We are now nine years into hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, and nearly two years on from Russia’s unprovoked total invasion. A battlefield resolution is nowhere in sight. Unfortunately, while Ukrainian soldiers display unparalleled bravery in defence of their state and sovereignty, their government’s recent actions raise concerns about the erosion of liberal values, including freedom of speech and freedom of property.
Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, recently passed a draft law representing a first step in the demobilisation of fundamental freedoms in Ukraine. This law, designed to ban a church that has been the historic home of the Orthodox for a thousand years, in favour of a new state church that began as a political project of President Petro Poroshenko, uses the fog of war to breach not only international law but also human decency. It denies deeply religious members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the right to inhabit their temples and engage in religion in their language – Church Slavonic.
The implications of this ban extend beyond religious freedom; they touch upon broader liberal ideals. The right to freedom of speech and freedom of property are interwoven with the right to practise one’s religion freely. By suppressing a religious institution and its members, the Ukrainian government undermines these core principles. It is crucial to consider how such actions influence the overall climate of freedom and democracy within the country, especially considering other anti-democratic moves such as the delay of the country’s General Election and the banning of 11 political parties.
The behaviour of the Zelensky government displays a level of political corruption in the takeover of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church mirroring the worst tactics of ‘raider’ practices. We have already seen the theft of temples and assets, and the arrest of religious leaders.
The government also replaced a fair-handed bureaucrat in charge of religious issues with a zealot of the state’s own competitor church, and then allowed this biassed individual to set up an incompetent panel deciding the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was Moscow-based. In reality, the Church has done everything it can to denounce Russia’s immoral invasion and disassociate itself from its historic religious roots in Moscow.
In providing unlimited aid to Ukraine, it is shameful the West has done so little not only to stop corruption but to uphold liberal democratic values. A second reading of a bill to outlaw a major branch of Christianity during a period of war should be a slap in the face to the Western supporters of Ukraine and force them to wake up to the reality of Kyiv’s descent into lawlessness. The ends cannot justify the means.
Five years ago, when the political project to develop a separate church was in full swing, the then-president guaranteed there would be no religious intolerance. Further, the speaker of the house addressed concerns of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by suggesting it would be both foolish and polarising to force change during a period of war. Amazing indeed how quickly such profound undertakings can be disregarded.
The Ukrainian government’s Bill is a clear attack on freedom of religion. It strikes a blow against human rights and the ideals to which any European nation should hold itself. When the war is over, Ukraine will have to rebuild; it will have to reconstruct its society based on democratic values and principles. It makes no sense to dismantle these principles during the conflict, an act that will only delay and hinder the eventual reconstruction.
It is time for the Ukrainian parliament to reconsider its path. Shelving Draft Law 8371 would be a step towards a democratic and free future. The UK and many other Western countries who have provided a great amount of aid to Ukraine, need to notice this slide towards authoritarianism under the guise of wartime necessity, and should not hesitate to speak out. If they don’t, the current divide will only be deepened and a backslide on democratic values will result.