“Understanding that our country needs unity today as never before, we can make interdenominational relations more tolerant.”
Interview with Professor Anatolii KOLODNYI, Ph.D., president of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Studies Experts and head of the Department of Religious Studies of the Institute of Philosophy at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
A scholarly conference, “Religion and the church in post-Soviet countries: The Ukrainian context,” recently took place in Kyiv. Researchers from Ukrainian centers of religious studies, representatives of religious communities, and also journalists participated in the conference. The Ukrainian Association of Religious Studies Experts and the Department of Religious Studies of the Institute of Philosophy at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine initiated the gathering.
Comparative analysis of freedom of conscience guaranteed by the law, religious freedom, and the activity of various religious communities was emphasized. Participants of the conference also looked at aspects of the activity of traditional and non-traditional religions, their legal status, and problematic issues of the politicization of religion and the clericalization of specific spheres of community life. An interview with Anatolii Kolodnyi tells us this, and more.
- Professor Kolodnyi, during Soviet times we got used to the domination of a single, communist ideology in all spheres of social life. There is such thought that the ideological vacuum that appeared at that time can be replaced with religion. Can religion play the role of a unifying force in Ukraine?
- Religion cannot be a common ideology, because it is multi-denominational. If religion is the basis for everything, society will collapse, because each denomination claims it is the only right one and suspiciously treats people of other denominations. That is why it is not right to emphasize that Ukraine is Orthodox, because the question of whether Greek Catholics and Protestants are also Ukrainians arises at once. When I recently visited communities of the Ukrainian Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, I saw that a Ukrainian context could be felt there very much. Also, the statistics that a little bit more than 50 % of communities are Orthodox and that 36-48 % of people call themselves Orthodox shows that we are not a one-denomination nation. In my opinion, only the Ukrainian national idea can be a unifying factor. This idea can be supported by various denominations. Here we are aiming to seek unity.
- Some politicians think that the laws concerning religion are too liberal. What is your evaluation of the state of religious freedom in Ukraine?
- In my opinion, a positive achievement of our Law on Freedom of Conscience, which was passed in April 1991 and is still used today, is that it declares freedom of conscience and religion but also gives freedom of religious expression in reality. The country has a democratic character in that freedom of religious expression is guaranteed.
Today we have our own Ukrainian churches. These churches were persecuted or in the underground or even formally liquidated like the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Ukrainian Evangelical churches. Our religious organizations have the right to have the status of a juridical subject. They have the right to catechize, conduct charitable activities, and have contacts with faithful abroad. Also, the property that was taken away from them by the Soviet government is being returned.
- Is it true that questions arise here, especially if a few denominations have claims on the same property? Is it necessary to give everything back?
- The thing is that some part of this property, especially that which has great historical value, is a treasure of world culture and some technological conditions are necessary for its preservation. Are churches always ready for this? No, not always. They do not have enough money, knowledge, and specialists. For example, if we think about old books, a certain temperature and moisture is always provided in the Vernadskyi Library where they are kept. We can also think about frescoes in churches or preserving the building of St. Sophia’s in Kyiv. Issues of restitution are complicated, but the return of property is taking place.
The fact that churches have established their own system of education and mass media, for which it was very difficult or even impossible to receive permission in the former government, is also very positive.
- According to professional assessments, the level of religious freedom is much higher in our country compared with neighboring countries. Are all problems resolved?
- Sometimes the leaders of churches themselves create these problems. The biggest problem is the lack of tolerance in interdenominational and interchurch relations. When churches are enemies with each other, society is separated. The second issue is that not all religious organizations take part in the national revival. Let’s take the language factor. There are churches where services are in the Russian language.
The problem of the religious extremism of so-called “brotherhoods” is also noticeable. Sometimes they have such an unfriendly attitude towards others that I ask myself: “Are they Christians at all?” Jesus Christ taught us to love our neighbors, and not only neighbors but also our enemies. Some organizations call for a division of Ukraine and renewing the former empire. Things like this can destructively influence society.
Recently I was present at the gathering of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which took place in Barcelona, Spain. Seven thousand representatives of various religions gathered there. I was amazed by the fact that I saw no unfriendly attitudes. They respect the right of everybody to choose a different way to God. They are looking for something that unites but not something that separates. No religion teaches evil. Every religion has its own system of morals. If you look carefully at them we will see that they are similar but written in different words. So, let’s look for common moral principles about love for humans here, in Ukraine. Let’s stay together while doing good deeds, help people in need, old people, and orphans together. That is why the main goal for us, when we have conferences like this one and go to different regions, is to gather followers of various religions and teach them to live following the principles of loving your neighbor and honoring everybody’s right to his/her own way to God.
Unfortunately, religion has not yet become a moral factor. Parish people do not obey those rules of behavior that their religion teaches. The problem of the politicization of religious life appears here. Some political parties aim to use the religious factor in their own interests, ignoring common Christian values, especially during elections.
- In society there is active discussion about creating a single national Ukrainian Orthodox church. In your opinion, is this possible in Ukraine?
- Yes this question comes up often. But I am convinced that today we cannot have a single Orthodox church. Why? Because a real Ukrainian church means Liturgies in the Ukrainian language and preserving Ukrainian traditions from the first centuries of the church’s existence, which you can find reflected in the book of needs/catechism of Petro Mohyla. So, we have to revive Ukrainian Orthodoxy as a cultural and historical phenomenon. But will the Russian community accept such an Orthodoxy? By the way, more than one million Russians live in Ukraine. They also have the right to their own culture and language. That is why I think that there cannot be a single Orthodox church for everybody in Ukraine. Probably, this is not even necessary.
Unity can be spiritual, not administrative. It seems to me that these artificial efforts to create a single Orthodox church will end with nothing. Moreover, this can cause resistance and discontent with the government. This is why I think this problem is complicated and can be solved only by the union of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, while preserving the exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate.
- This is the problem of Orthodoxy. What is your opinion about the legal right to existence of so-called “non-traditional” religions in Ukraine?
- Officially there is no such notion as “non-traditional” religion anywhere. This does not concern legislation. Opponents can call them what they like: totalitarian sects, non-traditional religions, and so on. But if state authorities register some religious community or movement, then they have the same status as other religions. The state should have the same attitude towards them. Regarding the spread of these non-traditional religions or denominations, much will depend on the traditional churches themselves. There are no problems in those traditional churches where priests do not sit in the churches but go to their faithful and answer their questions. Often priests themselves limit themselves by the fence of their church and then wait for a state official to close the churches of their “competitors” as if everybody will come to them after that.
- Today many Ukrainians go abroad temporarily in order to earn money or to become permanent residents. Do you often communicate with representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora? Are the religious needs of Ukrainians abroad satisfied?
- I have been in Australia and America. Recently I came back from Italy. It really is a complicated problem for us. Yes, there are many Ukrainians who work abroad, but not all Ukrainian churches have relations with them at the appropriate level. Here I want to mention the positive experience of Greek Catholics. For example, in Italy alone they have established more than 100 communities. The old diaspora is gradually fading into the past. The new one needs more and more attention. It is necessary to preserve it for Ukraine and support the Ukrainian spirit.
Unfortunately we cannot solve all problems. The organization that I head is a scholarly institution, but we manage to go beyond academic limits. We can speak and be involved in the practical part of life. We often visit various regions of Ukraine, conduct celebrations of religious tolerance in various regions, gather representatives of various denominations, organize art festivals, book exhibitions, and interchurch meetings. Doing this and understanding that our country needs unity today as never before, we can make interdenominational relations more tolerant. We will continue to make what contribution we can in this important matter.
Oleksandr KOZLOVSKYI (UKRINFORM) conducted the interview in Kyiv on 31 May 2007.