We are speaking with Bishop Victor (Kotsaba), the head of the Representation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to European international organizations. The editors of the Russian website Pravoslavie.ru have asked His Eminence to answer a few questions concerning the outlandish violation of believers’ rights in the Ukraine, and to tell us about how he is able to bring the voice of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the international community.
—Your Eminence, bless. You carry a responsible ecclesiastical obedience as the head of the administrative apparatus of the Kiev Metropolia of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as well as representing our church on the international level, heading the Representation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at European international organizations. What was the goal of creating this Church structure?
—A representation at international organizations was established on May 27, 2017 by decision of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the goal of bringing the UOC’s position on worldview, religious, societal, and other important issues to the attention of the international community. By participating in these events we can more precisely express the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and defend the rights and freedoms of Orthodox Ukrainian citizens—our flock, which today is a greatly numerous and inalienable part of Ukrainian society. Therefore we have to take advantage of every opportunity, including international forums, in order to improve the very tense religious situation in the Ukraine.
—What have been the main themes of your presentations and addresses over this period?
—As is well known, today the Orthodox believers of Ukraine have been taken for ransom in the political games of the heads of the state, who have drawn Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople into these processes. This has led to numerous conflicts based on religion. The international community should know that the church buildings of our thousand-year-old Church are being seized and the faithful are being brutalized. Government officials are forcing the clergy of the UOC to transfer to the so-called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” supported by the government on all levels, and this is the most direct violation of the European principle of the autonomy of religious organizations—something that is understood quite well in Europe. Furthermore the Ukrainian security forces are calling the clergy into interrogations, and our bishops are only able to cross state borders after prior questioning along with increased examination by special state agencies. We take these matters to the attention of international organizations on various levels.
—Your Eminence, what are the levels of these international forums in which you take part?
—Important international events take place within official conferences and meetings, as well as in formal and informal communication with representatives of the international community. During the past year (2018), this included three regular sessions of the Council for Human Rights at the United Nations, which takes place in the spring, summer, and autumn in Geneva, as well as meetings of the OSCE on matters of the human dimension. These forums are of a human rights defense character; in them are discussed themes related to general politics and human rights. In 2018 the activities of the Representation of the UOC at European organizations was concentrated on actual problems of the rights of the faithful of the UOC, and we made efforts to raise these issues at all the forums accessible to our participation.
—Where you able during this time to communicate with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church or members of other Local Orthodox Churches? How do they react to the government’s crude interference in Church affairs, and its violation of article 35 of the Ukrainian Constitution?
—Of course while participating in various events we cross paths with emissaries of the Catholic confession. Unfortunately, the state’s interference in Church affairs is becoming a frequent phenomenon in the modern world, including in the more developed countries. Therefore representatives of religious communities, including Catholics, are more concerned with defending the rights of members of their own organizations.
As for the violations of the rights of the faithful of the UOC, they continually evoke an international response, and questions of rights violations are being raised by representatives of many human rights organizations. To be honest, I was even be a little surprised when in September of last year, at the annual session of the OSCE for the human dimension in Vienna, before I gave my own presentation several participants had already managed to say something about violations of human rights in Ukraine, including violations on religious grounds.
The heads and hierarchy of the Local Churches are giving their all around support to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church headed by His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry. It is well known that at the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church even back in 2017 it was decided to send a written letter to the President of Ukraine concerning the unacceptability of interference in the Church’s affairs, and the primate of the Polish Orthodox Church, His Beatitude Metropolitan Savva of Warsaw and All Poland, made several official announcements supporting us. Other Local Churches, such as the Antiochian, Serbian, and the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia also came out in support of our Church. They do not share the Phanar’s position, look with pain at the religious situation in our country, and are trying to influence a change in the position of the Orthodox for the better.
—Many of the faithful are perplexed as to why all the Churches of the world have not expressed their disagreement with the actions of Patriarch Bartholomew.
—The problem is that declaration like that require attentive and multifaceted analysis of the situation. All of it obvious to us, but outside observers need time to for deep perusal and hearings. Moreover some Local Churches such as Holy Mount Athos are directly dependent upon Constantinople, they pray for their Patriarch, and entrust themselves to him. In this case coming out with a condemnation of his actions would be a very serious matter; after all, even in an ordinary family it is not easy for children to judge their own father’s mistakes. Therefore many are taking their time; but we can no longer get around a pan-Orthodox evaluation of what is happening in Ukraine as a consequence of the Phanar’s actions.
—Are representatives from the Constantinople Patriarch present at the forums you mentioned, and if so how do they react to what you are saying? Tell us likewise whether there has been any response to Patriarch Bartholomew’s intrusion into the church life of the UOC and the raiding of churches by schismatics—or do they limit their response to silence and “taking it into consideration”?
The international human rights system, including such organizations as the OSCE, UNHRC, and others are having a positive effect on the situation in that within the framework of their procedures we can make official declarations about rights violations against the faithful of the UOC and provide legal information in procedural order. Our declarations, reports of human rights organizations, as well as reliable facts are published in the media and become material for work in diplomatic missions, and as a result there is broad international publicity on the events we are talking about. It is very important that the UOC have the opportunity to present first hand information on the real situation of our communities in our country, and to answer questions from diplomats, politicians, and human rights organizations.
Of course we cannot avoid an evaluation of the Constantinople Patriarch’s actions, because the Phanar’s decision have directly catalyzed the threat of massive violations of the faithful’s right in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church many times asked and tried to convince Patriarch Bartholomew of the need to refrain from poorly considered decisions, and to not interfere in the affairs of our confession.
To our enormous regret, our reasoning was not heard, and now we are witnessing deterioration in the situation for the faithful of the UOC, because an aggressive portion of Ukrainian society is using Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to begin a new cycle of rights violations against the Ukainian faithful.
—Your Eminence, in the context of our discussion, it would be useful to remind our readers of the laws passed in the Supreme Rada (Parliament) of the Ukraine that are against human rights and anti-religious. Please explain to us what the content of this illegality is?
—A series of legislative bills have been up for discussion in the Supreme Council of Ukraine for several years now, and if they are passed it will lead to even more dramatic consequences. Unfortunately, recently two of them—Nos. 5309 and 4128—have already become law, which has significantly worsened the situation of rights for the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine.
These laws taken together, including No. 4511, which is still under review, make it more complicated for legal entities—parishes, monasteries, and other organizations of the UOC—to act, and it also creates a premise for increasing persecutions of believers according to their religious convictions.
I’ll note that thanks to the constant criticism both internally and on the international level, the most dangerous bill for our organizational structure, No. 4128, was finally changed radically, and practically rewritten: The very controversial understanding of the so-called “self-identification” was excluded from it. As is known, this concept could have legalized a massive seizure of our churches. Now those who violate the law are not empowered on the legal level, and therefore when they break the laws, the criminal nature of their actions is more obvious.
—What does that mean?
—Now raiders cannot hide behind this law when seizing our churches, because in the text of this law it is clearly stated that all decisions regarding the life of the community can only be made by the common assembly of its members in the order established by the parish organizational documents. Nevertheless, serious problems remain, having to do with the pressure on our communities to change their official names.
Thus, bill No 5309, which has been passed, requires that religious organizations having a center of control located in a country that has been recognized by the Ukrainian parliament as an “aggressor” include information about belonging to such a center in their names. The official position of the UOC is that according to its organizational documents its center of control is located in Kiev, and therefore this law does not affect it.
—And what is the reaction to this?
—The government agencies see it differently, to which the numerous declarations of state officials attest. The “Law on renaming” provides that if a community that the government officials have decided should change its name does not do this, that is, it does not change its official name, then its bylaws are no longer in force with regard to its name. Thus, this community can no longer officially register personal or real property, because in the eyes of the government system it has no name. Therefore our religious organizations will be defending, in fact they are already defending, their rights in judicial agencies in order to protect their parishioners’ interests. With every violation of believers’ rights the legal services of the UOC conduct legal work, and this helps the faithful prove their rights.
—Raider attacks on churches are now happening in many dioceses by representatives of the newly created “OCU”, and the raiders have plans for the lavras and ancient monasteries. What do you think—will they succeed in carrying out their plans, and what could the consequences be?
—Indeed, from the moment the Tomos was signed by Patriarch Bartholomew to create the “OCU”, a new cycle began of seizing our churches, and the media is reporting it all as voluntary transfers. On Ukrainian television and Internet sites the aggressive rhetoric has also increased against the faithful and the whole Church. It is perfectly obvious that the statistics of these “transfers” have no relationship to reality. However responsible media personalities and all sorts of television shows are proffering distorted information for everyone to hear. In this manner a false idea of religious life in our country is being foisted on ordinary citizens, especially those who are far from the Church.
—How are the Orthodox faithful reacting? After all, they are a many-million strong army…
—There exists among the Orthodox faithful of the UOC a firm desire to defend their holy sites, and in the case of threats or attempts to seize the largest spiritual centers of our Church the faithful will come out en masse to protect them, as has already happened a number of times before during provocations at the Holy Dormition Pochaev Lavra and the Holy Dormition Kiev Caves Lavra. Obviously, attempts to seize the largest holy sites of the Ukraine could lead to massive conflicts and victims from among the peaceful citizenry, but we hope that the Ukrainian authorities will nevertheless find ways to restrain aggressive persons, and that we will avoid a serious destabilization in our country’s religious sphere.
—Vladyka, could it be said that the voice of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been heard on the international level?
—Our statements and speeches cannot have gone unnoticed, for they are submitted to and remain in the document banks of the OSCE, the UNHRC, and other international organizations. Thanks to the dissemination of information of the UOC’s official position, questions reflecting the violation of the rights of the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are even being found in a report by the U.S. Secretary of State on human rights. I will also note that besides the official presentations, representatives of the UOC have the opportunity to communicate also behind the scenes with deputies and representatives of European media and tell them about today’s realities within the religious atmosphere in Ukraine.
We are doing everything that depends on us to make the voice of the suffering Ukrainian Orthodox Church heard throughout the world. And the many-million strong Orthodox flock in Ukraine ceaselessly offers up its prayers to the Lord, remembering David the Psalmist: The Lord is my strength and my life, whom then shall I fear? (Ps. 26:1).