A group of hierarchs from different local Orthodox churches, along with human rights activists and lawyers, announced in December the creation of an International Human Rights Association, “The Church Against Xenophobia and Religious Discrimination”, in order to draw the attention of the international community to the dire situation with religious freedom in Ukraine. Metropolitan Mark (Arndt) of Berin and Germany from the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR), who became a member of the new group, shared his vision on the situation.
—Vladyka, what does this association represent, and what are its tasks and goals?
—What we can see right now is that human rights are being seriously violated in Ukraine. The canonical Orthodox church there has no rights anymore. No rights of any kind, which is totally against all kinds of human rights. The church is practically prohibited to act as a religious community, it is not allowed to have any church buildings, and priests are de facto made criminals.
So, we are trying to bring this to the knowledge of people who fight for human rights, that the European regulations are not being adhered to in any way in Ukraine with respect to the Orthodox Church.
—Does the creation of this group mean that the Orthodox Church is entering the human rights field? Or defending human rights has been always one of the main tasks of every Orthodox Christian?
—That is right. However, Ukrainian law assesses and tries to make us believe that they do adhere to human rights, which is not the case at all. The Church is being criminalized, and every priest is viewed as a criminal.
—How is it possible to change this situation?
—Only international organizations can do something in order to improve it.
—You are the point person in the ROCOR who maintains permanent contact with the UOC hierarchy, including its Primate Metropolitan Onufry. What do you hear from them?
—I do not ask them at all because the moment they speak to me—and they would speak to me in Russian—they are called criminals who act on behalf of the enemy, which is not the case at all.
The UOC has totally severed its ties with the Russian church, and they are not allowed to keep any canonical links to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which they originally belonged. They were a part of the Russian church, but now they have severed their ties. This happened at the Council of Bishops and Priests in May. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government, and particularly the Secret Service of Ukraine, are making their own assertions, and they are totally wrong. However, they do not care what is right or wrong. They assert something, and they are sure that it is the truth.
—This group called on the Ukrainian authorities and President Volodymyr Zelensky to stop violations of the rights of UOC believers. You also appealed to UN special mandate holders, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Human Rights Council with statements about violations of the rights of the Church. Did you get any reaction from the relevant organizations?
—So far, we have received no reaction at all.
—Not even from the UN?
—Not that I know of. Maybe they have come, but I was not informed.
—On January 22, the Court of Appeal in Ukraine will review the case of Metropolitan Jonathan (Yeletskikh) of Tulchin and Bratslav, who has already been sentenced by the court of first instance to imprisonment for a period of 5 years. What should we expect from this hearing? What should we all do to help in solving this issue?
—We have to pray. I do not expect any justice from any court in Ukraine. It is a country that is totally steeped in the prosecution of Christians.
—Does it mean that we can not even hope for justice? And what can we, all people, do to find a solution?
—We, Christians in the free world, will naturally continue to insist on the right to exist. The Ukrainian authorities do not even recognize the right for the canonical Church to exist. This is worse than what was the case in the Soviet Union. Worse than communism. It is a dire persecution of Christians, like in the first centuries.
—Is the situation with Metropolitan Jonathan the first disturbing signal? Or probably not even the first one?
—Not the first one. There were other cases with Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed), the Abbot of the Holy Dormition Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, and other clergymen. All these situations are similar. The Ukrainian authorities a priori consider them criminals.
—Meanwhile, Ukraine is the most egregious example of religious freedoms violations, but not the only one…
—Along with North Korea and other bandits, of course.
—What is it possible to do to improve the life of Christians, Orthodox Christians in these and other countries?
—If we live normally, in accordance with our canons and laws, it will become evidence that we don't threaten anyone, that we are peaceful people who do not want anything other than to be free.
—It is not rare for statements of human rights activists to become nothing more than empty words. Do you believe that you and this organization will get different results, which would allow this situation to be solved?
—To be honest, I am not at all sure about this. I am even surprised that these people are trying to do something. However, I absolutely do not know what will come of this.
—What do you think is most important for believers in Ukraine? How can we all help them?
—First of all, we can help with our prayers. Besides that, we in the ROCOR are trying to send humanitarian aid there. In particular, we help the Svyatogorsk Lavra, where the people are suffering the most from the conflict. We also send aid to Pochaev and other places. This is practical help, which is the most needed now. Thank God, so far we can provide it.