Zelensky warned over banning ‘historic institution’

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church faces being banned by the government over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church faces being banned by the government over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church - VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has been warned that the country’s attempts to ban its oldest and most widely supported Christian church would “have dire consequences” for his hopes of EU membership.

Pressure is mounting on Western leaders to intervene to stop the Ukraine government banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) because of its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

International lawyers acting on behalf of the Holy Synod of the UOC have written to Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, Joe Biden, the US president, and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, urging them to tell Mr Zelensky to “suspend efforts to ban this historic institution”.

The intervention comes as the Ukraine parliament appears set to approve legislation that would outlaw the UOC, despite it being the biggest in the country, with 12,000 parishes.

Lawyers have written to Rishi Sunak, urging him to tell Volodymyr Zelensky to ‘suspend efforts to ban this historic institution’
Lawyers have written to Rishi Sunak, urging him to tell Volodymyr Zelensky to ‘suspend efforts to ban this historic institution’ - Carl Court/REUTERS

Despite the UOC’s historic connections to the Moscow Patriarchate, it claims to have severed ties with Russia, supported Kyiv’s independence, backed the Ukrainian government’s war efforts, and criticised Vladimir Putin’s invasion. But critics claim it has never declared full autocephaly from Moscow.

The Ukrainian authorities accused the UOC of continuing to collaborate with the Russian Federation and its clergy have faced harassment, intimidation, sanctions and imprisonment.

Ukraine has abandoned Jan 7 as its Christmas Day and this year celebrated the festival on Dec 25
Ukraine has abandoned Jan 7 as its Christmas Day and this year celebrated the festival on Dec 25 - Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

A vote by parliamentarians in the Rada is expected by the middle of January which would go much further, effectively closing down a church that has been the main religious body in Ukraine for centuries.

In a graphic demonstration of the religious divisions in the country, Ukraine has officially abandoned Jan 7 as its Christmas Day and this year celebrated the festival on Dec 25 in common with Western Christian churches following the Gregorian calendar. However, many worshippers have chosen to stick with the ancient Julian calendar and the traditional Jan 7 date.

‘Serious harm to Orthodox Ukrainians’

The letter from international lawyer Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam & Partners LLP to the leaders of the US, UK and the European Union describes the proposed ban of the UOC as “an overly punitive attack that will cause serious harm to Orthodox Ukrainians”.

It adds: “As a candidate to join the EU, with all the obligations this entails, there is now a very serious question mark over whether Ukraine can meet its commitments to human rights and the rule of law.

“This will have dire ramifications for Ukraine’s entry into the European Union and its place in the Western world.”

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has criticised Vladimir Putin, here with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, over the invasion
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has criticised Vladimir Putin, here with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, over the invasion - GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mr Amsterdam is banned from Russia after representing various opponents and fierce critics of Putin.

He claims the UOC declared has played a vital role in supporting the country’s efforts in the war, including “using its considerable presence in Europe to support Ukrainian refugees”.

‘Collaborating with Russian regime’

According to the letter: “Regardless of these efforts, the authorities in Ukraine have falsely accused the Church of collaborating with the Russian regime. Of particular concern are the arrests of clerics on spurious charges.

“These have been carried out in an arbitrary way that call into question Ukraine’s commitment to the rule of law. There are even highly concerning signs of evidence planting in some of these cases.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has already raised concerns about religious freedom and rule of law in the Ukrainian government’s crackdown on the UOC.

‘Dangerous precedent’

Amsterdam & Partners LLP, which has offices in London and Washington, has sent the three Western leaders a 25-page “White Paper” or dossier detailing the persecution of the UOC and its leading clerics over the past few years.

Mr Amsterdam said: “The ongoing attacks on the UOC – its institutional structures, its members, and its beliefs – by the Ukrainian government constitutes a clear violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by both international human rights law and the Ukrainian Constitution itself.

“Present efforts before the Ukrainian Parliament to outright ban the Church would constitute a dangerous precedent for undermining religious freedoms that should be of concern to the international community as a whole.”

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