International community should give adequate assessment of Moscow Patriarchate’s responsibility for incitement and developments in Crimea and Donbas, Andriy Yurash says

11 August 2015, 09:52 | Interview | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Interviewed by Tatiana KALENYCHENKO

Yurash.jpgThe issues of freedom of conscience and religion, and of religious persecution were considered in the second session of the OSCE Human Dimension, held on July 2-3 in Vienna, capital of Austria. Although the main tendencies were highlighted by executive director of the Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF) MaxymVasin in his report, we decided to talk in more detail to another event participant - Head of the Department for Religions and Nationalities to the Ministry of Culture AndriyYurash.

- Tell us, please, about the whole event and your impressions from it.

- At the OSCE session in Vienna, I was personally invited to take part in the so-called side event to the main meeting, which was to focus on issues of religious freedom both at the Assembly level and within the framework of the rest of events. As the “religious” issues, so to say, have been the focus of all the participants, I just had to take an active part in all the discussions regarding Ukraine. I was even authorized to speak twice on behalf of the Ukrainian delegation at the main session in response to absurd and blatantly propagandistic statements of the Russian delegation.

- Which exactly?

- Firstly, there was a need to voice very clearly the Ukrainian position on freedom of conscience and religion in the areas annexed to and controlled by the Russian Federation. The relevant statement by the Ukrainian delegation and the realistic stance supported by figures and statistical presentation made by the Ukrainian delegation caused anger and self-justificationremarks of the Russian representatives. It was not just indignation on the part of our ideological and political opponents, but a flood of inappropriate, unrealistic, propagandistic comments that were deliberately designed to fit their own propagandistic campaign.

At first we even thought that, given the absolute unrealistic nature of the statements made by Putin’s delegates, they were not even worth to engage into discussion with. However, understanding the need of objective and unbiased information for the rest of participants, we gave answers and made all the necessary commentsin every case. In every case we draw a line under the debate.

Head of the Russian delegation HrihoriyLukyantsev, Deputy Head of the Department for Compatriot Affairs and Human Rights under the Russian Foreign Ministry, put forward the usual Russian propaganda theses on the extraordinary significance of the so-called traditional values ​​and, therefore, support of the tradition-based forms of religiosity. Regarding the Crimean issue, he limited himself to formalistic statements that the issue was closed, the peninsula was in the Russian jurisdiction, and this, in his opinion, was an exclusively open and perfect field functioning in accordance with the OSCE norms and principles.

Instead, Father Roman Bohdasarov, one of the leading present-day advocates and mouthpieces of the Moscow Patriarchate, who in 2010 was acting head of the secretariat of the Interreligious Council of Russia and is Deputy Chairman of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations, demonstrated particular aggressiveness and irresponsible bias. Unlike the professional diplomats who tried to maintain decency at least formally, this church "Goebbels" did not choose diplomatic explanations, and engaged in overt inculcation.

In particular, without any remorsehe resorted to completely intolerant statements, officially proclaiming the discriminative principles in determining church organizations. For example, he clearly defended the necessity and appropriateness of the division of religious organizations into the so-called historical and non-traditional ones, and among the Orthodox Churches – into the allegedly canonical and schismatic ones. The American delegation immediately drew attention to the inadmissibility of such level of thought and reasoning. Since the comments made by the Russian delegation member in the spirit of the cold war, had relation to Ukraine, we had to systemically refute and clarify relevant theses.

Having got the opportunity to respond to verbal orgy of FrBohdasarov, I started from the fact that we could not but respond to discriminatory remarks and approaches to issues of religious freedom. This is even more unacceptable at the assembly that focuses theestablishment and development of completely opposite approaches and principles - equality of churches and religious organizations, tolerant attitude to any and all manifestations of religious consciousness and its practical expression. The session, which as it is should demonstrate the principle of tolerance, cannot function under a completely different paradigm!

In the conversation with Russian representatives we indicated the impossibility of ranking religious organizations by officials or government officials, because it can lead to selectivity in the state’s attitude towards the entities of state-religious interaction. But they tried to defend and insist on their own point of view. In particular, the Russians often used the term “canonicity” and “schism.” Our remark that there is no such problem on the agenda of the Ukrainian legislation, as to determine which of the religious organizations is, relatively speaking, “right” and which is not, caused painful reaction of the Moscow representatives. This remark of mine provoked a violent reaction from the already mentioned Father Roman Bohdasarov, who once again gave a categorical "no", saying that one cannot compare a “canonical” church, which, according to him, has 15 000 parishes and, in his definition, a public organization with 300 parishes, established by "citizen Denisenko". We responded with official figures, which were supported by documents and proved the absurdity of these figures.

I just provided the undeniable official and statistical information that does not need any comments. They way in which Russian ideologues and propagandists act and the propagandist tricks they employ to give every reason to believe that there are no limits for propaganda, and they resort to manipulation and lies. Of course, there is no objection that the UOC in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, which was defined as a unique "canonical and historical" church by FrBohdasarov, has the largest number of religious organizations in Ukraine today - about 12 600, and not 15 000, as stated  the spokesman of the Moscow Patriarchate. But the Church (UOC KP) led by Patriarch Filaret together with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have in total not 300, but about 6200 parishes. The difference between the realities of church life of modern Ukraine and the statement of the Russian church propagandist is more than 20 times.

I believe that the OSCE should not forget and react appropriately to the activities of religious organizations that do not only proclaim but affirm the principles of exclusivity and violation of the principles of equality, but also cause interchurch or inter-religious conflicts, as well as conflicts in political arena by their particular actions. The responsibility of religious organizations in terms of inciting and supporting the conflict must be appropriately acknowledged and condemned by the international community.

-   Were the issues of Crimea and the persecution of religious freedom in the peninsula additionally raised?

 

- Shortly after the speech at the plenary session, during the discussion of the results of special Ukrainian side event I had to hold forthon the Crimean issue in the context of establishment of the so-called TaurideMuftiate, whose emergence was artificially provoked by the Russian authorities, as a form of pressure and influence on the Religious Administration of Muslims of Crimea. The discussion was initiated by the American delegation, which displayed impressive knowledge of the situation.

We had to highlight key points regarding Crimeathat Russians made. The delegation of the Russian Federation insisted that it was their area of ​​responsibility, and therefore it made no point raising the issue of Crimea’s allegiance to Ukraine. According to their logic, religious organizations operating in Crimea belong to the legal framework of Russia, which is, supposedly, one of the best in Europe. On this occasion, I had to resort to facts which reveal the falsity of the Kremlin propaganda. In the appropriate context, I brought in just a few theses: according to Ukrainian statistics in early 2014 there were 2086 religious organizations, and the report that Russia submitted to UNESCO in early 2015 mentioned the activities of around 1,000 organizations in the peninsula. That is, merely in a year the network of religious organizations, according to official Russian statistics, halved! Approximatelyone thousandof religious organizations, i.e. 50% of the network simply disappeared from the religious map of the peninsula! Do you need extra facts to record and prove a phenomenal level of violations of the rights of religious organizations?

We know that almost 700 of them were operating without registration, which is perfectly legal under Ukrainian law. These were predominantly Muslim communities and more than two hundred Protestant communities. Instead, the Russian legislation does not allow for unregistered religious communities as such. Even more tragic is the case of those 300 organizations operating under valid official registration. Thus, we face an indisputable fact that the networks of many churches and religious institutions, including the UOC - Kyiv Patriarchate, UGCC, and many Protestant denominations were radically reduced. All these facts, being presented at the plenary meeting of the OSCE, did not cause the desire of the Russian delegation to refute or deny them. Instead, they received full recognition and understanding by all delegations and other participants in the meeting.

- Is it possible to say that the religious factor was involved in developments in Crimea or the East?

- As a direct example I recalled the situation in the Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas, where territorial annexation in the first case and tough military action in the second case included the religious factor as one of the absolutely evident assumptions - the totalitarian-revanchist ideology of the Russian world, advocated by the specific religious organization. In the practical political and ideological plane, Putin embodied the ideologemes that the head of the Moscow Patriarchate had suggested a few years ago. Therefore, the responsibility of this religious organization for provoking the events in Crimea and Donbas has yet to be properly assessed by the international community, and relevant conclusions from the situation are yet to be made. Playing up to aggressor or provocateur (regardless of whether he wears religious robes to conceal his aggressive, expansionist objectives or not) is the way of encouraging it to more aggressive actions and more violence.

We had an opportunity to further discuss religious freedom at a separate seminar on Ukraine. Together with IRS executive director MaxymVasin and Oxford University professor Ms. NazilaHaneyeya we approached from different perspectives the question of relations between religions in Ukraine. Maxim Vasyn, for example, spoke clearly and in greater detail about all the features of Ukrainian legislation, which creates the most favorable context for the development and activity of religious organizations in our country.

Instead, I deliberately concentrated on the four problematic points that often arose as the most controversial and contradictory. First, I tried to focus most substantively on the causes, circumstances and forms of the so-called "government interference" in the religious field, which is actually a form of government response to the challenges of the moment and the way to solve the most urgent needs of the religious communities. Moreover, the Russian delegation permanently charged us with alleged government interference in religious affairs. The second question I was trying to cover was the so-called "seizure" of churches that the Moscow Patriarchate leaders are incessantly talking about. They unilaterally and unequivocally interpret the cases where at a level of individual parisheslocal communities decide to change their church jurisdictional affiliation. The third point was the question of possible forms of government response to separatist rhetoric of some religious leaders and activists. The fourth point of my presentation was to discuss the problem, which obviously aggravates in the religious space of Ukraine every month - strengthening of confrontational narrativein rhetoric and documents in separate churches. Instead of coming to terms, some communities consciously chose escalation.

As you can see, all those are not the formal, but the essential problems of our current religious segment. No one either in Ukraine or abroad has any doubt that the Ukrainian state guarantees religious organizations their rights to maximum free existence.

We have to think about the inevitable reverse effect: it is necessary to set up mechanisms that would make impossible any situations where religious groups interfere in the political processes and provoke conflict. I reiterate: Ukraine is now at war, we are witnessing the occupation of some territories, and I have no doubt that the current situation has a religious backdrop. Since 2009, during his numerous visits to our country, Patriarch Kirill began inculcating the ideology of the “Russian world”, which has been used and is now used by Putin and militants in Donbas at a more practical level. Therefore, one of the most chauvinistic fundamentalist religious concepts underpins the current cataclysm in Ukraine. It is clear that anyone who preaches or embodies these principles, including particular religious leaders, should bear full responsibility for what they have done.

- And what accountability mechanisms do you think of?

- The laws of each state, including Ukraine, envisage that if a particular person is preaching separatism, he must be punished, regardless of being a secular or religious figure. In this case, the spiritual leader appears as an ordinary person that directly or indirectly advocates the violation of territorial integrity. Similarly, when it comes to cases where someone calls to hate someone else, where someone’s right to existence is denied or someone is offended on religious grounds. All these are grounds for lawsuit, and they must be qualified in terms of criminal law. Special legislation is hardly necessary in such cases. It is the liability in the context of our state law.

- Have you noticed the reaction of other delegations to your speeches, except the US and Russia

- I had a long conversation with a representative of Canada, obviously, they were in constant interaction with the Polish delegation. Overall, more than a dozen officials expressed their support for us in many ways. So it was enough to describe the situation to attest how deliberate and demonstrative everything was that happened in the Hofburg Castle (which hosted the OSCE meeting).

Without any exaggeration, the Ukrainian perspective was most often referred to in the main session, and representatives of our country were given the opportunity to convey their views to the public the greatest number of times. In addition to plenary sessions, four relevant background or seminars (side events) were planned. Three of these were to be dedicated to Ukraine. I have a rather detailed account on one of the seminars. In addition, on the first day there was an extremely productive meeting themed “When God becomes a weapon: persecution on religious grounds in the framework of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine", presenting the English version of a booklet prepared through the efforts of the Kyiv office of the Center for Civil Liberties and the IRS.

On the second day of the meeting, the third workshop was to take place on the initiative of a certain pro-Russian organization, which intended discuss the issue of so-called "persecution" of particular religious organizations of the Ukrainian state. However, faced with proactive and convincing position of the Ukrainian delegation, the organizers cancelled their seminar a few hours before the beginning.

The nature of the discussions in the first and second day of the session showed that not only Ukrainians, but no one else was willing and was unlikely to passively accept the propaganda that the Russian Federation and its satellites are seeking to impose. Actually, in this context, the two above events were organized to tell about the real situation in Ukraine in terms of prospects and guaranteeing freedom of consciencein contrast toexploiting themyths imposed on Ukraine from outside.

The OSCE leaders, seeing the efficiency of this approach, immediately offered us help in organizing regular joint events in Ukraine.

The main thing, according to leaders of the OSCE, is that such actions serve the main purpose of the activity – ensuring guarantees for the freedom of conscience. The first of a series of meetings held in Ukraine at the national level was held in May in Kyiv when we managed to gather almost all regional heads of departments responsible for implementing the state policy on religion. Now we are at the stage of coordination of the concept of the inter-religious forum that has not taken place in the capital of Ukraine for decades.

- It would be very interesting.

 

- Yes, therefore we discuss the approximate dates of the planned forum in order to most effectively implement the idea. The evidence for success and productivity of our cooperation with the OSCE also lies in the fact that we have been asked to attend the next session in Warsaw in late September, where the issue of combating discrimination will be traditionally raised. As Ukrainian delegation in Vienna displayed maximum activity at two levels - speaking at the plenary session and during special side events, a similar scheme was agreed to be applied in Poland.

 

- And what were the conclusions of the Vienna meeting? May scenarios of some or advice be drawn up from them?

- Ukrainian issue is a key priority for the OSCE and it could be felt both at the level of declarations and at the level of practical priorities. No one doubted why it happened so that Ukrainian-Russian issues were central. According to the degree of intensity and impact, next came the focus on the problems of the Turkish minority in Greece and of the Greek minority in Turkey, to circumstances of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and so on.

 

Our legislation is very liberal and extremely productive in terms of religious freedom. It is clear that there are specific and controversial challenges. And I was very pleased and honored that we were able to explain the mechanisms of state response to these challenges to international experts. It is important that these are no formalities that simply remain on paper, but real solutions to conflict situations. But even more important is that the mechanisms we proposed were accepted and supported by prominent international monitoring and analytical structures of both the OSCE and other organizations.

 

International experts have acknowledged that we understand the challenges that Ukrainian society faces in the religious sector, and are trying to support all entities in bringing to lifetheir aspirations and expectations. For example, some of the opponents of the current government blame the executive power in Ukraine that the Prime Minister of Ukraine ArseniyYatsenyuk wrote letters to Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, allegedly interfering in religious affairs. But we have explained that the government, being responsible for the development of the religious situation, is ready to write the like messages or letters to any religious structure if needed and if it will contribute to solving the urgent needs of a particular denomination.

 

The executive agencies are currently actively engaged, among the other, in drawing up documents, including to foreign structures,concerning the organization of the Hajj for Ukrainian Muslims in the framework of the so-called Ukrainian quota. Therefore, it is logical and natural that such a scheme or a method of enforcement is used by authorities in the case of the Orthodox, the most conflict religious environment in Ukraine.

 

If one part (besides the much greater part than its opponents) of the Ukrainian Orthodox seeks to enter into Eucharistic communion with Constantinople Patriarchate and to get recognition from the Universal Orthodox community, the state’s task is to facilitate this process, including by writing appropriate letters. If the rest of the Orthodox environment expresses desire to continue to remain under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarch, we will be appealing to Patriarch Kirill with a request to keep the part of the Ukrainian Orthodox under his jurisdiction.

 

That is, a direct obligation of the state is to help every religious group implement their constitutional rights to those forms of religious expression, which they deem appropriate.

Therefore, the government shall do what it can to guarantee the rights of believers. I do not even want to resort to the purely theological arguments, because they may not be motivational in the terms of a state. I think everyone involved in the religious environment understands that no autocephaly in the world was implemented without relevant involvement of the government. Therefore, those who blame the state for allegedly interfering in religious affairs, actually make a conscious substitution of concepts, thus supplying fuel for the Russian and pro-Russian agitation machine.

 

- Previously the AUCCRO claimed that the final transition to the partnership model of relations between power and religious organizations is to take place. Is this process advancing and is this model of cooperation being implemented?

 

- We want to implement it. Our department has recently turned to the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations with proposals and motivation explaining that the period when we were in confusion should stay behind. For example, in the course of the last meeting, the AUCCRO touched so many issues that have direct relevance to the executive power, which indicates that public authorities and religious communitieswill inevitably come to terms. The above include the controversial issues of mobilization and the law that allows religious organizations to establish educational institutions, the integration of new Council members or the temporary replacement of older ones, and permissions for priests to cross the line of confrontation in the ​​ATO area, allocation of land resources and so on. All these numerous issues were directed straight to me as the leader of the relevant unit of executive power that directly regulates these issues. Thus, leaders of religious organizations had the opportunity to directly and immediately get answers to these complex questions.

Just immediately after that meeting our Department proposed to the AUCCRO to restore the Department’s statusofthe permanent observer in an advisory capacity. This is to ensure that both parties of interaction - both government agencies and religious organizations - have the opportunity to understand and be aware of any problems at the stage of their occurrence. This will be useful and profitable for most churches as well, as they will see the authorities’ response to controversies, and the state will get better chances to minimize conflicts in the religious plane. Thus, state officials will be capable to respond not at the stage of extinguishing fire, but at a stage when there is an opportunity and capability to prevent the occurrence of new outbreaks, escalation of religious controversies.

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