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We are striving to develop a universal model of religion-state relationship

06.07.2016, 13:14
We are striving to develop a universal model of religion-state relationship - фото 1
RISU interviewed Andriy Yurash, Chair of the Department for Religions and Nationalities Ministry of Culture of Ukraine to shed light to some of the reforms.

Jurash_sydorenko.jpgThe previous year brought about even more legislative initiatives concerning the religious environment of Ukraine. Changes in tax legislation, re-registration of communities, the right to freely change one’s belief, amendments to the Constitution and other reforms. Often they caused a storm of debate and frustration. Therefore RISU interviewed Andriy Yurash, Chair of the Department for Religions and Nationalities Ministry of Culture of Ukraine to shed light to some of the reforms.

- I would like to start with the key changes in tax law, in particular, to raise the issue of the ban of income redistribution for nonprofit organizations. The criticism repeatedly was voiced that the Churches will lose opportunities for social service and charitable redistribution of funds through these reforms – in fact, they will be unable to engage in charitable activities (see Maxym Vasin’s blog). Can this mechanism be possibly changed?

- The problem arose through the fault of legislators. When adopting amendments, they did not consider the specific situation. Unfortunately, the state agencies responsible for implementing policy on religion for objective reasons have no opportunities for system monitoring of the situation of reforms. Therefore, there was no timely reaction, both on the part of the Churches, which at first paid no attention to this, but saw the changes after the fact. In our opinion, there is only one logical way to resolve this issue now - the discussion of initiatives at parliamentary committees and making prompt amendments to the relevant legislation before January 1, 2017. Such projects were already tried and tested, in particular, by the Institute of Religious Freedom.

The problem is that the Regulation on activities of non-profit organizations also applies to religious organization on a common basis. If this is put into practice under the proposed scheme, a large number of organizations will face problems. And if necessary amendments are made to the Statutes, many of registration authorities can be paralyzed by making immediate changes to the tens of thousands of Statutes, which will result in collapse. Although, experts say that sooner or later the religious organizations still will have to go through a global reregistration so that an overall religious map could be seen. Many of them were registered in the early 90s and operate only formally. This aspect is yet to be discussed, but in practice it cannot be done by way of re-organization, it should be performed in a new way.

- Could these inspections take place not in the form of coercion, but with the involvement of experts in the field who can conduct their own examination?

- Yes, I absolutely agree, they could. Probably, the effort of all state agencies at all levels is required, including regional ones. In many areas, especially where the relevant departments were preserved and qualified specialists are working, the real situation is known.

But there is no mechanism to ensure that their knowledge is implemented in annual reporting documents. This year we tried to do something of the kind, but the probable result was not achieved for many reasons. In the forthcoming report we will consult with regional leaders and elaborate cooperation patterns.

- What prevented from doing this?

- In fact, in many regions the units responsible for implementing the state policy on religion were considerably reduced or eliminated. I can provide two examples - Ternopil and Rivne regions. Both areas have the highest degree of conflict between religious communities. In case of Ternopil region, the department was retained and even expanded, a separate department for internal politics, religions and nationalities was established. A systematic work and human resources are in place and conflicts are treated adequately, according to law. If in some cases the matter was lodged with a court, due to the orderly functioning of judicial system the decisions were made in favor of government agencies.

However, in Rivne region, where only one person is responsible both issues of religion and nationality, there are no units and opportunities for monitoring. We see how fragile the situation is, there is no coherent work and response. This is not an isolated case where a whole range of issues is decided by a single person.

We can talk about preserving institutional staffing in the religion and nationality area only in 5-7 regions. Approximately in half of the regions intermediate forms of departments are functioning as departments or sectors that are part of larger entities. And more than a third of the regions left the matter within the competence of one or two persons who are deprived of opportunities to affect the situation and adequate settle issues.

Last year we stated positive changes in Ternopil and Dnipropetrovsk regions, which strengthened the appropriate units in the first case, or established them from scratch, as it was the case in Dnipro. On the other hand, there are threatening situations in Odessa and Kharkiv regions, where the religious divisions are exposed to liquidation risks within the optimization of the regional administration.

- In what way can it be affected?

- We prepare the relevant letters and appeals to and via the Presidential Administration and the Cabinet of Ministers. Currently there is an instruction that the Cabinet together with other state structures would prepare proposals for a typical unit of the regional administration, which wishes to maintain or restore a separate unit for religions and nationalities was supposed to be displayed. While in each case we have to go to the level of regional leaders and persuade them that there is a logical need to keep control.

- Let us go back to the tax reform. Why the re-registration procedure was envisaged for Statutes and what are the implications?

- The procedure for new registration has not yet been launched. If we started it, it would be unrealistic to have it in place by January 1. There is categorical rejection of the procedure by the All- Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (hereinafter - AUCCRO), therefore no procedure was not initiated. The issue will be resolved by way of legislative amendments.

- I remember the situation of conflict with the clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) when they made certain adjustments of their Statutes. If I am not mistaken, this is not consistent with the law on the issue of subordination of regional organizations to central ones.

- It is a completely different aspect. Thus, in the UOC there are issues of the Statutes of several diocesan offices. For internal reasons there was the need to change something through administrative reforms. But when dealing with the diocesan Statutes submitted for registration of amendments we saw that in 8-10 points they do not meet the Ukrainian legislation. It is with full responsibility that I declare that we were at least 10 times in contacts with official representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had to bring these contradictions in compliance with the Ukrainian legislation. We contacted regional representatives, lawyers, we did our best. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church categorically refuses to listen and wants to keep the formula in its Statutes that is inconsistent with the maintenance of the law.

- Which exactly?

- First, under law, the state can only register a diocesan administration as an administrative center, to which the regional communities are voluntarily subjected. They voluntarily unite around the center. Instead, the spirit of the Statutes of the UOC fits into the model, which provides for registration not of a diocesan administration but of a diocese as a certain administrative and territorial unit, which consolidates the affiliated communities. This is the main fundamental contradiction, as the Ukrainian legislation grants equal legal status to every religious organization – from a community to national or diocesan administration center. That is, every independent congregation is free to declare affiliation with a particular center or is free to change it. Logically, the administrative center of such self-determined entities may legally exist.

 But we are not entitled to register their establishment, which is called the diocese in our case (or any other institutional establishment of a level that is higher than congregational - A. Yurash), which de facto reflects not the Ukrainian but the Russian model of church-state relations. Russian legislation grants a full legal status not to individual units (that is, any religious organization) but the Church as a general community which is an institution. In this case, it is the Church as an institution, which is a legal entity and no issues can be solved without its consent, including those of jurisdictional self-determination of any community.

The Statutes of the UOC submitted for re-registration include many other provisions that are inconsistent with the current Ukrainian legislation, for example, the possibility to engage in commercial activities, which cannot be allowed because of non-profit status of religious communities. Thus, any religious organization can set up separate businesses that have their own Statutes and pay taxes from profits. But any religious organization in no case may directly engage in commerce or business.

Another categorical requirement to the Statutes proposed by the UOC is that any decision must be authorized by the diocesan bishop of the community. This creates a precedent when the religious organizations – communities and diocesan administrations that are completely equal from a legal point of view - will be in unequal relationships, i.e. in legitimized subordination to some other religious organizations. But this would again violate the law.

The church so far has deliberately avoided fruitful dialogue and tried to move the issue in the ideological plane, aiming to get these Statutes registered under pressure, citing some precedents from the past. I am sorry, but the principles of Yanukovych times cannot and will not be applied.

We apply the same universal principles to all who submit their documents for approval to the Department for Religions and Nationalities Ministry of Culture. Our goal is not to prevent or hinder the registration but make the Statute consistent with the legal requirements. An example was the case with the registration of the Statute of one of the monasteries of the UOC, whose documents have been submitted to the Department of one of the units of the diocesan Church. Representatives of the government, who wanted to quickly formalize the Statute, were ready to cooperate and abided by all of our recommendations in shortest terms. Consequently, given the appropriate desire and effort, in one and a half weeks we reached consent on all points and the Statute was registered. I can assure you this will be done in the cases of other Statutes given their compliance with the recommendations.

- But what kind of threat poses the situation of omission to reregister the Statute, If, say, the negotiations come to a standstill?

- There is no threat! Ukrainian legislation is the most liberal and provides that any religious organization could operate without state registration. In this case it does not acquire a legal entity status and operates as an informal gathering of citizens. If the organization does not acquire these rights, for instance, it will not be able establish their own enterprises. We understand that modern life urges religious organizations of diocesan level to resort to unconventional steps. For example, to set up charitable funds, create new opportunities and businesses if it complies with the law. However, we cannot legitimize blatant violations of Ukrainian legislation, such as the possibility to authorize religious organizations to engage in construction business (which, for example, was attempted under separate statutory documents).

- Let's talk about the Law “On freedom of conscience” and article 8 on free community transition between jurisdictions and the corrections offered by MP Victor Yelenskyy. How this may affect conflicts in intra-orthodox environment?

- In our view, the state has no right to avoid responding to modern challenges. These challenges are conflicts generated by real situation and relations between different denominations. The function of the state is to minimize conflict at all levels, to prevent or extinguish it.

We believe that the draft law by Professor Yelenskyy is an attempt to effectively support freedom of conscience and minimize the potential for conflict that recently began to emerge with a new force in the religious space of our country.

There are objective processes that determine the instances of active changes in the religious sector and the emergence of new points of conflict. We note that there is a mismatch between the institutional network of religious organizations that prevail in modern Ukraine and the real preferences of society. The current situation is mobilizing those communities, where such sentiments prevail among the faithful, to take decisive steps to bring its priority objective in line with the realities of jurisdictional affiliation. If this position is predominant in the community, this majority will sooner or later initiate a transition or change in subordination, as the idea of most community members does not meet specific community subordination scheme. This basically concerns rural communities where there is only one active community and, therefore, one church building. If there is no absolute consensus on changing jurisdictional subordination among believers, the organization and often property conflicts often arise that Draft law 4128 drafted by Victor Yelenskyy is intended to regulate and minimize.

Article 8 of the Law of Ukraine “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations” is fully in line with European standards and guarantees the right to freedom of opinion change. That is, the proposed changes do not add anything to the philosophy of law, but at the same time they deepen basic values and provide practical mechanism of implementation of the declared principles.

The draft law opponents are typically reluctant to normalize the situation and bring it into a purely legal framework and offer conflict resolution patterns for the outlets across the whole country, without any subjective influence. De facto, those who actively oppose the bill, are striving to maintain and even expand the conflict field that Russian propaganda machine seeks to use against our country.

Also, in no way I want to reduce the effect of the law only to relations between the UOC and UOC-KP. I refer to a universal model that will work for entire Ukraine and all religious organizations. The bill, as noted above, relates to the basic principles of Ukrainian law. Such jurisdictional changes always took place, every year. However, they were still lower. They were inconspicuous and resolved at the level of personal capabilities and influences in a particular region. We want to eliminate the subjective influence and build a universal model. Therefore, those who oppose de facto want to preserve conflict-generating trends in the religious environment.

- How can one focus on community when determining the practical transition mechanism? That is, how to determine the parishioners in the absence of fixed membership? Does this person have to appear in the church at least once a year or every week?

- Such situations almost never occur in those villages where there are two or more communities. Believers freely move to other churches, from one community to another. But let us be honest - in every rural community its administrative and religious head is well aware who are the members of a particular community, and in case of two or more communities - of each of them. I mean that no priest ever protested that hundreds of people come to his church on Easter and other major holidays. Maybe they do not attend every week, but they were baptized and crowned once there, and one and the same priest performed funeral services for their loved ones, they give money every time at every collection for specific purposes of the parish. In all cases no village priest protested that specific individuals identify themselves with a particular community. But somehow their opinion has changed dramatically, when all these people decided to come together and think over about the fate, i.e. jurisdictional subordination of their community. And anyone who thinks rationally and pragmatically will clearly say: community is not only a dozen people gathered around a priest who support any of his decisions, as they are often directly dependent on him and grateful to him. This is often the singers and chorus, and those who help in the ministries, and many other people involved in the operation of the church, receiving financial reward for it. But all those who attend church regularly, and consider themselves part of a religious community that blesses a specific person at every stage of her life.

- How should this regularity be determined?

This may be different. One person attends church once a year, but the helps the community financially so that hardly anyone dares to say that it is not a member of the community. On the other hand, there are many people who were baptized in a particular tradition and a particular community, with which these people associate all stages of their physical and spiritual growth. Does anyone have a moral right to declare all these people beyond the community if their worldview divorced the position of a formal religious leader?

Although they clearly and completely logically consider themselves members of the community to which they have belonged for decades in some cases.

- But the question is speculative. For example, there is artificial increase of the community at the expense of self-determination of those who did not attend the community for years. Is there a specific mechanism for determining membership?

- I understand your doubt. When developing the latest version of the draft law it was proposed that the assembly determines membership, while the legitimacy of the meeting is confirmed by the executive authority of each community. This approach allows you to remove all disagreements that may arise in the application of the bill. You are talking about the possibility of speculation on the one hand, as I recall well informed and speculative potential of the other.

The Orthodox jurisdiction, which was the most numerous as per quantity of religious organizations, actively offered a few years ago the idea that it had 35 million faithful. It meant in a practical perspective that the faithful of the Church are almost all residents of all settlements where its communities were available.

Instead, now, when the fate of each community is  to be decided by dozen or two people who attend each service in the church and are fully controlled by the church rector, it turns out that in reality the number of church adherents does not reach millions. So the question arises: when were the internal church ideologues and sociologists sincere and true – when they proceeded from the premise that community members are all those who baptized or a couple of or several years ago, or that community members are only those who sing on Sundays and light candles in churches? In fact, it is a trap, which the community has consciously prepared for itself.

So, if a person sanctified this year's Easter basket in the church, and two months after expresses the desire that the church he belongs to changes its jurisdiction, can anyone refuse? Can the council or community priest refuse the unquestioned right to freely express their position and realize the right to change one’s belief - whether to a person or a majority of fellow believers? I think no. I cite this example to show that the emphasis should be placed not on speculation. It is necessary to speak about constructive determination, awareness and attitudes towards the issues of actual membership in the community. Moreover, this identity on the rural level can be confirmed both at a formal and informal levels.

The obligation of the state is to provide equal opportunities to everyone, especially when we see the real proportion of the faithful. While the Church does not realize the need for an adequate response to social realities, it cannot change and side with the people.

Interviewed by Tetyana Kalenychenko