How Russia is weaponizing religion against Ukraine

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France’s Macron meets with Russia’s Putin over Ukraine
In a bid to further de-escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. As Redmond Shannon reports, the high stakes meeting comes as thousands of U.S. troops begin arriving in Eastern Europe – Feb 7, 2022

Over  recent weeks,  the Kremlin has amassed tens of  thousands of  troops  along  the border with Ukraine.

But the aggression over the course of this near-decade-long campaign against my country doesn’t end there. Russia has also employed cyber-warfare to attack Ukrainian government websites, and then there is another, less visible weapon: religion.

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Russia runs in Ukraine a completely loyal religious organization, which can basically be referred to as a “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine” (ROCinU). It is through this influential force that the Kremlin skillfully exploits the religious factor to promote among the Ukrainians the ideas of the “Russian world” — the doctrine suggesting that the former Soviet republics are inextricably bound to Moscow.

For decades,  the ROCinU has been formally referred to as  the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Despite having the word “Ukrainian” in its title, this church is fully controlled by its ”parent” organization, the Russian Orthodox Church. Even its charter was approved in Moscow, while all promotions also get green-lighted by the ROC.

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In 2018, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law obliging the church to put the word “Russian” in its title to reflect the truth about its governing centre. Naturally, the “UOC” has been vehemently opposing  the legislation, decrying it as “persecution.”

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Russia-Ukraine standoff: U.S. official says diplomatic solution possible to rising tensions

The ROCinU is bent on sowing instability and doubt. Most recently, the ROCinU appeared to be one of the main engines behind anti-vaccination forces in Ukraine. Last November, the ROCinU backed a vaccine rally in Kyiv as Ukraine’s COVID-19 death toll that day hit 720. The Health Ministry then accused the  ROCinU of spreading anti-vaccination sentiments. For Russian operatives, sermons can as well serve as Facebook entries, to spread malign narratives.

Russia shrewdly recognizes that Ukraine is a pious nation. A recent poll showed 68 per cent of Ukrainians identifying as “religious people.”

Meanwhile, the influence of pro-Russian clergy on public opinion remains significant. Its church has historically maintained a dominant presence in Ukraine over centuries, but after Russia grabbed Crimea in 2014, came a plot twist: in early 2019, a truly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) emerged. It was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” among the leaders of global Orthodox Christianity, who granted the Church this independence, putting an end to more than 330 years of Russia’s religious reign over Ukraine. This, by the way, led to Russia severing church communication with the Ecumenical Patriarchate — yes, this is how mad the move has made the ROC.

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Click to play video: 'Debate growing over Russian influence on Ukraine’s Orthodox Church'
Debate growing over Russian influence on Ukraine’s Orthodox Church

Today, almost 22 per cent of Ukrainians stand with the ROCinU, while nearly 40 per cent identify with the OCU. Around 36 per cent refer to themselves as “simply Orthodox Christian,” theologian  Oleksandr  Yefremenko  told me. “The OCU roots for independent Ukraine, while the ROCinU looks up to the Kremlin.”

The difference in values ​​and ideas preached by the two rival churches is enormous. The OCU calls on its faithful to be true patriots of Ukraine, calling on Russia to cease aggression, and debunking Moscow’s propaganda myths.

In contrast, the ROCinU is known for its pro-Russian stance and has never called the war with Russia what it really is, lurking behind general calls to end a so-called “fratricide,” preaching “reconciliation,” which many see as capitulation to Russia. Pro-Russian priests expose their attitude to the conflict by refusing to hold vigils for fallen Ukrainian soldiers or by offering prayers to Vladimir Putin’s health. Their temples provide shelters for militants with the Russian occupation forces or arms depots.

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Some pro-Russian bishops, ordained by the ROCinU head, Onufriy, would publicly “consecrate” Russian weapons deployed across Crimea. Some chaplains would even bless Russian regular troops on the occupied peninsula to “defend their Homeland.” And it was the ROCinU clerics who at the onset of the Crimea invasion were persuading Ukrainian soldiers to lay down arms and surrender to the Russians, not to shed “brotherly blood,” military chaplain Ihor Semenikhin recalled, explaining the reluctance of Ukraine’s military to allow any ROCinU chaplains in its ranks.

The Russian Church will not recognize the OCU’s existence, decrying its very establishment as a “schism.” Over the years of occupation of Crimea, the OCU has been widely persecuted and pushed out of the region. Out of 45 parishes operating in 2014, only seven remain to date. The U.S. State Department said that the Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target believers with bogus terrorism charges, and have seized the OCU’s cathedral in Simferopol.

Just as the Russian government plans to redraw Europe’s political map and bring back the “zones of influence,” so does the Russian Church play a long game of changing the balance of power.

Hiding behind the  “Ukrainian” name of its branch, the ROC retains massive influence over hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. The situation also puts Ukrainian authorities on thin ice. If they clamp down on the church, they risk violating religious freedoms. But if they stand back, this will plant yet another time-bomb underneath the nation’s foundation.

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Perhaps the best way to proceed is to promote information hygiene so that the people don’t fall for the elaborate propaganda tricks. We have enough other tricks to worry about.

Ievgen Matiushenko is a Kyiv-based journalist and editor with Ukrinform, the national news agency, who has been covering politics, security and defence issues, including the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

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