Patriarch Kirill said he was perplexed by the international community’s silence in the face of “oppression” of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
“The silence of the world community is bewildering,” Kirill told the Russian Foreign Ministry’s annual Easter party. “Our church is being oppressed, they are trying to deprive it of civil rights, trying to adopt laws that exclude the normal registration of the Orthodox parishes in Ukraine; the forced takeover of the churches is taking place.”
As head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill has the formal title “Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.” The Ukrainian Orthodox Church came under Russian Orthodox Church jurisdiction in the 17th century.
However, Patriarch Kirill’s support for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and decision to back armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as his general approval of President Vladimir Putin’s policies, caused a split between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.
“All congregations in Ukraine are equal before the law, and none of them is privileged or subjected to restrictions. According to the law, any religious community has a right to freely choose the center of their subordination, but the laws do not provide a mechanism of how to implement that right,” Archbishop Evstratiy, a spokesman of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, told Polygraph.info.
According to Evstratiy, there is legislation pending in Ukraine’s parliament aimed at creating that missing mechanism, “The proposed law stipulates that every congregation shall decide on the subordination by a majority of votes during a convention,” he said.
According to Evstratiy, the Moscow Patriarchate has lost most of its adherents in Ukraine. “When members of a congregation say they would like to leave the Moscow Patriarchate and join the Kyiv Patriarchate instead, Moscow tries to prevent this by all means, including by claiming that the churches are being taken over forcibly, when in reality it was the members of same congregation who did not want to be supervised by Moscow any longer,” he said.
The latest annual report by the human rights group Freedom House places Ukraine in the “partially free” category. It says that religious rights in Ukraine are “generally respected,” noting that the conflict in eastern Ukraine “has increased friction between rival branches of the Orthodox Church, and smaller religious groups continue to report some discrimination.”
According to Freedom House, most of the incidents in Ukraine involving the suppression of religious rights have taken place in regions controlled by the Russia-backed separatists.
“In the DNR [Donetsk People's Republic] and LNR [Luhansk People's Republic], separatist forces have reportedly persecuted Protestant and other non–Russian Orthodox denominations, forcing them to flee or operate underground churches,” the report states.
Experts say the current hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church fully backs the Kremlin’s foreign policy, including its policy toward Ukraine.
“Kirill is completely misrepresenting the situation” in Ukraine, Paul Goble, a former U.S. government official and an expert on Russia, told Polygraph.info.
“His church in Ukraine is working against the Ukrainian state and seeking to disorder Ukrainian society,” Goble said. “There have been no official reprisals against it, although there have been limited actions by some Ukrainian faithful against Moscow Patriarchate churches and clergy. Kirill views anything but the complete submission of everyone to his and the Kremlin's position as opposition.”