When church and coun­try clash:

The Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church of the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate is ex­pand­ing its in­flu­ence and pro­pa­ganda in Don­bas

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ye­lyza­veta Hon­charova, Bakhmut

The Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church of the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate is ex­pand­ing its in­flu­ence and pro­pa­ganda in Don­bas

Peo­ple in the lib­er­ated parts of Donetsk Oblast are ob­serv­ing, not only the ob­vi­ous comeback of po­lit­i­cal forces that changed their names but re­main anti-Ukrainian, but grow­ing ef­forts in this di­rec­tion by Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate churches. Nor is this a sur­prise: these two forces have al­ways marched in step in the Don­bas as they had com­mon goals. Right now, how­ever, res­i­dents of the re­gion are be­gin­ning to feel a wor­ri­some trend as the UOP-MP once again gains power over the gov­ern­ment and, even more dis­turbingly, over the school sys­tem. Just as they did prior to the start of the “Rus­sian spring,” pub­lic schools in the oblast are once again ea­gerly open­ing their doors to in­di­vid­u­als who sup­port Rus­sia and its ag­gres­sion. Or­ga­ni­za­tions that are af­fil­i­ated with Moscow-based en­ti­ties and are funded ex­clu­sively by the Moscow church have be­gun work­ing on text­books and hold­ing largescale meet­ings and events for teach­ers and pupils. Worse, Ukrainian of­fi­cials are not re­spond­ing to this con­tro­ver­sial trend.


“In Kos­tiantynivka County, an Ortho­dox youth cen­ter called Strete­nie [The Vis­i­ta­tion] sim­i­lar to the one in Kislovodsk, Rus­sia, was set up in 2011,” says Ok­sana Proselkova, a teacher at the Kram­a­torsk school. “That’s al­ready a con­cern­ing turn of events. Of course, I’m not try­ing to blame any­one; what I’d like to have is facts. All the more so be­cause I taught Chris­tian ethics prior to the war and was then a par­ish­ioner of the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate. But I was dis­il­lu­sioned and stopped go­ing there after a con­ver­sa­tion with the par­ish priest at the Kram­a­torsk church who is now in charge of the eparchy in oc­cu­pied Hor­livka in which he ex­pressed noth­ing but sus­pi­cion and ac­cu­sa­tions.

“The essence of my con­ver­sa­tion with him was that, since I had vis­ited Lviv once again in De­cem­ber 2014—I was pre­sent­ing our pro­ject, the first se­ries of 2014 Win­ter Read­ings at the Cen­ter for Literary Re­search for chil­dren and teenagers—, I was told to come to him and make my con­fes­sion and clearly tell him what peo­ple THERE were teach­ing me. Right now, I be­lieve that we need to avoid any kind of re­la­tion­ship what­so­ever with the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate. I sup­pose there are MP priests who are Ukrainian pa­tri­ots, but my own ex­pe­ri­ence has shown that they are con­trolled from the cen­ter.”

Ms. Proselkova of­fers an ex­am­ple of how the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate in Donetsk Oblast works closely with state in­sti­tu­tions in set­ting ed­u­ca­tional pol­icy. In late fall 2017, the First Pokrova Ped­a­gog­i­cal Ses­sions took place in the vil­lage of Ser­hiyivka on the topic of strength­en­ing the in­sti­tute of the fam­ily. The event was spon­sored by the Donetsk Oblast Post-Sec­ondary Ed­u­ca­tion In­sti­tute and the Hor­livka and Slo­viansk eparchies, the Strete­nia cen­ter, and the Svi­ato-Ser­hiyivska Nun­nery. Teach­ers from all over Donetsk Oblast were in­vited to the sem­i­nar and they were

ad­dressed by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mitro­phan, the arch­bishop of Hor­livka and Slo­viansk. Yet no one was told in ad­vance that the cleric would be speak­ing at the event. Nor did the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion know about the par­tic­i­pa­tion of its teach­ers, as they were in­vited per­son­ally by their prin­ci­pals.

With the new Law on Ed­u­ca­tion, it will be even more dif­fi­cult to con­trol such things cen­trally be­cause prin­ci­pals and par­ents can, at their own dis­cre­tion, in­vite any­one they want to teach their chil­dren. This is sup­pos­edly very good, be­cause peo­ple are quite tired of the min­istry forc­ing every­one to toe the same line. On the other hand, there’s the real risk that Ukrainian chil­dren will be­come hostages to the hege­mony of pro-Moscow priests. It is start­ing to look that way. For in­stance, it turns out that the re­li­gious as­so­ci­a­tion men­tioned above is now pro­mot­ing method­olog­i­cal projects in pre-schools and has started to work in the oblast’s kinder­gartens. In­deed, its pro­mo­tional brochures even an­nounced that they would be get­ting the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s seal of ap­proval in 2018. But a wave of an­gry protest on the in­ter­net led to the next lec­ture, which had been sched­uled for Kram­a­torsk, to be post­poned.

Ms. Proselkova found her­self un­der mount­ing pres­sure, but she found sup­port among pro-Ukrainian ac­tivists who were very clear about their po­si­tion: even if they are un­der the guise of sec­u­lar or­ga­ni­za­tions, mem­bers of a re­li­gious com­mu­nity have no busi­ness in­ter­fer­ing in the work of state in­sti­tu­tions—es­pe­cially if their church has al­ready shown it­self to be one of the driv­ing forces be­hind a mil­i­tary con­flict and con­tin­ues to deny both the na­ture of the con­flict and its own role in fan­ning its flames.


On the other hand, stand­ing up to this sit­u­a­tion with the help of the SBU or through po­lit­i­cal means is un­likely to work. This very del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion re­quires an abil­ity to an­a­lyze and to col­lec­tively rec­og­nize the need for self-preser­va­tion. That re­quires a cer­tain amount of po­lit­i­cal will, as well. In Donetsk Oblast, the tra­di­tion of churches using gov­ern­ment of­fices to strengthen their in­flu­ence is strong and gen­er­ally seen as nat­u­ral. Nor is it limited to the pub­lic ap­pear­ance of those in of­fice at church events or feasts. It ex­tends to the al­lo­ca­tion of valu­able land, the con­struc­tion of churches using funds from the Mayor or lo­cal deputies as a demon­stra­tion of mu­tual loy­alty. At open ses­sions that were or­ga­nized dur­ing re­li­gious hol­i­days by town or county ad­min­is­tra­tors, priests openly de­manded the right to use ad­min­is­tra­tive lever­age to force busi­nesses, farm­ers and en­trepreneurs to pro­vide “vol­un­tary” as­sis­tance. The an­swer was: “We’ll take care of ev­ery­thing.” “The clergy don’t shy away from the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by those in power when they lobby their own in­ter­ests,” says Maksym Po­tapchuk, di­rec­tor of Liberi Liberati, a cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tion al foun­da­tion and one of the com­mu­nity ac­tivists who sup­ported the un­der­stand­ably an­gry Kram­a­torsk teacher. “This in­cludes get­ting per­mis­sion to use land, free ac­cess to a young au­di­ence, and using pub­lic plat­forms for all kinds of pro­pa­ganda, from pub­lic speeches to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of pam­phlets. When all this takes place next to of­fi­cial­dom, it’s seen as cor­rect, pop­u­lar and rec­og­nized. But most of all, it’s part of the state. The gov­ern­ment pro­motes such peo­ple like Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mitro­phan, show­ing that this per­son can be trusted.”

Dur­ing the armed con­flict, the in­flu­ence of the most widely rep­re­sented church in Don­bas on the gov­ern­ment seemed to fade some­what. But that was per­haps sim­ply be­cause the lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self was lost and weak for a time. At that point both the UOC-MP and those in of­fice tried to sur­vive in­de­pen­dently: even hu­man­i­tar­ian aid be­gan to come in from other con­fes­sions. Now, how­ever, its in­flu­ence has re­turned to pre-war lev­els, al­beit its qual­ity has some­what changed. To­day, var­i­ous other con­fes­sions can also use pub­lic of­fices to strengthen their po­si­tions and it’s not just the UOC-MP that is ac­tively del­e­gat­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives to all kinds of in­sti­tu­tions that in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion. The Greek Catholics and Protes­tants are also busy at it. More­over, the ap­pear­ance of ortho­dox cen­ters of the Kyiv Pa­tri­ar­chate has be­come syn­ony­mous with the con­sol­i­da­tion of the pro-Ukrainian com­mu­nity.

Not long ago, a num­ber of cities in Donetsk sup­ported a flash­mob protest when a priest of the UOC-MP re­fused to hold a fu­neral ser­vice for a child in Za­por­izhzhia. The two year-old had been killed when an un­re­lated man threw him­self out of the win­dow of their apart­ment build­ing. When told that the child had been chris­tened in the Kyiv Pa­tri­ar­chate, the “The Batiushka [the Rus­sian name for par­ish priests, mean­ing Lit­tle Fa­ther] told us that our child was not chris­tened and our church was false,” the tod­dler’s fa­ther later re­ported. This in­ci­dent caused out­rage in Ukraine that only grew stronger when the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate be­gan to de­fend its priest. And so there was a call for a flash­mob in so­cial net­works: peo­ple in var­i­ous cities be­gan to carry dolls to MP churches whose priests sup­port the Rus­sian prox­ies.

Many hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions also have a clear re­li­gious con­nec­tion and the gov­ern­ment has to take that into ac­count as well. For in­stance, Slo­viansk and Kram­a­torsk, which were the first cities to be oc­cu­pied back in mid 2014, have a strong and ac­tive Protes­tant com­mu­nity to­day. Among others, it has had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the process of re­build­ing and as­sist­ing the towns ma­te­ri­ally through global re­li­gious foun­da­tions—and is slowly hav­ing an im­pact on the lo­cal gov­ern­ment as well. Un­sur­pris­ingly, they are also grad­u­ally join­ing var­i­ous state ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, not so much to be paid for their ser­vices as to ex­pand their cir­cle of sup­port­ers on a com­pletely le­git­i­mate ba­sis—pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment. For in­stance, not long ago the Donetsk Oblast Youth Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quested that Protes­tants be added to its ros­ter, since, they claimed, there were sim­ply no sec­u­lar spe­cial­ists in this area.


Pres­sure is not al­ways so di­rectly ap­plied. The most bizarre at­tempt by the UOC-MP to in­flu­ence Ukrainian so­ci­ety as a whole and the gov­ern­ment in par­tic­u­lar was the dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion among its parish­ioners claim­ing that bio­met­ric pass­ports were dan­ger­ous. For a time there were even ral­lies and cam­paigns un­der this slo­gan. The first time this came to any­one’s at­ten­tion was in a small town near the front when a woman asked lawyers how her child might ac­quire an or­di­nary pass­port rather than an ID card. The woman was a be­liever and her Batiushka had told her that Ortho­dox faith­ful should not ac­cept doc­u­ments with chips be­cause the laser beam directed into the brain dur­ing pho­tograph­ing would al­ter the per­son for­ever. When she heard that the op­tion of re­ceiv­ing a pa­per pass­port was no longer avail­able for tech­ni­cal rea­sons, she said that in that case her child would be with­out any doc­u­ments at all.

The ques­tion is, why is the Moscow Church so adamantly against about a purely tech­ni­cal mat­ter? With bio­met­ric pass­ports, of course, it’s much eas­ier to go to de­vel­oped coun­tries— and this, like the fic­tive laser beam, is very dan­ger­ous for the mind of an ortho­dox per­son.


Spon­ta­neous sol­i­dar­ity. Sev­eral cities in Donetsk Oblast have joined a re­cent flash­mob with toys brought to Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate churches. It was trig­gered by an MP priest's re­fusal to hold a fu­neral ser­vice for a child in Za­por­izhzhia be­cause the 2-year old had been bap­tized at a Kyiv Pa­tri­ar­chate church

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