East-West Church  Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Interconfessional Intolerance in Ukraine

Howard L. Biddulph

Recently, the bitter opposition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ukraine, has revealed the continuance of serious alienation and intolerance of the largest Orthodox confession toward Catholicism.  This Orthodox church vigorously petitioned the government to cancel or postpone the papal visit, but the government ignored these demands to welcome the Pontiff both to western Ukraine and also to Kyiv.  The Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church joined other confessions in warmly welcoming John Paul II.

National Versus Local Treatment of New Religious Movements
All four large traditional churches have continued to vigorously oppose state acceptance of new  religious movements (NRMs) in Ukraine, seeking to block their official registration, foreign missionary programs, and local evangelical activities.  Since 1995 the state at the national level has generally protected NRMs against the suppression desired by the dominant churches.  At regional and local levels, however, the picture has sometimes been different.  Some regional and local state authorities have been more responsive to the intolerance of the most powerful religious bodies and have illegally restricted or suppressed activities of registered NRMs.

Intolerance at a Tolerance Conference
The following recent experience highly suggests the conclusion that intolerance remains high.  At the May 2001 Conference on Religious Freedom and Tolerance in Kyiv, sponsored by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the Center for Religious Information and Freedom, I was asked to chair a final session on the question: "How Religious Bodies Can Promote Greater Religious Tolerance."  Instead of providing constructive suggestions on this topic, the session was dominated from beginning to end by the enumeration of grievances and attacks among religious groups.  The representative of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate, attacked the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and was responded to in kind. Catholic and Protestant representatives presented mutual grievances. Spokesmen of the White Brotherhood, Hare Krishna, Muslims in Crimea, and Neo-Buddhists bitterly aired their grievances against actions by traditional churches or local state representatives.  One lone Reformed Jew called for mutual understanding and tolerance between his faith and the Christian majority in Ukraine, but his witness was drowned in the mutual recriminations of others.  I concluded the session with a strong appeal for mutual respect and cooperative action, but the dominant mood of participants in the session was clearly oblivious to that perspective.

Religious Policy in Conflict: More Evidence
The Kuchma presidency has followed a fairly consistent policy of egalitarian treatment of the four traditional churches since 1995, seeking to reduce or resolve conflicts and to promote mutual tolerance.  It has also taken a full toleration position toward the overwhelming majority of nontraditional faiths, including NRMs.  Officials of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, who administer religious policy and most of the judiciary, are the most visible supporters of that relatively full-toleration perspective. However, parliamentary parties of the left and far right seem to be defenders of one or more of the traditional churches and exhibit a nontoleration or, in some cases, limited toleration perspective toward all or most NRMs. Deputies from the parties of the center and center-right or center-left are the main defenders of full toleration.  The chairman and the deputy chairman of the parliamentary commission that  considers legislation on religion are supporters of full toleration of nontraditional religions.

Ukrainian security agencies are the other locus in the national government of officials with a limited toleration or nontoleration toward nontraditional religions.  The old Soviet KGB perspective that foreign missionaries are agents of foreign security agencies, and that membership in nontraditional and especially new religious movements is sufficient grounds to initiate security surveillance, has been carried over into the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).  In a democracy, equal protection under the law is contravened when religious affiliation alone is considered a sufficient basis for questioning the political or cultural loyalty of citizens. Reportedly, the Ukrainian Security Service closely monitors membership lists and group activities of nontraditional religions, especially NRMs.

In my experience there is a wide spectrum of views about religious minorities among regional and local officials, from full toleration, limited toleration, to nontoleration.  Regional and local officials are more easily pressured by the traditional churches to suppress NRMs than national officials.  There have been quite a few instances of local violation of national policy and laws in the religion field.

In conclusion, post-Soviet Ukraine is a state whose national policies since 1995 have favored equal treatment of traditional churches and generally broad toleration of nontraditional confessions, including most NRMs.  Yet a broad culture of toleration does not seem yet to have developed among all actors in the Ukrainian state.  A wide segment of state actors seems to favor limited toleration or nontoleration of NRMs.  They may conceivably be able to influence national legislation and some administrative activities.  A troubling example of this is Decree No. 0109 of the Cabinet of Ministers, dated 26 March 2001, addressed to the State Committee for Religious Affairs.  The State Committee is ordered to "improve the mechanism for countering the penetration and growth in Ukraine of destructive religions that cause damage to the State and its citizenry."  These "destructive religions" are not identified in the decree, leaving the directive open to various interpretations, especially since it was also sent to regional state administrations.  Democracy in Ukraine is negatively affected by any degree of selective toleration.

Arbitrariness and Whim
In 1997 Kyiv's city government, which formerly had registered 300 new Protestant churches, forbade the renting of meeting halls to Protestants, who understandably suffer from the absence of church buildings.  Directors of local movie theaters and clubs were forced to break contracts. Another example of such opposition is the emergence of a new association of representatives in the Ukrainian Parliament entitled: "For the Advocacy of Canonical and Traditional Faiths in Ukraine."  Its objective is to advance the interests of traditional churches.

At the local level, oblast committees of religious affairs have refused entry to representatives of many religious organizations and to foreign missionaries.  There are cases in Rivno Oblast where Americans were barred from missionary activity.  It is evident that relations between new religious congregations and the state are not unfolding smoothly. Moreover, these restrictive tendencies will likely persist.  The personal, emotional, and politically opportunistic attitude of the local government clerk will determine the fate of this or that congregation, rather than the law.  Decisions are based on whether the official "likes" or "dislikes" a church and whether it is expedient to assist or suppress the congregation. The absence of a clear state policy regarding religions and churches and the arbitrariness of local power structures that flout existing legislation, together provoke individual congregations into noncompliance and precipitate conflict with the local government.  These governments still frequently balk at granting registration rights or construction permits for church buildings.

Nevertheless, we are optimistic about the future.  Ukraine has always been open to diverse influences because of its location at the crossroads of East and West and North and South, where various cultural and religious worlds intersect.  This has served to enhance pluralism in the Ukrainian worldview and a tolerant attitude toward different ways of thinking, including the religious.  These are vital preconditions for interdenominational and interreligious understanding and cooperation.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Anatoly M. Kolodny, Lyudmyla O. Filipovych, and Howard L. Biddulph, Religion and the Churches in Modern Ukraine.  A Collection of Scientific Reports (Kyiv: Svit znan', 2001).

Howard L. Biddulph holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, and is director of the Ukraine Program at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Howard L. Biddulph, "Interconfessional Intolerance in Ukraine," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Winter 2002), 7-9.

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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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