Missed Opportunities to Combat "Polite" Persecution in Russia—and Ukraine

Responding to: The Challenge of Religious Liberty in Russia: The Need for a New Approach

By: Nicholas Fedyk

September 29, 2017

Among Western observers, there is little doubt that Russia is guilty of the religious persecution that both Andrew Bennett and Cyril Hovorun reference in their respective pieces on the Berkley Forum. Rather than attack its opponents with physical violence or torture, the Kremlin prefers to work within the letter of the law. September 26 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. The law requires religious organizations to register with the federal government and obtain a license to own property and conduct worship. It disfavors fringe religious “sects,” groups that receive foreign funding, and groups that promote “extremist” rhetoric and behavior—an ambiguous term that the Kremlin fails to define or substantiate. The Yarovaya Package of July 2016 made the law even more severe, penalizing missionary activity by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints.

This is the kind of “velvet-gloved” persecution “cloaked in politeness” that Pope Francis alluded to in an April 2016 homily. By working within the framework of the Russian constitution and exaggerating fears of minority religious groups, the Kremlin claims legitimacy and washes its hands of wrongdoing. The international community issues critical statements and decrees, but the polite persecution goes on.

But rather than rehash Bennett and Hovorun’s arguments, I wish to highlight a few missed opportunities for reversing this negative trend in Russia. The first belongs to the Vatican. Pope Francis has orchestrated a steady détente with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which has been at odds with Rome for nearly a millennia over questions of ecumenical authority. In fact, Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in February 2016 was the first such meeting since 1054 CE. This past August, Francis sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on a four-day visit to Russia, which included meetings with not only Kirill but President Vladimir Putin and high-ranking Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.

These meetings took place against a stark backdrop of religious persecution—not only in Russia itself, but in the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea in Ukraine. Rather than address these issues head-on, Vatican officials remained silent as their counterparts berated Ukrainian Greek Catholics and other “subversive” religious groups, condemning their “politicized statements and aggressive actions” against Russian national security and the Russian Orthodox Church. Perhaps thinking that nothing could be gained by counter-punching, Francis and Parolin exercised diplomatic gentleness. Maybe the Vatican is playing the long game; indeed, the very fact that a meeting occurred in the first place is something to be celebrated. It may pave the way for future diplomatic engagement. Thus far, however, little has changed in the Russian religious freedom landscape.

The second missed opportunity belongs to Ukraine. While Kiev desires to set itself apart from its Russian aggressor—portraying itself as the Western-oriented, free, liberal country filled with hope and opportunity—recent proposed legislation has taken a negative turn. Law 4511, proposed by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in October 2016, would require foreign religious organizations to register and be regulated by government authorities. While the law applies to all groups, there is no question as to which group the Rada has in mind: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (the ROC’s official branch in Ukraine). The Rada fears that the ROC is actively undermining Ukraine’s efforts in Donbas and Crimea by spreading Russian propaganda and dividing its citizenry into competing camps.  

There is public support for the law. Orthodox believers are already divided between the Kievan Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate—the two main Orthodox camps in Ukraine. Some worshipers, angry at the negative propaganda from the Kremlin and its ROC allies, demand that their churches be transferred to the Kievan Patriarchate. They portray it as the true church of the Ukrainian people, free of Russian influence. (This situation is further complicated by the persecution suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union, which forcibly transferred hundreds of churches to the Moscow Patriarchate several decades ago.) There are numerous videos of priests preaching in support of these transfers. Parishioners have also organized local rallies, resulting in clashes like the one at Kolomiya in Western Ukraine.

How Kiev manages these conflicts, and whether it subjects foreign churches to government regulation, will shape the future of religious freedom in both Ukraine and Russia. If the Verkhovna Rada passes Law 4511 with little criticism from Western officials, it will to some extent justify Russia’s behavior, which uses the same tactics to silence political opponents. Speaking against the legislation, Kievan Patriarchate spokesman Archbishop Yevstratii offered sage advice for his government: “Fighting the dragon, we must beware not to turn into a dragon ourselves. Struggling with Russia, we [must] avoid becoming Russia.”

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Missed Opportunities to Combat "Polite" Persecution in Russia—and Ukraine