The Russian Orthodox Church's Ukrainian branch on Dec. 20 asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to cancel the sanctions against its representatives.
The Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate published an official address to Zelensky, saying that these sanctions “blocked the activities of entire dioceses.”
According to the church officials, the dioceses headed by sanctioned clergymen “cover tens of thousands of believers and provide large-scale social and humanitarian assistance to the military, forced migrants, and many other needy segments of the population.”
The Russian-affiliated church also urged Zelensky to prevent the adoption of four bills restricting the church's rights, calling them “unconstitutional" and “discriminatory."
Zelensky signed a decree on Dec. 2 to approve a proposal by the National Security and Defense Council to ban the Russian-backed Ukrainian church.
The National Security and Defense Council instructed the Cabinet on Dec. 1 to draft a bill on such a ban. The bill is expected to be considered by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament.
Zelensky also sanctioned Vadym Novynsky, an ex-lawmaker from the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc and sponsor of the Moscow-backed church; Pavlo Lebid, head of the Russian-affiliated church's Kyiv Pechersk Lavra and an ex-lawmaker from the pro-Russian Party of Regions, and Rotyslav Shvets, a bishop who "annexed" his Crimean diocese of the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the Russian Orthodox Church in June.
Sanctions were also imposed on several other Moscow Patriarchate bishops in Ukraine's Crimea and a bishop who annexed his diocese in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk Oblast to the Russian Orthodox Church in October.
Since November, Ukraine has conducted nationwide raids on religious sites that belong to the Russian-controlled church – during which authorities say they have so far found Russian passports, anti-Ukraine propaganda, and a stolen collection of icons.
In May, the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian church said it would have “full independence” from the Russian Orthodox Church, reacting to criticism of Russian-backed church leaders amid the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian branch also said that it “condemns the war” and “disagrees with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on the war in Ukraine.”
However, skeptics said it was just a ploy to appease critics since the Ukrainian branch effectively remained part of the Russian church and did not declare “autocephaly” – the Orthodox term for genuine independence. Under Orthodox rules, only one independent - or "autocephalous" - church can exist in a specific country.
According to Orthodox rules, the Russian-backed church's full independence would imply its merger with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine but the Moscow-affiliated church has opposed such a unification.