FACT CHECK: Does Zelensky Respect ‘Religious Liberty’ in Ukraine?
An edited clip of former Vice President Mike Pence seemingly telling Tucker Carlson that decaying American cities are “not my concern” instantly went viral, but Pence’s most controversial statements at the Family Leader Summit, about Ukraine’s respect for “religious liberty,” have passed without comment.
The moment came when Carlson asked if the former vice president, who made a return visit to Ukraine in June, had pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky about his “treatment of Christians within Ukraine.” Pence replied, “I raised [the issue] with the leader of the Orthodox Church when I was visiting Kyiv and asked him about concerns about religious liberty. He assured me that the Zelensky government in Ukraine was respecting religious liberty.” (You can watch the exchange here.)
Pence’s answer seems definitive, but those who cherish religious liberty need to identify its verbal sleight-of-hand: Pence met with the “leader of the Orthodox Church” whom Zelensky’s discriminatory policies benefit, not the Christians they harm.
Is Zelensky’s government “respecting religious liberty” in Ukraine? Let’s examine the facts.
Which “Leader of the Orthodox Church” Is Which?
Two major churches in Ukraine call themselves Orthodox. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the historic body founded in 989 A.D., has perhaps 10,000 churches. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), a coalition of breakaway parishes and formerly unrecognizedgroups which the Patriarch of Constantinople declared autocephalous in January 2019, has an estimated 7,000 parishes. Pence met with Metropolitan Epiphaniy of the OCU, whose news service announced the meeting at the famous golden-domed sanctuary. Metropolitan Onufriy of the UOC would likely have given Pence a difference assessment about the Ukrainian government’s respect for “religious liberty.”
Zelensky Discriminates against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
During his exchange with Pence, Carlson noted, “The Zelensky government has raided convents, arrested priests, has effectively banned a denomination — a Christian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, within Ukraine — has persecuted Christians.” That nearly echoes the words of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which reports that from February through the end of April, Zelensky’s “[g]overnment and local authorities took several measures targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).” Government agents “searched places of worship and other UOC facilities, issued notices of suspicions against clergymen, and placed several of them under house arrest.” Since the beginning of the conflict, seven regional councils have banned all “activities of the UOC,” overstepping their legal authority.
Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has introduced numerous bills to redistribute church property from the disfavored UOC to the favored OCU, some with Zelensky’s personal approval:
- Draft law No. 8221 — which bears the Orwellian title, “On ensuring strengthening of national security in the sphere of freedom of conscience and activities of religious organizations” — would forbid any church from using the title “Orthodox” unless it is (in the words of the state news agency, UKRINFORM) “subordinated to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU);
- Bill No. 7403 strips the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of its tax-exempt status;
- Draft Resolution No. 8012 transfers the historic monastic properties of the Kyiv Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavra — a sacred site in Orthodox history — from UOC to the OCU; and
- Draft law No. 8262 bars the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) from using state property.
Some UOC parishes have had their property “transferred” to the jurisdiction of the OCU by people who do not belong to the parish. “[V]illagers who are not parishioners of the UOC church organize a meeting of the territorial community. At such meetings, they simply declare: We are Orthodox, and we believe that there will be only an OCU in our community,” reports the independent weekly newspaper Fakty i Kommentarii.
Zelensky’s government revoked the citizenship of 13 UOC clerics near the first of the year.
In a smaller act of aggression, earlier this month the Rada amended the state labor code to change the date of Christmas, which the UOC traditionally celebrated on January 7 due to its use of the Julian Calendar, to December 25, the revised date the OCU allowed last fall and formally adopted this spring. Since 2017, the government had recognized both dates for Christmas; now, in theory, an observer of the traditional date might not be able to get the day off work to attend church. The bill — personally introduced by President Zelensky— also changed two other national holidays associated with religious feasts to the OCU’s date: the Protection of the Mother of God (to October 1 from October 14) and the Baptism of Rus, considered independence day (July 15 from the 28).
Evicting Monks Quietly, so Tucker Carlson Won’t Report It
The most visible sign of the Zelenskygovernment’s dispute with the UOC is the historic Kyiv Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavra. Zelenskyofficials placed the monastery’s abbot, Metropolitan Pavel, under house arrest from April 1 until June 29; he presently resides in the Lukyanivska pre-trial detention center, which Radio Liberty described as “infamous for its terrible conditions, with detainees enduring cold, crowding, and crumbling walls.”
The government originally aimed to evict the monks from the historic monastery by March 29, less than three weeks after the March 10 announcement. Although the eviction order remains tied up in court, Ukrainian government authorities began sealing buildings at the monastery. Eventually, monks and a large number of faithful Christians protected some of the property, but not before the National Reserve sealed buildings 68, 69, 70, 71, and 115. Officials have not sealed any additional buildings since July 6, and the official who oversees the National Reserve, Oleksandr Tkachenko, resigned two weeks later.
High-ranking officials in Zelensky’s party have acknowledged that seizing possession of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra could be complicated, since then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych extended the UOC’s lease for another 49 years on July 17, 2003 — 20 years ago this month. But the deputy leader of Zelensky’s Servant of the People faction in parliament, Yevgenia Kravchuk, believes the government will get the historic monastery in its clutches gradually, particularly since “the majority of the deputies” in the Ukrainian government support Zelensky’s proposal. For now, she wants the government to bide its time.
“It is very important not to show physical aggression. All this can create a false picture of some religious oppression. Then various foreign conservative journalists, such as Tucker Carlson, believe me, will do a separate report on it,” Kravchuk warned. Then American voters “can start asking their congressmen, referring to the so-called religious persecution in Ukraine.”
Religious Liberty ‘an Invalid Argument’: Zelensky’s Deputy
“Some say: ‘Let’s not interfere in religious matters.’ But this, it seems to me, is now an invalid argument,” said Zelensky’s deputy, Kravchuk. Some Ukrainian Orthodox Church priests and faithful are “not yet ready to fully transition to OCU,” but “[w]e have to go through it.”
What is behind this drive to dispossess the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? “The main thing is the political leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly stated that Ukraine needs spiritual independence,” said Kravchuk. Indeed, Zelenskygave a speech last December 1 promising to create “spiritual independence. We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul.”
Some officials have already paid the price for resisting religious discrimination. Olena Bohdan led Zelensky’s State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience (DESS), which oversees the government’s religious policies — until her findings contradicted the state line that the UOC was aligned with Moscow. Bohdan combed through UOC church documents and concluded that the UOC had removed everything establishing its “subordination and dependence” upon Moscow. Zelenskythen fired her. Bohdan told Radio Liberty she lost her job because, while she tried to act “from the standpoint of constitutional principles,” she was pressured “to find a way to disband the UOC.”
Is the UOC Controlled by Russia?
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over the invasion of Ukraine, which it wholeheartedly opposed. “War is the worst sin in the world. It forces us to look at another person not as an image of God, but as an enemy to be killed. Therefore, there is no excuse for those who start wars,” said Metropolitan Onufriy. The church has taken concrete steps to underscore its independence from Russian church authorities and, as noted, Bohdan documented the UOC’s separation from the Patriarchate of Moscow.
The Zelensky government justified expelling UOC monks from the historic monastery on the grounds that the monks secretly aid Russia — but Zelensky’s “proof” of UOC’s Russian collusion underwhelms. Last November 22, National Police pilfered through monks’ private quarters, searched 350 monastery buildings and visitors’ quarters, checked the identities of 850 people on the grounds, and administered polygraphs to 50 people (including some monks). They found a few thousand rubles (1,000 rubles is worth $11 U.S.) and a handful of pamphlets containing sermons by the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill, possibly brought by pilgrims from Russia. (Imagine if Americans visited the monastery, and the government busted the monks because they found dollar bills and a book by Billy Graham.) They also claim someone overheard one of the monks singing a song that discussed “awakening the Russian world” (Russkiy mir), a concept akin to Manifest Destiny — but Bohdan said the lyrics were so ambiguous, they may have asked “for Russia to wake up and stop its armed offensive on Ukraine.” The UOC has condemned the Russkiy mir notion, as Met. Onufriy declared, “We do not build any ‘Russian world;’ we build God’s world.”
Things became more heated after a missile fell on Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa. “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has had nothing in common with your understanding for a very long time,” UOC Archbishop Viktor Bykov of Artsyz wrote to Moscow Patriarch Kirill, likening him to an abusive father. “We condemn this maniacal aggression of the Russian Federation against our independent country.”
Yet even the most anti-Russian clerics agree Zelensky’s government tramples on their unalienable rights. A group of more than 300 UOC priests who support autocephaly condemned “Russia’s Satanic aggression against Ukraine,” while slighting the Zelensky government’s “flagrant violations of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Ukraine who are the clergy and believers of the UOC.”
Ukrainian Government Demanding UOC Cease to be Orthodox?
Zelensky’s government is pressuring the UOC to take a step that could effectively eliminate it from the communion of the Orthodox Church. After Bohdan’s ouster, DESS demanded the UOC cut all ties with Moscow by declaring itself autocephalous; on July 25, officials reiterated their demand for the “the complete and unconditional rupture” of communion. Typically, other national Orthodox churches grant autocephaly to a church body; it is not asserted unilaterally. And there are never two autocephalous churches in the same territory. If the UOC declares independence, it could lose communion with all other Orthodox churches, a necessary element of Orthodox ecclesiology. Meanwhile, the churches associated with Constantinople maintain communion with the OCU, effectively rendering it the nation’s only Orthodox body.
Eastern Europe has Little Sense of ‘Religious Liberty’
Though the concept of religious liberty has patristic roots, it arose in the West from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 — a treaty that had no impact on Eastern Europe. The entire region has varying degrees of toleration for church authorities. Thus, none of this should suggest Russia would impose Western-style conscience rights in Ukraine beyond those respected in Russia today. Authorities say Russian troops have destroyed hundreds of Ukrainian churches, tortured evangelical pastors, and repressed the OCU and sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Ukrainian Christians have seen the government expropriate and redistribute their property for decades. After decades of trying to eradicate all religion, in 1946 Soviet authorities tried to liquidate Ukraine’s Byzantine Catholic parishes — former Eastern Orthodox churches that submitted to papal authority in 1596 after Catholic Poland conquered the nation — by closing or transferring its remaining 4,119 churches and chapels to the Orthodox Church. The communists did this throughout the USSR, because the official Orthodox hierarchy at the time reported to or belonged to the KGB. The UOC’s reaction to the invasion shows those days have ended. Drawing on his history of persecution, the current leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has said no Ukrainian “should be persecuted for belonging to some church structure.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has pressured Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy and laity to affiliate with the OCU, raided UOC monasteries, attempted to evict monks on flimsy evidence, interfered with the internal operations of a church, legally impeded traditional Orthodox Christian observances, and openly favored one faction over another.
Mike Pence met with the benefactor of Zelensky’s religious discrimination, who told him everything’s fine. That statement drew less attention than a “gotcha” moment during the Family Leader Summit, but it should be more concerning for those who value religious liberty, or truth.
Unfortunately, this assurance is false.
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.