News from Ukraine is focused on its startling presidential election, in which the leading candidate is a comedian whose political role before now has been to play a fictional president in a TV series. Less visible alongside that drama is the country’s process of consolidating the new independence of its Orthodox church after centuries of control by Moscow. Ukraine’s religious independence from Russia is a high-stakes step, one that the Russian government actively opposes, toward a fully independent Ukraine following 300-plus years of Russian domination. In the struggle over control of the church, news accounts and a new U.N. Human Rights Report suggests that Ukraine is mainly—but perhaps not perfectly—preventing acts of intimidation that could increase the risk of violence.

Orthodox worshippers during a midnight Easter ceremony outside the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Donetsk, Ukraine, April 20, 2014. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
Orthodox worshippers during a midnight Easter ceremony outside the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Donetsk, Ukraine, April 20, 2014. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

Ukrainians and their government must prevent physical confrontations between the newly independent church and the long-dominant rival faction beholden to Russia. “The Ukrainian government and the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine should work assiduously to prevent any violence, including by their supporters,” USIP Executive Vice President Bill Taylor and Research Coordinator Leslie Minney wrote recently in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. “While the independence of Ukraine’s church from Moscow is fraught with political implications for both Ukraine and Russia, the new church can reduce the risks of violence only by keeping itself visibly independent of the Ukrainian government and politics.”

Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Minney stressed that Ukraine’s formal church independence, granted in January by the Orthodoxy’s preeminent prelate, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, is “no ordinary foreign policy defeat” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “For Putin, Ukrainian religious independence undercuts the domestic political narrative with which he justifies his rule, and it weakens the Russian Orthodox Church—Russia’s most venerable institution and one of Putin’s most potent political allies.”

Bartholomew’s declaration that Ukraine’s church is now independent of Moscow has opened “a new competition, likely to last years, for the loyalty of Ukraine’s 18,000 parishes,” two-thirds of which have been under Russian authority, Taylor and Minney wrote. So far, Ukrainian news reports say, some 300 of the Moscow-aligned parishes have switched their allegiance to the independent Ukrainian church. This month, the latest U.N. Human Rights Report on Ukraine says U.N. monitors have investigated accounts saying that “in a few cases” such transfers had not been voluntary, but instead prompted by authorities.

The report offered no conclusions about those cases, but expressed “concern” at “incidents that could be perceived as acts of intimidation against members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate,” the faction of the church loyal to Russia’s church. The United Nations report, like an account last month by Amnesty International, underscores that Ukraine’s most severe human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, continue to occur in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine’s news headlines, and its long struggles to consolidate democracy and stem corruption, will this year be dominated by elections. President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election, has made himself a key public sponsor of the church independence movement. This also can pose risks. “As Ukraine’s new church is built, both it and the government must visibly demonstrate the separation of church and state required by Ukraine’s constitution,” Taylor and Minney wrote. “Any appearance of a Russian-style conflation of the two will make the new church an easier target for Moscow’s political attacks.”

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