Victor Yelenskyy: “For the first time this year the Church faces serious competitors for human love and trust”
The past year revealed the new trends in the religious environment, especially regarding the Ukrainian situation. Despite the peacekeeping role of the clergymen, many situations point to a clash of interests and non-compliance with social requirements. Renowned sociologist of religion and Ph.D., MP, President of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Freedom Victor Yelenskyy spoke with RISU to trace the latest religious and social events and be able to draw conclusions for the future.
- If we look back to 2015 – what kind of year was it for religious environment in Ukraine? How did the government respond to new challenges?
- First of all I would have noticed a thing that currently is not correctly articulated. The Church as a social institution for the first time in a long run faces serious competitors in the field of human trust and love. For a long period of time no one could catch up with the Church in terms of support. People deemed it a special institution, to which all the dirt of “this world” does not stick and even the accusations of perverse behavior of certain priests or hierarchs did not undermine its foundations. In 2014-2015 in the rating of trust of Ukrainians new favorites emerged - volunteers, Armed Forces, volunteer battalions. This placed the Church in a new situation that not all “religious professionals” have now eventually realized, but it changed the atmosphere around the Church. Thus, the Church stands to find a new tone in its conversation with the public. If we talk about specific religious organizations, not all of them can do it.
Post-Maidan government has taken a number of steps which the Church demanded from the state for a quarter of century without exaggeration. It demanded a wider and more decent presence of the Church in the public sector, which the Ukrainian administration, Parliament and the government did not deny, but are in no haste to provide. Now the military and prison chaplaincy became a reality, only this year the law allows religious organizations to build secondary schools, now the graduate diplomas of religious schools are finally recognized and theology is recognized a scientific discipline. The thing that the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations constantly demanded was implemented. Now the Church’s requests radically shifted into the sector of public morality. And when the Church, relying on the more traditional part of Ukrainian society insists on its request, on its compliance with instructions, it faces resistance.
The issue of marriage, conjugal morality of same-sex relations, abortion, euthanasia - all these were expected to be the very center of heated debate, but anyway, the snow unexpectedly fell down, as it does every year. It turned out most dramatically during the Verkhovna Rada voting for the so-called anti-discrimination amendment to the Labor Code. The Church accepted the positive vote very painfully. Yet, I would have underscored - it is not only in the law on legalization of the phenomenon of sexual orientation. It is about the nature, scope and limits (if any) interference of the Church in the affairs of “this world”. The issue has a two-millennium history and in every age the Church had to find an adequate response to it.
Note that we have virtually no anticlerical sentiment. Of course, the criticism of “priests on Mercedes vehicles” does not cease, but it does not involve all layers of priesthood and the whole institution of the Church. Unlike Russia, where anti-clerical sentiment acquire serious scale on the background of the nationalization of the ROC, Ukraine has no public executions or no marginal public figure that would demonstrate their aversion to the Church and / or manifested atheism. So the fact that wide social circles did not understand the Church in its effort to prevent anti-discrimination amendments supported by the Parliament – and I know that the circles are wide enough from discussions with their representatives – the Church has to take it very seriously.
This means that the Church must speak with society, especially with its liberal part. Speak honestly and reasonably. Speak not only about things in which society fully supports the Church, where there is the absolute consent - patriotism, solidarity, the fight against corruption, but about things that annoy many and with which many do not agree. The Church hierarchs met with certain politicians and even entire parliamentary factions. But the church social dialogue should be much bigger and more intense.
- In what form?
- These are public meetings, media and social networks. Now a very broad debate is imminent about how our world and our country look like in the Christian perspective, to put it simple. This debate by no means should end gap between the conservatives and liberals, so to say. The Church should reject categoricity, just the same conventional liberals ought to do. The problems should be discussed “no cuts” and, among other things, the positions should be presented in full and not in customized versions, as the media sometimes does with the statements of Pope Francis.
In 2015, we saw two great centers of dissent - in the cases of liquidation of the National Commission on Morality and the adoption of anti-discrimination amendment. At the same time, the Church increasingly faces the need to work not so much with the state, with which it learned to speak and articulate and defend its request, but with civil society in the broadest sense. Sometimes this society seems chaotic and poorly structured, can cause irritation, but this is the reality that became apparent in 2015 .
- How will this affect the church and public relations?
- The public is seriously irritated, very critical - it draws on a war and deteriorated living standards. Its request is fair, but is much higher than the capacity of any power to satisfy it. The Revolution of Dignity does not belong to anyone except the Ukrainian people; people feel responsible for the results and the frustration of unrealized expectations. This all makes the situation very acute. Dissatisfaction extends to areas that usually remained beyond criticism. Among them is the church environment. However, currently it almost exclusively refers to the UOC Moscow Patriarchate. The position of its leadership has become a huge irritant to society.
- Let us analyze the inter-Orthodox conflict and the situation around the transitions of parishes. In your view, what is the point of exit or change of the situation? Should the state intervene as a third party?
- The Ukrainian society has enormous request for Orthodox unity, which was particularly evident during Maidan. When Metropolitan Mefodiy died earlier this year, the future of the UAOC was referred to solely in terms of the unity with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate. But the association of churches was a real threat to the positions of the UOC (MP) and considerable organizational and financial resources were thrown to undermine it. This year, the union has not happened. However, it seems to me clear that the future of the unification process is enshrined in the very logic of existence of these Churches.
On the other hand, after the death of Metropolitan Volodymyr new leadership of the UOC (MP) experiences more control by the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, the UOC hierarchs act within the framework developed in Moscow. This rhetoric of civil war, demonstrative disapproval of Ukrainian troops, at times - outright hostility to the country whose name this Church carries – to the extent of the calls to disrupt the mobilization. It is clear that where such a position of hierarchs of the UOC (MP) is communicated to clergy and congregation, it causes resistance and raises the question of change of jurisdiction.
Moscow not only meets with hostility such self-identification of the Orthodox, but also tries to present it as harassment. The attempts of the Moscow Patriarchate to depict the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine as a “holy war” do not cease. Russian propaganda with the active participation of the Russian Church and Russian diplomacy are trying to convince the world in persecutions of the Orthodox people in Ukraine, to talk round in any way the irrefutable facts of murders, kidnappings, torture, clergy and laity, violence, confiscation of houses of worship, etc. in the occupied territories. It must be noted that the leaders and speakers of the UOC (MP) were the instruments of this sector of hybrid war, carried out against Ukraine.
- Is this not evidence of politicization of Orthodoxy? How can the process of unification begin in this context?
- We used to understand the politicization as inter-party struggle. Of course, it is bad, when the Church stands on the side of a certain party. But in the US, for example, when talking about the Church and politics, first of all they refer to the church's position on issues that affect the human conscience. The religious leadership cannot abstain from speaking on these issues. Hardly the Church will be competent in how to reduce the balance of Naftogaz. But it cannot remain silent about unfairness, abuse of power, the threat to human nature. It is not called to accept or refuse to support a particular party. In the US, a pastor may say that we cannot support the forces that reject certain values and some resort to certain actions. But when he calls to vote for a particular candidate, its community could lose its status of an organization that is exempt from taxation and to be recognized a lobbying group. Clearly, the divide is between defending the values and parties.
As for the unity of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, I continue to believe that this unity is directly linked to the unity of Ukrainian society. Consolidation of society would mean consolidation of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. And no canonical warning will have significance. It is clear that we see the serious efforts of the Moscow Patriarchate to block the movement for the unity of the Orthodox in Ukraine. Therefore, when state authorities could reasonably argue that it should not and cannot interfere in internal church affairs, it must take care that the government of another country did not intervene in these matters. The clergymen and hierarchs should also strictly observe the laws (not only freedom of conscience) .
- You mentioned collision of secular and religious. We have seen examples of conflicts in Lviv and other instances. To your mind, what the results may be in the future when a religious community not always reacts the way secular people would like it to?
- The Church is always tempted to act in a modal manner. But the time when it was the only way to act has gone. Even when European society was much more traditional, astute church historian Jean Delumeau prophesied that it would move from the level power to the level of love. It will be immeasurably less punishing and much more loving. Speculations on the issue of lightning, by which the Lord has punished an official opposing the visit of Patriarch of Moscow will not have effect. The Church leaves the kingdom, which punishes by the sword and fire, and increasingly, at all levels, acts through love, which, as we remember, “never ceases.”
- The theme of religious freedom in Ukraine caused a surge of interest from international organizations, such as multiple conferences with the participation of the OSCE. Why this happened now?
- In Ukrainian territories that are not controlled by the Ukrainian government, flagrant violations of religious freedom are taking place. During 2014 we faced the murders of priests and laymen, the confiscation of buildings and so on. We get lists of people who talk about the actions of terrorists that turn prayer facilities in military barracks and barracks, mock believers. A targeted persecution of Muslims of Crimea, kidnapping, searches in mosques, closing religious educational establishments take place. For Europe in the twentieth century these are critical cases and it would be weird to pay attention on them.
- If we go back to world events, acts of terrorism and the development of "Islamic state" anti-religious appeals and unification of religious organizations against the backdrop of the crisis. What we should pay attention to and will it affect the Ukrainian situation?
- Global trends remain unchanged for at least the XXI century. They lie in the fact that religion actively manifests itself in most conflicts. It manifests itself actively in political life, including in those countries that are considered highly secularized. British researcher Grace Davie drew attention to the reduction of the role of religion in everyday life in Europe. Religion has less impact on everyday life, on life, on family relationships, but increasingly influences the public sector. The fact that the world shrinks, becomes a whole - is the result of globalization - leads to the fact that religion is one of the determining factors of identity. With its help people construct their difference, individuality and resist unification.
But the revolt of identities can be very violent. Predictions about that fact that Islamic awakening can be very non-peaceful, unfortunately, came true. There are many attempts to explain the process - in particular, it is what Samuel Huntington was trying to do in the “clash of civilizations”. We also see that there are attempts to reform Islam, the search for “Islamic Luther.” There is no doubt that those who terrorizes humanity in the name of Islam, distorts the foundations of this world religion. But questions remain unanswered: Why Islam? Why have not the terrorists been adequately countered by Islamic leaders?
If we look at a closer context, at least geographically - this year marks 50 years of the Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism and mutual lifting of anathemas between Orthodox and Catholics in December 1965. But we cannot state that during that time the matter of Orthodox-Catholic unity that would be crucial for the general Christian unity has seriously advanced.
There was a dialogue of love, a dialogue of truth has begun, but politics has forcefully intervened and the dialogue was frozen. It became clear that the Moscow Patriarchate does not need the unity of Christians but domination and elimination of competitors. An attempt of Pope Francis to revive this dialogue through condescending attitude towards the activities of Moscow had not effect and will have no effect - the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox consider the ecumenical issue exclusively from a geopolitical point of view.
- Despite all the recent events, can religion become a factor of reconciliation or understanding? Especially in the Ukrainian context.
- It can be a factor of reconciliation, on which tons of literature are written, as well as a source of conflict and wars. We have seen that during Maidan the Ukrainian Churches played a major peacekeeping role, despite the fact that the majority of sympathies were with the protesters. The Church determined the conflict not as civil but as a confrontation between the government and the people. We have seen their role of mediators on January 22 and 25, 2014 and in other episodes of confrontation.
Ukraine has experience of reconciliation. But when the UOC (MP) insists on its role in the reconciliation of the parties, I think that the key point is missed here. It is not about civil conflict, and the aggression, without which there would be no annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas. This UOC (MP) sharply criticized the Ukrainian authorities and finds no words to criticize the aggressor, although hierarchs regularly visit Moscow and have the opportunity to appeal - open or public - to the leadership of Russia. They have not made a choice in favor of ending the war in Ukraine, although they are always talking about reconciliation.
- What about the rest of religious organizations? Where this platform for dialogue can be found?
- The church can play a major role in the consolidation of society, calm down its extreme moods, which sometimes turn into hysteria. The situation, which emerged in Ukraine, is in many ways unprecedented. In a country attacked by a nuclear state, which wages not only open hostilities, but an information war that is unparalleled in history. The army of the so-called “Olhino trolls” on the Internet, billions of dollars on overseas broadcasting, spreading panic and catastrophic expectations - all that is being done here and now. Thus the main communications of Ukraine belong to those who are usually called oligarchs and who are made - sometimes more and sometimes less successfully - to pay the bills. Against the backdrop of difficult economic conditions all these “individual performers” just destroy the nation’s mental health. I am sure that sober and compelling voice of the Church in these conditions would be heard louder.