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Dmytro Vovk: Ukraine’s church-state relationship may be changed significantly

by CIUS March 22, 2024 5:26 AM 4 min read
An Orthodox Church of Ukraine priest blesses the waters of the Black Sea amid Epiphany celebrations in Odesa, Ukraine, on Jan. 6, 2024. (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty Images)
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent is exclusively re-publishing an interview with Dmytro Vovk  prepared by Forum for Ukrainian Studies, a research publication for experts, practitioners, and academics to discuss, explore, reflect upon, develop, and transform international understanding of contemporary affairs in Ukraine. This platform is run by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) of the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).

Dmytro Vovk is a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Prior to 2022, Vovk was director of the Center for the Rule of Law and Religion at the Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Ukraine, where he was also Professor of Law.

CIUS: Even before the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, you argued that the war with Russia since 2014 had changed church-state relations in Ukraine. Can you describe that evolution?

Dmytro Vovk: There are two main trends here, which overlap. The first trend is securitization, and the second one is a drift to a more cooperationist model of church-state relations with respect to securitization. Since 2014, religion, and especially inter-Orthodox competition, has become a matter of security concern for Ukraine. Before the war, there were several academics, experts, and some politicians promoting this sort of “spiritual security” approach, but it was never a matter of urgent high political priority or comprehensive state policies.

When the war began, the situation dramatically changed. First, the state played a crucial role in establishing the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and obtaining a Tomos—grant of ecclesiastical independence—by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. In addition, the state implemented several restrictive measures against the OCU’s main rival, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church historically and ecclesiastically affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC), including the forced renaming of the Church; more intrusive regulation of decision-making processes in order to simplify the transition of the UOC communities to the OCU; and the deprivation of the Moscow Patriarchate’s right to send their chaplains to the Ukrainian military forces. All these measures were implemented as security-related measures, either in a narrow sense of military and political security, or in a broader sense of spiritual or cultural security.

Regarding the second trend, there are several examples of the state and church becoming closer to each other. For instance, prison and military chaplaincy appeared after 2014, the state started recognizing religious educational and academic degrees, and the state gave religions the right to establish educational institutions (by the way, this did not cause any sort of spike of new religious schools or universities). We are also having an extensive discussion whether chaplains are needed for educational institutions and hospitals. So religion has become more visible in the public space. Religious prayer breakfasts have become regular practices both at the central and local levels of government.

Religions, especially the main churches, have also played some role in the promotion of Ukraine’s aspirations toward European integration and in disseminating knowledge about Russian aggression, both within the country and abroad. However, I’m not sure of the extent of their importance, especially since most Ukrainians support European integration for purely secular reasons.

The interesting question here is whether this drift will result in some form of official or endorsed church in the country, because we see some signals from the OCU and its political sponsors that they would like to have some sort of special status as the church of majority or a historical church. But at the same time, the religious landscape and the rather strong political positions of religious minorities in Ukraine will probably make it very difficult to establish a special partnership between the state and the OCU, as in, for example, Georgia, Romania, Russia, or Belarus, where there is a very strong Orthodox partnership with the state.

These trends, however, do not constitute a linear process, from less religion to more religion or from less cooperation to more cooperation. In 2019, President Zelenskyi completely changed the trend. He seems to be very secular and has no personal interest in religious issues (at least, at the level of institutionalized religion). Given that, he was mostly ignorant of religion and religious leaders in the first years of his presidency.

The situation changed significantly after the beginning of the full-scale invasion. In December 2022, Zelenskyi declared a goal to preserve what he called “spiritual independence” and to ensure that Ukrainian spiritual spaces, like the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, for example, are liberated from Russian influence, and that Ukrainian religious communities are not affiliated with Russia. Still, the president seems to be acting more in response to growing public demands and negative attitudes towards the UOC than taking initiative and leadership himself on these issues.

This is an interesting moment, because the state seems to be simultaneously sending society two different signals. At the presidential level, Zelenskyi treats this issue as any other political issue, in a purely political manner. He feels great public pressure to deal with the UOC that the public opinion associates with Russia and tries to respond to it, but is not eager in making any tectonic changes in church-state relations and religious life more broadly. For example, I think Zelenskyi is not interested in making any sort of alliances with the OCU or plays to strengthen this church. But at the lower levels of government (for instance, at the level of the Ukrainian State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience), we see signals that Ukraine’s religious landscape must be radically changed and that the UOC in its current form should somehow disappear, either by self-declaring autocephaly or by joining the OCU.

Read the full interview here.

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