiths?

In Ukraine such faiths are Protestants (Evangelicals), Jews, Roman Catholics, and Muslims.

Good sources are a scarcity. Protestant clerics are rather inclined to advertise and promote both themselves and respective denominations. Orthodox and Catholic Church representatives used to give a negatively biased portrait of Protestants. The best option are sociologists of religion who try to see all religion communities from equal and respectful viewpoint. The latter are the main sources for the media.

For decades Protestants in Ukrainian lands were deprived of their own voice in the public, in the media in particular. Up to the onset of Euromaidan and war in the east of Ukraine Protestants were ignored or demonized as foreign sects or even cults. Journalists preferred to ask their competitors to speak for them. These rivals were Orthodox priests and intelligentsia representatives. Defamation and lies were a sad norm.

After Euromaidan Protestants were requested to express loyalty to Ukrainian state and society and to withdraw from Church unions with Russian counterparts. After Ukrainian Protestants' important humanitarian work in war-torn Donbas reputation was rehabilitated in the media and they were recognized as part of religious and social landscape.