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Trump ally debunked: Ukraine not burning Russian-linked churches

Ukraine not persecuting Christians but rather shutting down Russia’s use of religion for influence campaigns

by Nate Ostiller July 4, 2024 6:51 PM 13 min read
Believers light their candles from the Easter Candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil mass at the Roman Catholic Parish of Saint Alexanders in Kyiv on April 8, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine not persecuting Christians but rather shutting down Russia’s use of religion for influence campaigns

by Nate Ostiller July 4, 2024 6:51 PM 13 min read
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When Tucker Carlson, a popular American right-wing conservative, released an interview with lawyer Robert Amsterdam titled “Ukrainian churches are being burned and priests beaten,” it quickly gained traction with the so-called MAGA movement seeking the return of Donald Trump as president.

The April interview was reposted as a YouTube short and included a clip of what was claimed to be Russia-linked Ukrainian churches burning, suggesting they were set ablaze by Ukraine’s pro-western leadership or its supporters.

In fact, the video contained disinformation, actually showing a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church that caught fire in Canada in 2014. Another church on fire in the short clip was St. George’s Church in the Kyiv Oblast town of Zavorychi. It was reportedly destroyed in a Russian strike in March 2022. A third church on fire in the video is the Sviatohirsk Lavra in Donetsk Oblast, which was repeatedly struck by Russian artillery in May and June of 2022.

The photo of the Sviatohirsk Lavra used in Carlson’s video was a screenshot from a video shared by President Volodymyr Zelensky condemning the Russian attack, which he said killed four people and injured four others.

St. George’s Church and the Sviatohirsk Lavra are just two of at least 630 places of worship that the Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF) said have been damaged or destroyed since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Carlson’s team did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite such glaring inaccuracies, Carlson’s interview reflects a growing narrative among far-right circles in the United States, many of whom are opposed to U.S. support for Ukraine.

Influential figures like Carlson and Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, known for sharing false statements on a variety of topics, have propagated a slew of unfounded claims, portraying Ukraine as unworthy of U.S. assistance.

One particularly persistent and false claim is that Ukraine is “persecuting Christians,” allegedly due to its supposed ban on the Kremlin-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Amsterdam legally represents the group.

Carlson’s narrative glosses over this church’s well-documented ties to the Kremlin and its use as a tool of Russian foreign influence campaigns. This narrative also conveniently ignores Russia’s own persecution of Christians who do not adhere to its preferred brand of Orthodoxy – both in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and within Russia.

In February, Carlson aired a two-hour-long interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, providing a platform for the Russian autocrat to spread propaganda. Carlson didn’t address the questions of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, nor the persecution of religious groups in Russia and the territories it occupies in Ukraine.

Former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger told the Kyiv Independent that this growing narrative actually has more to do with U.S. culture wars than Ukraine's efforts to deal with the Kremlin-backed church.

A vocal Trump critic, Kinzinger broke with the Republican Party after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt by Trump’s supporters and was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach the former president. He has become a staunch opponent of Trump and his influence on the GOP, and recently endorsed President Joe Biden.

Steven Moore, a former congressional staffer and now president of the Ukraine Freedom Project, traces the narrative directly back to a Russian-backed disinformation campaign.

“This is not a religious persecution issue; this is a national security issue,” Moore said.

On July 4, Carlson teased a potential interview with Zelensky, who he blamed for Russia’s invasion on multiple occasions. Zelensky’s spokesperson denied that an interview would take place, saying that the commentator should "more carefully check his sources in the FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service)."

Faith under fire: Russia’s war on religion in Ukraine’s occupied territories
Russia’s war and occupation of large swaths of Ukraine have led to hundreds of churches being damaged or destroyed, dozens of priests killed or kidnapped, and entire religious groups that don’t conform to Moscow’s brand of Orthodoxy being banned. With entire Ukrainian cities being leveled by Russia…

A ‘banned’ church?

Ukraine has two main Orthodox churches — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate or UOC-MP, and the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine or OCU.

The Ukrainian government's conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate predates Russia’s full-scale invasion, as the church has long been seen as a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment and a key conduit of propaganda.

A survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in August 2022 found that only 4% of respondents said they identify themselves with the UOC-MP, a significant drop from 18% the previous year. In contrast, 54% identified with the OCU, and another 14% as “Orthodox” without specifying which church. At the same time, the Moscow-linked church claimed to have more than 11,000 parishes in 2019, compared to around 7,000 claimed by the OCU. Over 1,000 parishes have left the UOC-MP for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale war.

Some Orthodox Christians in Ukraine don’t differentiate between the two, while for others, it is a crucial question when picking a church to attend.

Metropolitan Onufriy (center) arrives for the Sunday service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv
Metropolitan Onufriy (center) arrives for the Sunday service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate at a compound of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 26, 2023. (Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)

The narrative of the “persecution” of Christians picked up steam after Ukraine's parliament backed a bill in October 2023 to “prohibit the activities of any religious organizations affiliated with war propaganda or justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The bill, yet to be signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelensky, followed a series of accusations linking the UOC-MP to subversive actions guided by Russian intelligence.

In response, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate declared its “independence” from the Russian Orthodox Church after the full-scale invasion began and said it “condemns war.”

In a nine-point resolution in May 2022, the UOC-MP expressed disagreement with the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly its leader Patriarch Kirill, that supported Russia’s war effort, calling for negotiations to end the conflict, while continuing to criticize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

However, unlike the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the UOC-MP did not take concrete steps to gain full autonomy from Moscow.

Allegations against Ukraine

In comments to the Kyiv Independent, Amsterdam acknowledged the errors in Carlson’s video, but said that he did not participate in its creation. He also added that the characterization of churches being burned in the video was not completely accurate.

“What’s going on in Ukraine is the theft (and destruction) of churches, and that’s being orchestrated by the OCU,” Amsterdam claimed.

As an example, he pointed to the destruction of a building on the site of the historic Church of the Tithes in Kyiv, which was constructed by the Moscow-led church in 2007 and was demolished after a court ruling in May 2024.

The building was built without proper authorization or permission on the territory of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine and near a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The demolition of the church was supported by a fundraising campaign that raised Hr 772,000 ($19,000) over 16 hours. The company contracted nonetheless agreed to perform the work free of charge.

Amsterdam also pointed to three Moscow-linked churches that had been hit by arson attacks. In all three cases, local media reported at the time that “unknown persons” were suspected of being involved. One of the churches wrote that the arson attack was reportedly “revenge” for the parishioners voting to leave the UOC-MP and join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Ukrainians clear away debris after a Russian missile struck the historic Holy Transfiguration (Spaso-Preobrazhensky) Cathedral in central Odesa, Ukraine
Ukrainians clear away debris after a Russian missile struck the historic Holy Transfiguration (Spaso-Preobrazhensky) Cathedral in central Odesa, Ukraine, on July 23, 2023. The attack was part of an overnight barrage of 19 Russian missiles fired on the Black Sea port city and its region. The Transfiguration church was built in the late 18th century, destroyed by Josef Stalin in 1936, and rebuilt in the early 2000s and is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with official links to the Moscow Patriarchate. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

“The allegation isn’t that government officials are sitting there lighting a match,” said Amsterdam, but that they “don’t respond” when incidents happen or are generally responsible for “creating the atmosphere” for them to occur in the first place.

Ukraine’s Western partners and international organizations have acknowledged some concerns related to restrictions placed on the UOC-MP, but have fallen far short of characterizing it as a widespread campaign as alleged by Amsterdam.

In its 2024 report on Ukraine, Freedom House issued a 3 out of 4 rating, recognizing the attempts to ban the Moscow-linked churches but saying that religious rights are “generally respected.”

The U.N.’s Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, said in September 2023 that Ukrainian law enforcement had “failed to sufficiently investigate incidents (of conflicts between parishioners of different churches) and take action to protect members of the (UOC-MP).” Kehris did not mention any systematic campaign of persecution at the hands of the government.

Generally, foreign organizations have emphasized that attacks on religious freedoms and churches are a much greater problem in Russian-occupied territories.

‘Foreign policy’ church

Russia’s use of the church as a political tool predates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

During the Second World War, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to stoke patriotism and bolster the war effort. Before that, Stalin's regime executed priests and destroyed churches en masse.

Putin, likewise, has framed modern-day Russia as a bastion of traditional values, and recruited the church to propagate this narrative.

Patriarch Kirill has maintained a close relationship with Putin, even calling Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine a “holy war" in March.

Russia also has attempted to increase its influence on Ukraine’s Muslim and Jewish communities, Doug Klain, a policy analyst with civil society organization Razom for Ukraine, told the Kyiv Independent.

“The Kremlin sees religion as a tool for statecraft,” Klain said.

Dozens of Ukrainian priests and bishops from the Moscow-linked church have been accused of justifying Russia's war – a crime in Ukraine.

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church has been seen as a threat outside of Ukraine as well.

Estonia’s parliament recognized the malign influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, declaring it an “institution sponsoring the military aggression of the Russian Federation” in a resolution passed in March.

The Russian church’s support for Moscow’s full-scale war extends beyond rhetoric.

Numerous Ukrainian priests from the UOC-MP have been arrested for spying for Russia and collaborating with occupying forces: A top church leader, Metropolitan Arsenii of the Sviatohirsk Lavra monastery in Donetsk Oblast, was accused by the Security Service of Ukraine of leaking information about Ukrainian troop locations.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority (85%) of Ukrainians believe the government should “intervene in the affairs” of the UOC-MP, with 66% believing it should be completely banned.

Disinformation reaches the US

As opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine has grown within the Republican Party, efforts to undermine American public opinion about the country have intensified.

Under the banner of a broader isolationist trend, concerns about corruption and the misuse of funds have dominated the rhetoric of aid opponents.

The Republican Party, long positioning itself as the defender of traditional Christian values, often accuses its Democratic rivals of undermining them.

This perceived ideological kinship with Putin’s Russia is frequently cited by segments of the U.S. far-right. Consequently, the narrative about Zelensky’s so-called persecution of Christians found fertile ground.

Moore, from the Ukrainian Freedom Project, told the Kyiv Independent that of the 100 Republican congressional offices his team has visited, around 30 “said they're concerned about Zelensky persecuting Ukrainian Christians.”

While some argue the narrative’s actual traction within the Republican Party might be overstated, it remains a potent talking point.

“When pro-Ukraine Republicans in recent weeks have talked about how Russian propaganda is infecting the party base and being repeated by members of Congress on the house floor, the idea that Ukraine persecutes Christians is exactly what they're talking about,” Klain said.

Ukraine finds itself an unfortunate pawn in a larger political game within the United States, Kinzinger told the Kyiv Independent.

“I’m not sure that Republicans or right-leaning people really believe that Russia is a defender of Christianity,” Kinzinger said, but rather that it is a “substitute for conservative policies.”

Despite receiving substantial airtime, the narrative remains largely confined to some of the most partisan Republican lawmakers and media personalities, some with direct ties to Russia.

In October 2023, Robert Amsterdam’s law firm, Amsterdam & Partners, announced that it had been directly retained as counsel by the UOC-MP.

Two months earlier, Amsterdam became the personal lawyer for Vadym Novynskyi, a Ukrainian Russian-born oligarch and former member of a variety of pro-Russian political parties in Ukraine. Novynskyi is an active supporter of the Moscow-linked church, being appointed as a deacon in 2020.

“Amsterdam is paid to tell members of Congress that Ukraine is persecuting Christians,” Moore said.

While Kinzinger acknowledged the larger culture war is a tough battle, he believes religion might still persuade hesitant Republicans, many of whom are Christians, to support Ukraine. He cited comments by several leading Republicans who said that House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson's Christian faith had influenced his decision to finally hold a vote on Ukraine aid after a delay of six months.

But Kinzinger pointed out another significant problem: the Republican base is often stuck in a media echo chamber that repeats the narrative of Ukraine persecuting Christians while ignoring Russia’s well-documented persecution of Christians in both Russia and Ukraine.

“If I could wave a magic wand and every person in the Republican Party heard the stories of how Ukraine isn’t persecuting Christians, and Russia actually is, I think it would move the needle,” Kinzinger said.

That theory is backed by polling data, Klain said.

“When you talk to a self-identified ‘MAGA’ voter, and you share the reality of Russia’s persecution of Ukrainian Christians in the occupied territories, their support for U.S. aid to Ukraine goes up (by) seven points above the average U.S. voter,” Klain said.

Russia's persecution of Christians

Evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various other faiths that differ from the Russian Orthodox Church’s brand of Christianity have faced consistent persecution by Russian authorities, which view them as threats to the dominance of the country’s state-sponsored church.

This religious oppression intensified after Russia’s claimed annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent covert invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine.

In the occupied regions, the persecution quickly escalated to the torture and murder of priests and adherents of other Christian denominations. Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and the Russian occupation of about 18% of Ukraine’s territory, this brutality has intensified.

A Ukrainian prays during a Sunday afternoon service at the Pokrovsky Cathedral in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Oct.2, 2022.
A Ukrainian prays during a Sunday afternoon service at the Pokrovsky Cathedral in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Oct.2, 2022. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

The U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom said in February 2024 that at least 30 Ukrainian clergymen of all professions had been killed since the beginning of the full-scale war, and another 26 held captive.

The UOC-MP’s priests and churches suffered as well, with almost 150 of its churches being damaged or destroyed and several of its priests being killed. At least 9 UOC-MP dioces, representing around 1,600 parishes, have been brought directly under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church.

It’s a “perverse logic,” Klain said, that the very religious groups that Russia “disproportionately targets” form the largest support base of the Republican Party, which then turns around and says that Russia is defending Christianity.

Despite the constant assertion that Russia is a stronghold of Christian values, actual church attendance rates there are lower than in Ukraine.

Former Congressman Kinzinger highlighted the irony: “Ukraine has plenty more (religious) freedom (than Russia),” he said.

“It’s absolutely asinine and ludicrous to somehow say that Russia is protecting the real version of Christianity (and not just protecting) white nationalism.”

Opinion: What should Ukraine do about its Russia-linked church?
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), presented a “revolutionary” order on March 27: “The Present and Future of the Russian World.” The order claims: “From a spiritual and moral point of view, a special military operation (Russia’s term for its war against Ukrai…

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