KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for the country’s largest and oldest branch of Christian Orthodoxy to be banned as long as it continues to respond to church leaders in Moscow, proposing a new law that he said would ensure the nation “never”. allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul.
The law, if enacted, would further strain a centuries-old spiritual relationship between Russia and Ukraine, codifying the already deep rift in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Kyiv has long feared that Russia is using the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to cover a network of clandestine agents whose aim is to undermine Ukraine from within. Over the past month, Ukrainian security agencies have carried out a series of raids on monasteries and religious institutions in search of saboteurs among clerics.
The Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, has interviewed dozens of religious leaders, administered polygraph tests to some, and claimed to have found “literature that denies the existence of the Ukrainian people, their language, as well as Ukraine’s very right to statehood.After last month’s raids, the church called accusations that its clergy collaborated with Russia as “unproven and groundless.”
Last month, 33 priests were arrested for aiding Russia since the invasion began in February, according to Ukrainian authorities. Most of them were tasked with gathering intelligence for the forces in Moscow.
There are two rival Orthodox Churches in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which receives its orders from Kyiv, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The recent raids and suspicions implicate the latter, who is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill, who has close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin and has been outspoken in his support for the invasion.
It had more than 12,000 parishes across the country in January, before the war, according to a group that tracks the movement of parishes. The subsidiary has declared independence from Moscow, but still officially receives orders from Russia. He condemned the war, but that was not enough to assuage the concerns of the Ukrainian security services.
In an address to the nation on Thursday evening, Mr. Zelensky proposed a law “making it impossible for religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence of the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine.”
“We will ensure, in particular, spiritual independence,” Mr. Zelensky said, noting that the law was needed to ensure that Russia could not “manipulating the Ukrainians and weakening Ukraine from within”.
Ukraine’s parliament has two months to review the law, and experts noted it could be challenged in court.
The religious history of Ukraine and Russia is deeply linked. Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine trace their faith to the conversion in 988 of the Grand Prince of Kyiv – known as Vladimir to Russians and Volodymyr to Ukrainians.
After the great pagan prince was baptized by missionaries from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Kyiv became the most important religious center for the people known as Slavs. After Kyiv was sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, it fell into decline. By 1686 Russia had conquered eastern Ukraine and Kyiv and the Orthodox Church had become subordinate to Moscow.
Efforts by Ukrainian Orthodox Christians to establish their own church and break with Moscow were linked to independence movements in 1921, 1942 and 1992. These efforts were largely unsuccessful.
But after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented war in the east, Eastern Orthodoxy’s chief spiritual guide, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, granted independence to the Kyiv branch.
This decision led Moscow to sever ties with Barthélemy. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Kyiv now comprises more than 7,000 parishes.
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