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Metropolitan Onufriy and clergy are seen during a celebration at the Sviatohirsk Lavra of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) on Oct. 10, 2021. Metropolitan Onufriy (Orest Berezovsky) is the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. (Photo by Andriy Andriyenko via Getty Images)
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Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council has proposed banning Russian-affiliated religious groups, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening address on Dec. 1.

The most significant of the groups is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, an affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The National Security and Defense Council instructed the Cabinet to draft a bill on such a ban, and the bill is expected to be considered by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament.

"We will ensure complete independence for our state. In particular, spiritual independence," Zelensky said. "We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul."

Zelensky also said that Ukraine would impose sanctions against priests cooperating with Russia, and their names would be publicly announced.

Recently, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) conducted multiple searches at the premises of the Russian church's Ukrainian branch.

During the latest raid on Dec. 1, the SBU found Russian propaganda and xenophobic literature at a Moscow Patriarchate monastery in Mukachevo, Zakarpattia Oblast.

The agency said it had found books of xenophobic content and brochures denying Ukraine's right to independence and stating that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus should be part of a single political entity.

In the past week, the SBU raided at least three other buildings of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, finding Russian passports of the church's leaders and documents with pro-Russian ideological messages.

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. The Russian-backed church's full independence under Orthodox rules would imply its merger with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine but the Moscow-affiliated church has opposed such a unification.

Despite the Moscow-backed church's public statements about the war, its agenda remains intertwined with the Kremlin's ideology, and they officially remain subordinated to the Russian church in the hierarchy of the Orthodox world.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been vocal in his support for Russia's war against Ukraine.

During a sermon in September, he said that sacrificing life in the war against Ukraine "washes away sins."

As a result of Russia's full-scale invasion, more and more Orthodox parishes started switching from the Kremlin-backed church to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The number of parishes leaving the Russian-affiliated church amounted to 54 in March and 104 in April, peaking at 229 in May. After that, the process slowed down.

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