by T. Cummings
As Russia asserts its power in the Crimea, many people are wondering what is at stake in Ukraine. What could a strong Russian presence mean for Ukrainians? The country’s fragile economy, its relationship with Europe, and the need for a stronger democracy are important issues that many media outlets have reported on. But one thing that has not been considered is the possible effect of the Russian occupation on religious freedom in Ukraine.
My church is a minority religion in Russia. Most Russians belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, which receives what a 2012 US State Department report on religious freedom called “preferential consideration.” Other groups, like the RussianOrthodoxAutonomousChurch I belong to, have their freedoms restricted, even though they are guaranteed equal freedoms under the Russian Constitution.
For instance, the State Department report mentions that Russian courts ruled to seize two reliquaries containing 800-year-old saints’ relics, bones and all, from a ROAC church last year, and a 2011 report acknowledges the Russian government’s systematic confiscation of at least 15 ROAC church buildings since 2009.
The churches have mostly been given over to the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese, and many observers expect the same thing will happen with the saints’ relics. This is apparently what the State Department means by “preferential consideration.”
The reports also document a long list of religious freedom violations and human rights abuses committed by the Russian government against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and many others.
Ukraine, on the other hand, received a favorable report in both 2011 and 2012. While non-Christians reported some harassment from individuals and businesses, no accusations were made against the Ukrainian government. By and large, the government has been able to maintain a fair attitude toward all religious groups. This despite the fact that the major religion in that country, Orthodox Christianity, is sharply divided between three competing organizations, a source of much controversy among Ukrainians. Significantly, one of these competing organizations is attached to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Where Russia has failed to uphold a fair approach to religion, Ukraine has succeeded even under the circumstances of sharp religious controversy.
However, if Russia is allowed to wrestle control of Ukraine, religious freedom there will suffer. It suffers in Russia because the government uses religion as a political tool, hoping to inspire nationalistic enthusiasm by supporting the traditional religion of the Moscow Patriarchate. Wherever Russia goes, its nationalism will go with it, and part of that is the overthrow of religious freedom and the “preferential consideration” of its pet religion.
I have heard personal testimonies of families going to worship in their temples only to find them padlocked. A church was burned, but the arsonists escaped entirely unpursued. Servants of the court walked into a chapel in the middle of services and duct-taped a reliquary of century-old saints’ bones and threatened to haul them away. In a supposedly civilized country, priests are regularly beaten and harassed in the sight of police and public officials, but they are denied protection and justice. This is how the Russian government plays religious freedom, and this is one of the many things at stake in Ukraine.