Panelists discuss religious freedom in Ukraine during webinar


Expert Panel Says Religious Freedom in Ukraine at a Critical Juncture

By: Domenic De Santes

February 13, 2023

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Religious Freedom Institute convened an expert panel for a January 30 online discussion to address the state of religious freedom in Ukraine.

Each panelist shared how the war of aggression by the Russian Federation in Ukraine has impacted both church and state institutions in Ukraine regarding issues of religious freedom and religious pluralism.

Eric Patterson, a Berkley Center research fellow and president of the Religious Freedom Institute, moderated the discussion.

The Legal Landscape

Most Rev. Borys Gudziak, archbishop-metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, opened the conversation by asserting that yes, religious freedom is under threat in Ukraine.

“Every time there is a Russian aggression, historically over the last three centuries and over the last years, a Russian involvement or Russian occupation leads to some kind of religious repression,” Archbishop Gudziak explained.

Nadieszda Kizenko, professor of Russian and East European history and director of religious studies at the State University of New York at Albany, focused on the Ukrainian government’s role in the potential threat to religious freedom in the country. Kizenko highlighted a 2019 proposed law in the Ukrainian parliament that stipulated that a church which has its leadership in an aggressor state has to change its name to incorporate the full name of that leadership into its formal name. “This proposed law targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would have compelled it to change its name to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine or the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine,” according to Kizenko.

In light of the 2023 Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruling that affirmed this proposed law as constitutional, Kizenko stressed the significance of these developments on religious freedom:

“That is the religious freedom issue at hand. Can the state rename religious institutions against their will?”

An Important Juncture

Catherine Wanner, professor of history and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, turned next to perceptions of religion and religious freedom on the ground in Ukraine.

Wanner noted that “recently, the level of trust in religious institutions has dropped at the same time the level of trust in a multitude of other institutions has risen very significantly.”

She emphasized the future impact of this moment for religious freedom in Ukraine.

“In looking forward as to how religious freedom could be protected, a great deal hinges on how decisions are made at this critical juncture.”

Protecting Church Independence and Religious Plurality

The conversation continued with remarks by Frank Sysyn, director of the Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

“In a time of war there is great distrust of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and reason to distrust some of its clergy,” according to Sysyn.

He also highlighted points of internal confusion within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church about its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. “These matters,” in Sysyn’s view, “have to be decided on religious freedom within the church.”

José Casanova, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center and professor emeritus at Georgetown University, agreed with Kizenko that in the modern world system of religion, each religion claims the right to have its own name and identity—to be particular and unique, and to be recognized by others as such.

However, this freedom can create clashing approaches to religious pluralism. Casanova pointed out that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s claim to territoriality “implies that the other Christian churches don’t have as much a right to be there.” He stressed that protecting religious freedom in Ukraine requires constant effort.

“We must be vigilant and critical to protect the unique model of religious pluralism that has emerged in Ukraine.”

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