From Pogba to potions: The secret world of witch doctors in France

“There’s a lot of jealousy in football,” said Sheikh Issa, holding up a piece of bark and a bottle of a yellowish potion.

Which is why many professional players beat a path to the African faith healer in the Paris suburbs looking for ways to ward off the “evil eye” and other afflictions.

Since World Cup winner Paul Pogba was sensationally accused of having spells cast on his French teammate Kylian Mbappe, the surprisingly influential role folk healers or “marabouts” play in the game has begun to come to light.

“This is what I use to treat a player who keeps getting injured in big games,” said Sheikh Issa, whose name we have changed at his request.

He was really low and “I had to clean his star”, said the Ivory Coast-born “traditional practitioner”, who claims to be able to “see both the past and the future”.

With so much money at stake, and careers that can end on a single tackle, elite sports people “regularly turn to witch doctors and to the paranormal”, said Joel Thibault, an evangelical pastor who is a spiritual advisor to French striker Olivier Giroud and other top athletes.

All this had been discreetly going out of the public eye until Pogba — whose parents come from Guinea — fell victim to an alleged extortion attempt by some of his entourage last year.

His brother later claimed Pogba paid a witch doctor to hex Mbappe, but both the former Manchester United star and the healer told police they did nothing of the kind.

The marabout said the substantial payments Pogba made to him were for “good works in Africa”.

In torment: Juventus’ French star Paul Pogba. © Marco Bertorello, AFP

With three out of 10 people in France prone to believe in some sort of sorcery, according to a 2020 survey, AFP has been investigating this closed world for the past year.

We discovered how faith healers are “half feared and half despised” — as one anthropologist put it — and why they hold such sway in some communities.

‘A gift’

Sheikh Issa wears jeans in the street, but when he welcomes his clients into his surgery he sports a long African boubou robe. “I don’t believe in gris-gris or amulets, I believe in the Koran and in plants,” said the 45-year-old, who also runs a cleaning business.

The tools of his trade are arranged around him in a couple of dozen bottles and plastic bags — tree bark that protects you from the “evil eye”, ground seeds that “keep you lucky”, and potions to “add sheen” and charisma to “politicians, lawyers and business people” who Sheikh Issa said come to him looking to “be loved and admired”.

African faith healer Sheikh Issa takes geomantic notes during a consultation near Paris
African faith healer Sheikh Issa takes geomantic notes during a consultation near Paris © Joel Saget, AFP

And, of course, remedies to enhance “sexual power”, he said pointing to another bottle. France is a “stressful country and some people are weak in bed”, added the sheikh, a little sheepishly. Afterwards they call and say, “Thank you, Sheikh.”

Sheikh Issa got “the gift” from his mother “who read shells” and his father, who is an imam. He trained with faith healers in West Africa — where people often consult marabouts — after studying at a koranic school.

He said his reputation took off when he “helped” a politician become a government minister. His three phones buzz constantly with messages.

Most of the sheikh’s clients — who he insists only pay the cost of importing his plants and his travel expenses — are mostly African and South Asian, although some come from both the French Caribbean and France itself.

One summer’s day when AFP visited his consulting room, a young Comorian woman “who lives with spirits and self harms” was waiting to see him along with “a Moroccan desperate” about his failing bakery.

“People don’t talk when they come for the first time,” he said. “I have to guess” what is wrong. Some are having trouble at home or at work, have health problems or are looking for “the love of their life”, he said.

African faith healer Sheikh Issa listens to a patient.
African faith healer Sheikh Issa listens to a patient. © Joel Saget, AFP

‘Everyone has a star’

The mostly West African witch doctors operating in France — who see themselves as healers of the soul — have learned to adapt to “malheurs” of their French clients.

Many go to them as others would go to a psychologist or a clairvoyant, experts say.

Anthropologist Liliane Kuczynski, author of the definitive book, “African marabouts in Paris”, found clients come from a wide social spectrum, from undocumented migrants to graduates and teachers.

“Far from being obscure and marginal, belief in superstitions and the paranormal has become a constantly rising majority phenomenon,” French polling company Ifop found in 2020.

Rosaries used by an African faith healer or 'marabout'.
Rosaries used by an African faith healer or ‘marabout’. © Joel Saget, AFP

“Marabouts are particularly gifted with emotional intelligence,” anthropologist Marie Miran-Guyon of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris told AFP.

“And for some it works. Placebo effect or not, from the moment people believe it can make a difference,” it can, she added.

But Monsieur Fakoly, a Guinean healer working in Paris, who comes from a line of marabouts, had his own view of how it works.

“Every one of us has a star. If it is dirty, people fail and have bad luck. So you have to purify the soul,” he said.

“Prayers and advice will help the person feel better. We listen, we give medicine, but not the kind you get in a pharmacy!” said the healer, one of eight interviewed by AFP.

‘The spirits are working on me’

Raymond, 61, had just arrived in Sheikh Issa’s consulting room. The sheikh slowly shook his hand, pressing his thumb to “test the energy… I feel it’s angry, that things are not good.”

African faith healer Sheikh Issa tests the hand of his client Raymond before a consultation.
African faith healer Sheikh Issa tests the hand of his client Raymond before a consultation. © Joel Saget, AFP

Then Raymond picked up a pen and brought it to his lips without saying a word. In the silence, the sheikh wrote in his notebook, then traced some lines between the letters to evoke the “16 spirits” using a technique called geomancy.

“My ears are hot, I feel a bar in the middle of my forehead,” he told his client. “The spirits are working on me.”

Raymond — who asked that we not use his real name — was convinced his ex-wife had “cast a spell on him” after they divorced a decade ago. He was tired and in pain and “I went to work like a zombie”.

Rather than go to a doctor he sought succour at a prophetic African church, but to no avail. So he began to consult healers who read shells. “All they did was take my money,” he said.

A fellow construction worker recommended Sheikh Issa. “It was if he had lived alongside me all those years,” Raymond recalled. “He recounted my life from A to Z. I couldn’t believe it.”

The sheikh prepared him potions in West African jars called canaris. “Take the canari home wash yourself with the potion,” Raymond remembered him telling him.

Branches from the
Branches from the “djoro” tree used by African faith healers to ward off the “evil eye”. © Joel Saget, AFP

From that day on “I got my health back”, said Raymond.


“Some (marabouts) are like psychotherapists… while others are swindlers,” said anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Some come from a Sufi tradition with a deep “religious culture and desire to help”, he said, but others know little more than “a few surahs of the Koran and extract the maximum for their victims,” he added.

Anyone who says they have the gift and some knowledge of Islam, divination and miracle working can call themselves a marabout.

Some charge no more than a dozen euros for an appointment, though the price can go up to several hundred or thousands for a sacrifice, even tens of thousands in some cases.

Therapist Assa Djelou regularly receives clients who have been let down by marabouts.

She said some have a “dangerous” hold on people. Rather than “facing up to reality”, the healers convince people their problems “have been caused by spells cast on them, which can lead to anxiety and depression”.

The French police only get involved when there are complaints about fraud or practising medicine illegally. But such cases are rare and there’s a “taboo” about talking about it, said Djelou.

‘Dependent’ on witch doctors

In sport, where superstition is commonplace, things can also quickly get out of hand.

“Careers are short and the least injury” can be catastrophic, said Thibault, the pastor who has supported several top athletes. Sometimes they need help because they “do not have the inner strength to get over everything” thrown at them.

But “what these marabouts do is very dangerous”, he claimed.

Former footballer Cisse Baratte told AFP how he fell under the influence of witch doctors as a rising young player plucked from the Ivory Coast to play in France. Soon he had become “dependent” on the amulets, “protection belts” and sacrifices they made for him.

The legendary French football manager Claude Le Roy, who managed six African national teams, knows the problem well.

Legendary French football manager Claude Le Roy, who managed six African nations
Legendary French football manager Claude Le Roy, who managed six African nations © Ludovic Marin, AFP

He was even threatened and branded the “white sorcerer” for driving marabouts away from his staff and players.

“Some players have a need to talk with their marabouts, it can comfort them, and it is also a link with their homeland,” he added.

Even though he insists that “he doesn’t believe in the slightest” in their powers, Le Roy is still troubled by one incident.

In 1997, after a catastrophic away leg in the Champions League against Steaua Bucarest which they lost 3-0, Paris Saint-Germain had to win by four goals to go through.

Desperate for anything that might help, the club paid “a grand Malian marabout” 500 euros.

“He asked us for photos of the players and their numbers, and just before the home leg told us that number 18 would score the fourth goal in the 37th minute.”

PSG won 5-0, with its number 18 scoring the fourth goal in the 41st minute…


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Losing my religion: More people across Europe have little or no belief

In Italy, the cradle of Catholicism, new research suggests that only 19% of citizens attend services at least weekly, while 31% never attend at all – and it’s a trend already growing in some European nations.


They’re called the “nones” and are growing in numbers every day.

It’s a term for those increasingly rejecting organised religion, even in countries in which faith is typically at the core of their very identity.

Scandinavian countries and north west Europe – think France and the United Kingdom – have been well known for their widespread secularism for years.

But now, even in Italy – the long-standing home of Catholicism – things are changing too.

Vatican City – home to the Pope and many of the world’s most influential religious figures – is right in the centre of Rome, the capital.

Unsurprisingly, then, most people retain at least a nominal affiliation to the church, taking part in their many and varied traditions but, increasingly, with little adherence to doctrine or practice.

According to recent findings from the Pew Research Centre survey, 78% of Italians still profess to be of the Catholic faith.

So far, so believable.

Dig a little deeper though and you’ll see a very different picture.

The Italian statistics agency, ISTAT, says only 19% attend services at least weekly – while 31% never attend at all.

Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly accelerated a disengagement with Catholicism in Italy which started at least a generation ago.

It’s a trend that’s become ever more concerning for those within the church.

“‘I don’t have time, I don’t feel like it’ – there isn’t a real reason. That’s what’s scary”, the Reverend Giovanni Mandozzi, a parish priest in the central mountain village of Isola, tells AP.

Despite his attempts to persuade his parishioners to return to services – “I tell them, ‘I do Mass in under 40 minutes, you can leave your pasta sauce on the stove, and it won’t even stick to the bottom of the pot” – attendance is at an all time low.

Mandozzi is forced to preach in a former butchers shop after two earthquakes in the Abruzzo region have caused significant damage to Isola’s church since 2009.

In the shop, he told the Mass congregation, made up of fewer than two dozen local pensioners, “the sign of the cross isn’t a quick fly-swatting gesture”.

It’s a sight totally alien to the elderly audience who would have been used to a packed church.

Next door, though, the atmosphere can best be described as buzzy. The venue? A bar – packed with young families.


“Everything has changed,” the bar owner, Natascia Di Stefano tells AP.

“Sunday used to be church with your family. Now youths don’t even want to hear about it, like an ancient thing that’s useless”, the mother of two teens expands.

At another bar nearby – which, a little ironically, faces a mediaeval chapel – a group of friends in their 20s enjoy a drink.

They explain that they grew up attending Mass and catechism – only to bring their relationship with the church to an abrupt halt after being confirmed.

Traditionally a central practice to those of the Catholic faith, confirmation is a commitment to witness their faith through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.


Today, though, it’s because little more than a last rite that people feel obligated by family tradition to partake in.

“It would have become just a routine,” 24-year-old student Agostino Tatulli tells AP, adding. “I’d say I’m spiritual. I don’t know if God exists.”

The reasons for this increasing lack of belief are numerous but Dr Nadia Beider, a Sociology of Religion research fellow at University College London tells Euronews that the research suggests that a decline in religious engagement often leads to a lack of affiliation and date somewhere down the road thanks, in part, due to the “level of effort required to sustain regular religious behaviour such as church attendance”.

“The process accelerates over time as people disaffiliate from the religion in which they were raised and an increasing proportion are raised without religion”, Beider adds.

Spirituality and tradition do, though, still seem to be at the core of many young Italians’ beliefs today.


Saints days and blessings from priests are particularly important – even if organised religion is proving less attractive for increasing numbers.

Hundreds of bikers go to churches for an annual blessing, as do thousands of teenagers in the early spring for a ‘blessing of the pens’ before they take their final exams.

Catholicism is still a central part of another rite of passage for many – wedding ceremonies.

They remain the choice of about 60% of Italians marrying for the first time.

Catholic funerals, too, are still said to be favoured by 70% of Italians, although some funeral directors are opting to build ‘neutral’ wake rooms in their establishments to appeal to those keen not to focus on God at the end of their lives.


While lay people still cling on to some aspect of Catholicism from the cradle to the grave, there are logistical hurdles to overcome for church leaders too.

They’re already struggling with a significant drop in vocations that leaves many with barely the time to celebrate Masses in multiple villages under their care.

A wider European picture

It will come as little surprise that a continent as diverse and vast as Europe sees huge variations in religious affiliation across its 45 nations.

According to 2018 research from the Pew Research Centre – the latest on offer – Central and Eastern Europeans tend to be more likely than Western Europeans to be ‘highly religious’.


To qualify as ‘highly religious’, respondents had to tick at least two boxes out of the following criteria: attending religious services at least monthly, praying at least daily, believing in God with absolute certainty or saying that religion is very important to them.

In Greece, for example, roughly half of adults fall under that category whereas, in countries like Denmark, Sweden and the UK, that number falls to just one in 10.

That statistic doesn’t mean, though, that all countries in Western Europe have low levels of religious commitment – and also that not all countries in Central and Eastern Europe are at the higher end of the index.

Portugal, for example, has some 37% of its adult population fall into the highly religious category. At the other side of the continent, countries including the Czech Republic and Estonia have religiosity levels similar to Denmark – noticeably lower than those in most other Central and Eastern European countries.

These statistics, if they are to follow the trend of Italy, are likely to change – and fast.


In research undertaken by the World Economic Forum, also in 2018, it was discovered that young people – aged 16 to 29 at the time of the survey – are far less religious than their older countrymen. 

That poll found that young people in the Czech Republic are the least religious in all Europe.

Some 91% of 16 to 29 year olds say they have no religion, followed by Estonia’s youths (80%), Sweden (75%) and the UK, where 70% have no religion – and just 7% call themselves Anglican.

Across 12 out of 22 countries studied by the Forum, over half of young adults claim not to identify with any particular religion or denomination.

In many Central and Eastern European countries, that trend is very much bucked – and it’s down, in part, to the fall of the Iron Curtain.


More than 30 years on since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pew Research found that religion has reasserted itself as an important part of individual and national identity in many of the countries where communist regimes once repressed religious worship and promoted atheism.

Now, religion and national identity are often closely entwined. In former communist states, such as the Russian Federation and Poland, many say that being Orthodox or Catholic is important to being “truly Russian” or “truly Polish”.

Interestingly, Catholicism in Central and Eastern Europe does not measure up to the levels in upsurge as Orthodox Christianity.

That seems to be down to the fact that much of the population in countries such as Poland and Hungary retained a Catholic identity during the communist era, therefore leaving less of a religious vacuum to be filled when the USSR fell.

There could be a relatively straightforward explanation for this trend.


“It seems that the more universal explanations of the link between religious decline and modernity such as the shift towards secular, rational modes of thinking, individualisation, and greater emphasis on self-actualization values, notably in societies whose citizens feel generally safe and secure, less so in countries suffering from conflict, dislocation and economic precarity help explain why secularisation takes place”, Dr Nadia Beider tells Euronews.

Regardless of the status of conflict in a particular nation or, indeed, a person’s chosen denomination, it will be interesting to see when – not if – these more religious nations follow Italy’s lead.

Pietro di Bartolomeo, who hails from the city of Teramo, north of Rome, is fearful about the increasing secularisation of Italy and the wider continent, saying the decline in both numbers of priests and regular churchgoers is a real worry.

He’s proof, too, that questioning organised religion is nothing new.

As a teenager, he was bullied because of his family’s strong faith – so much so that he came to see “God as a loser.”


Now 45 and a father of five, he runs a Bible group for teens, trying to keep them connected to their faith after the critical juncture of their confirmation.

Speaking to AP, he emphasises that the church must increase their evangelising practice – or risk irrelevance.

“The old ladies sooner or later will go to the Creator, and that’s where the cycle stops”, di Bartolomeo says.

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Step inside the murky world of radical Orthodox influencers

A small, slick contingent of young Orthodox stars are harnessing social media to spread extreme messages around the globe.

“Democracy is a tool of Satan that has been perfected by Jews and their gentile allies in secret societies to take sly control of nations while allowing citizens to feel that they have a choice in the matter, keeping them compliant and dumb.”

These are the written words of Roosh Valizadeh. 

In his rampantly anti-Semitic online writings – which parrot the classic line that Jews run the world – the former pickup and alt-right blogger, turned Orthodox zealot, talks about a once Christian West transformed into a state of “Jewish pornographic sewage”.

Alleged national decline is a prominent theme in the American’s writings, believing untold millions in the Western world have sold their “souls for comfort, money, and sex”.

“America’s “moral sickness” is in its terminal stage,” he wrote in one blog post. “The boomers are busy counting their money, Gen X is trying to keep their 2.1 children from becoming gay, millennials opened Pandora’s box on degeneracy… and the zoomers may not be able to keep their brains intact from being exposed to hardcore pornography at the age of eight.”

‘They’re done with democracy’

Roosh V is just one of a small clique of more radical Orthodox internet celebrities.

Orthodox Christianity in the United States is a very complex religious scene, with each influencer having their own particular brand.

Historically Orthodoxy was the faith of Eastern European immigrants. However, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University, told Euronews the religion is being pulled to the right, “even alt-right”, by a rising cohort of home-grown converts.

“They go by labels like traditionalist, America First, patriots or monarchists. They use all sorts of different political descriptors. But one of the things they have in common is that they’re largely far-right. They’re kind of done with American democracy,” she said.

Many tap into disaffection within religious communities that mainstream church leaders and right-wing politicians have let society turn its back on religion and morality.

Using meme culture, their own websites and social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, the Orthodox celebs reach tens of thousands of people on a daily basis.

“What’s drawing people specifically to Orthodoxy is they see it as a faith that is unchanged, one that has kept to traditional gender roles, forms of patriarchy and hierarchy,” Riccardi-Swartz explained. “That’s really appealing to a community that feels like society and gender roles are shifting really rapidly.”

“It’s fascinating that they use social media to expand their base and movement, which is a lot about getting back to the land, creating a more agrarian society and going offline,” she added, pointing out how modern technologies were ironically being used to revive deeply traditional societies.

‘Alpha male versions of only fans girls’

Much far-right Orthodox influencer chat focuses on what it means to be a man in modern society, with their listeners mostly young, university-educated white men, hailing from upper-middle-class backgrounds, explained Riccardi-Swartz.

A prime example is 30-year-old David Patrick Harry, a PhD student at the University of Berkley and founder of the so-called Church of the Eternal Logos.

In stripped-down live streams, introduced with ethereal religious hymns overlapped with hip-hop beats, he delivers speeches on the manosphere – an umbrella term for male supremacist ideas and groups – to his nearly 20,000 subscribers.

His Instagram – again followed by tens of thousands – is a mix of esoteric Orthodox musings, gym videos and glitzy churches.

In one illuminating video, he criticises the misogynistic internet star Andrew Tate as an example of morally disreputable men who are “self-absorbed”,” materialistic” and ”hedonistic” – instead arguing for a “true patriarchy” of spiritual principles.

“Men are the castle walls, women and children are the jewels inside… when men don’t have values that transcend the physical world… then they collapse,” he said in one live stream, published in June. 

“Men have to be based on something to be a wall which will prevent evil.”

Contradictions blight some Orthodox influencers’ messages, however.

A prevalent theme across some of their online content is a critique of capitalism and how it has helped unleash malevolent forces in society.

However, according to Riccardi-Swartz, “many of them are micro-celebrities. They have created brands, promote their content, have ads, monetise their podcasts and YouTube videos, and often sell things.”

Harry, for example, touts his own branded caps, drawstring bags, premium video sponsorship ($250) and one-on-one education and consulting for up to $380. Other influencers earn income from streaming services, like iTunes and Spotify, and one even hawks CBD gummies.

“It’s just all a grift at some level,” Riccardi-Swartz told Euronews. “They’re promoting what they perceive as an idyllic utopia of traditionalists. But in reality, they’re just recapitulating capitalism, over and over again.”

‘The Orthodox youth can only be entertained by memes for so long’

Though spread over a large diffuse area, the Orthodox church’s far-right micro stars are taking action and trying to bring about change.

Dissident Mama – focused on the alleged cultural genocide of US southerners and “anti whiteness” – writes put-downs of critics, railing against “scardey cat socialists”, “paid propagandists posing as historians” and “progressives Greta Thunberg-ese”.

Darker actions have been taken by some followers of the clique, such as abusing social groups they oppose and doxxing critical Orthodox priests, revealing personal details about their families. 

All this radicalism is creating a rift within the church between younger vocal upstarts and the established powers, many of whom are older men who have little understanding of digital technologies, explained Riccardi-Swartz.

“I get emails on the regular from older ethnic Russians and Greeks and Eastern European Orthodox Christians who are very concerned about how their parish demographics are changing. They don’t understand why when they go to coffee hour, there’s now a young white man telling them that they’re gonna go to hell if they don’t vote for the Republican Party,” she said.

“Things are shifting. You now have a minority religious faith, which is sort of being colonised by white American men.”

“It’s very scary.”

Despite their online hubris, many were still doubtful their movement could take the streets by storm.

“Even if you wanted to assemble a movement to combat the Jewish cultural terrorist, you would not be able to find many men who (1) still possess the cognitive ability to perceive the truth and accept it, (2) have enough physical stamina to endure a fight that requires them to stand for more than two hours a day, and (3) won’t be taken down by the Feds in an unseemly sting operation on trumped-up charged instigated by a loser infiltrator,” wrote Orthodox blogger Roosh V.

“We cannot speak the truth, we cannot organise, we cannot even identify the enemy with our speech, and if we dare do so, we will be utterly destroyed and made to whisper it on the fringes.” 

“Can you imagine what would happen to you if you went into the bars and slapped every Jew you saw,” he added.

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Counteroffensive ‘failed’ claim, as Ukraine vows revenge for Odesa

All the latest development from the war in Ukraine.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis denounced “the serious security risks in the Black Sea” on Monday after Russia bombed port facilities on the Danube, on the border between Romania and Moldova.

“I strongly condemn the recent Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on the Danube, very close to NATO member Romania”, Mr Iohannis wrote on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, images on social networks showed the Ukrainian port of Reni on the Danube being hit by a drone attack.

Ukrainian authorities later confirmed a four-hour blitz by Russian drones on port infrastructure in the Odesa region in the south of the country. The Ukrainian port city of Reni, which faces Romania, also borders Moldova.

“This recent escalation is also affecting the transit of Ukrainian grain and therefore global food security”, said Iohannis.

The Odesa region, strategic for Ukrainian exports, is regularly targeted by Russian strikes.

Tensions increased in the Black Sea after the expiry last Monday of a grain agreement, which was crucial for maintaining world food security as it allowed for Ukrainian cereals exports.

‘Ukraine has regained half of occupied land’ – US official

Ukraine has recaptured half the territory seized by Russia in the initial phases of the war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday. 

In an interview with  CNN, Blinken added the counteroffensive, still in its early phases, will get harder for Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his troops. 

“It is tough. It will not play out over the next week or two. We’re still looking I think at several months,” he said. 

Zelenskyy has previously termed the counteroffensive’s progress as “slower than desired,” asking for more aid in arms and ammunition from its allies. 

Such requests come to fruition, with the US supplying cluster munition, and a group of 11 nations agreeing to provide F-16 fighter jet training. 

Blinken said he believes Ukraine will eventually be able to secure F-16 jets if the air force is “properly trained” and is able to “use them in a smart way.” 

Kyiv has not been guaranteed the delivery of F-16 jets, since none of its allies have committed to sending warplanes.

Zelenskyy vows Odesa cathedral attack retaliation

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised to strike Russia for a deadly attack on Odesa that wounded 22 people

“Missiles against peaceful cities, against residential buildings, a cathedral,” Zelenskyy said. “There will definitely be a retaliation against Russian terrorists for Odesa.”

The attack destroyed the Orthodox Savior and Transfiguration Cathedral under UNESCO protection in the historic city centre, which Kyiv called a “war crime that will never be forgotten and forgiven.”

Andriy Palchuk, the archdeacon of the cathedral, told AFP that both people in the cathedral at the time of the attack survived.

Moscow said it had hit all its intended targets in the Odesa strike, claiming the sites were being used to prepare “terrorist acts” against Russia.

Odesa has been bombed several times since the start of the invasion. In January,  the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO designated the historic centre of the city as a World Heritage in Danger site.

‘Counteroffensive has failed,’ claims Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko that the Ukrainian counteroffensive had failed on Sunday. 

The two met for the first time since Lukashenko helped broker a deal to end a mutiny by Wagner fighters last month.

Putin told the Belarusian leader that an ongoing counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces to push back his country’s troops had “failed”.

“There is no counteroffensive,” Lukashenko said, according to the Russian TASS news agency before being interrupted by Putin: “There is one, but it has failed.”

A video posted on Sunday by Lukashenko’s press service showed the two longtime leaders arriving at Saint Petersburg’s Konstantinovsky palace together ahead of scheduled talks, which Putin has said will last for two days.

Russia blames Ukraine’s cluster munitions for journalist’s death

Russia has blamed US-supplied cluster munitions for the death of a Russian war correspondent in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. 

RIA news’ war correspondent Rostislav Zhuralev was killed on Saturday with three other journalists injured in the frontline, following an artillery attack. 

Zhuralev died on the way to the hospital, the Russian defence ministry said, adding the others were mildly injured. 

“As a result of a strike by the Ukrainian army using cluster munitions, four journalists were wounded,” the Russian army said in a statement.

The Russian foreign ministry reacted angrily to the incident, calling it a “heinous crime” and “criminal terror” committed by Kyiv, on the back of Western support.

“Those responsible for the brutal reprisal against a Russian journalist will inevitably suffer well-deserved punishment,” foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said. 

Zakharova echoed the defence ministry’s sentiments, hinting at a possible retaliation for the killings done by cluster bombs. 

Reports of Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions came from Russia’s Belgorod region as well. with Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov claiming a civilian village close to the Ukrainian border was targeted. 

“21 artillery shells and three cluster munitions from a multiple-launch rocket system were fired at the village of Zhuravlevka,” Governor Gladkov said.

Russia’s claims could not be independently verified.

Russia thwarts Ukrainian drone strike on Moscow

Russia said it foiled a Ukrainian drone attack on Moscow in the early hours of Monday. 

The Russian Defence Ministry said a “terrorist” attack from Kyiv was prevented by the air force, without significant damage in the capital. 

“A Kyiv regime attempt to carry out a terrorist act using two drones on objects on the territory of the city of Moscow was stopped,” the statement said. 

One of the two drones landed near the defence ministry, according to Russian news agency TASS. 

Drone attacks in the Russian capital have been a concern, despite it being far from the front. One drone hit the Kremlin in May, provoking an increased air defence around the city, though some suggested it might be an inside job. 

The attacks followed Zelenskyy’s vow to “retaliate” against the attack on the Odesa cathedral. Ukraine has not commented on the incident yet.

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Southern Baptists Solve Shrinking Membership By Reminding Girls They Aren’t Allowed

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, voted Wednesday to finalize the expulsion of two member churches because they have women pastors, something they’re quite sure Jesus would not approve of. The Prince of Peace hasn’t even once shown up to disagree with anything else Southern Baptist leaders have done since the denomination was founded in 1845, when the SBC broke with other Baptists so it could advocate slavery without any backtalk.

The SBC had actually expelled the two churches in February, along with three others that didn’t appeal the decision. At the SBC’s annual meeting in New Orleans, delegates — called “messengers” because it’s more Bible-y — refused to reinstate California’s Saddleback Church, the megachurch led by rightwing evangelist Rick Warren, who didn’t even get a pass for hating gays and abortion or even for calling Barack Obama an enemy of Christianity years ago, even though he’d been inexplicably invited to pray at the first Muslim president’s inauguration.


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Bonus: Yr Editrix on Saddleback, from the Before Times at OC Weekly

But Saddleback has some lady pastors, so it couldn’t be reinstated, and neither could the smaller Fern Creek Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky. Lord knows you wouldn’t want to risk a lady pastor leaning over the pulpit and accidentally brushing against the Holy Bible with her dirtypillows.

The SBC’s “statement of faith” holds that only men can be pastors, because of some Bible verse that is as indisputable as the fact that Earth was created out of nothing about 6,000 years ago (to the great surprise of the Sumerians, who had already figured out agriculture, math, and writing at the time). So it wasn’t terribly surprising that the votes were overwhelming; 9,437 to 1,212 to reject Saddleback’s appeal, and 9,700 to 806 to refuse readmission for Fern Creek.

“I knew they would uphold the expulsion. However, I guess I am a bit naive. I did not think it would be that drastic a result. I thought there were more people left in the Southern Baptist Convention who support the autonomy of the local church, if not women in ministry,” said the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, Fern Creek’s pastor.

She said some messengers came up to her to say while they disagree with her, they “appreciate our passion for the Gospel.”

She’s from Kentucky, so she should certainly know that the messengers couldn’t be taken literally when they said “well bless your heart.”

Before the vote, Warren appealed to the good sense and Christian forbearance of the messengers, apparently forgetting for a moment that he is himself a Southern Baptist:

“We should remove churches for all kinds of sexual sin, racial sin, financial sin and leadership sin – sins that harm the testimony of our convention,” Warren told the convention. But churches with “women on pastoral staff have not sinned,” he said. “If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out.”

Well sure, and Jesus never said anything about gay people or abortion, but here you are. Or aren’t anymore.

The Associated Press helpfully clarifies that since all Baptist churches are independent, the convention can’t boss them around, but it can expel them, or in the official parlance, can declare they are “not in friendly cooperation,” or in severe cases of doctrinal disagreement, “not in friendly cooperation, motherfucker.” The AP also notes this appears to be the first time any churches have been booted for having women pastors.

The AP also notes that posting a big NO GURLS ALLOWED sign on Southern Baptist pulpits, the messengers also did some less dickish things like

upholding the expulsion of Freedom Baptist Church in Florida over its alleged mishandling of a sexual misconduct allegation.

They also voted to give a task force in charge of implementing abuse reforms more time to work. The task force launched last year.

The task force has also set up a website that includes a database of “pastors and church workers credibly accused of sex abuse,” so thank Crom those particular groomers aren’t being covered up. Any more.

The messengers also returned to terrible form by passing a resolution condemning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, who, the resolution said, are pursuing “a futile quest to change one’s sex and as a direct assault on God’s created order.”

You could say the same of automobiles, modern medicine, and Michael Bay movies too.

Just to make sure affiliated churches don’t go getting any funny ideas about women being allowed to have authority over men, the messengers voted to amend the denomination’s constitution to make absolutely clear that Southern Baptist churches are to

“affirm, appoint or employ only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” To go into effect, it needs to be approved at the next annual meeting.

Sarah Clatworthy, member of Lifepoint Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas, advocated for the amendment, urging the SBC “to shut the door to feminism and liberalism.”

“In a culture that is unclear about the role of men and women, we have to be crystal clear,” she said. “We should leave no room for our daughters or granddaughters to have confusion on where the SBC stands.”

We will simply observe that no matter what Ms. Clatworthy says about doctrine, there’s no guarantee that Baptists’ daughters or granddaughters will buy into it going forward — as, indeed, they aren’t doing now, what with 2022’s decline in membership being the single greatest drop-off in a 16-year-trend of shrinking attendance. Also, we aren’t quite sure what one would need to do to be worthy of clat in the first place.

After being declared unfriendly and uncooperative, Warren issued a statement calling for Christians to party like it’s AD 99:

“There are people who want to take the SBC back to the 1950s when white men ruled supreme and when the woman’s place was in the home. There are others who want to take it back 500 years to the time of the Reformation,” he said. “I say we need to take the church back to the first century. The church at its birth was the church at its best.”

That would be pretty sweet, what with speaking Aramaic like Jesus, the Romans keeping the streets clean, Paul’s letters being fresh in your email inbox (including presumably the ones he didn’t write, because who’d fact-check ’em even then), and of course the opportunity to really be martyred instead of pretending that martyrdom consists of Target having a Pride display, the end.

[AP / Onion / AP / Photo (cropped and photoshooped) by Gerry Dincher, Creative Commons License 2.0]

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‘All that we’re asking for is to be recognised’: Turkish Alevis’ struggle for equality

From our special correspondent in Pazarcik, Turkey – With an estimated population of between 15 to 20 million people, Turkey’s Alevi community is one of the country’s largest religious minorities. Despite being widely discriminated against, Alevis are being given renewed hopes in their struggle for equality in Turkey as Alevi presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces off against incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 14. 

The Cemevi (Turkish for house of gathering) in the town of Pazarcik situated in the Kahramanmaras Province in southern Turkey has been heavily damaged by the February 6 earthquakes. The Alevi prayer house now serves as a place of storage for aid supplies.

Chairs and tables are piled together and boxes strewn about on the cracked and dust-covered floor of the partially destroyed prayer house where President Hasan Husevin Degirmenci of the local Alevi Cultural Association spoke with FRANCE 24.

The Pazarcik Cemevi, which was originally built with funds raised through the sale of “tea and coffee at weddings of the [Alevi] diaspora in Switzerland”, is far from the only Alevi prayer house damaged by the earthquakes, Degirmenci said, adding that there is no rebuilding in sight.

Meanwhile mosques damaged by the earthquakes will be rebuilt, he said. 

Alevism: an old syncretic religion

It is hard to define what Alevism actually is. Some say it is a sect, while others call it a religion, an Islamic branch resembling Shi’ism and Sufism. Alevis, however, regard themselves neither as Sunnis nor Shias.

“We red heads (kızılbaş in Turkish refers to the crimson headwear worn by Alevis during the rule of the Ottoman empire) have nothing to do with Shias,” Degirmenci said. “Ali is Shia. We pray for the 12 imams at each Cem (gathering) so that the prayer is complete.”

The Pazarcik Cemevi that has been heavily damaged by the February 6 earthquakes now serves as a place of storage for aid supplies. © Assiya Hamza

The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed above a platform at the far end of the room with Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, along with Muhammad’s descendants. The 12th imam is “hidden” (his features are not portrayed) and is believed by Alevis to return at the end of time. The icon of Haci Bektas Veli, a revered 13th century Turkish philosopher and founder of the Bektashi Order, and a photo of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, are also portrayed. 

The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed at the Pazarcik place of worship.
The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed at the Pazarcik place of worship. © Assiya Hamza



A portrait of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, displayed at the Pazarcik Cemevi.
A portrait of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, displayed at the Pazarcik Cemevi. © Assiya Hamza

The Alevi faith is essentially a religious syncretism which combines philosophy, Gnosticism, Sufism and Christianity. Unlike the majority of Muslims, Alevis do not pray five times per day, nor do they go on pilgrimage to Mecca. They do not observe Ramadan and do not ban alcohol. Every Thursday, a ceremony called the Cem is presided by a dede (which literally means “grandfather” in Turkish) during which men and women gather to pray. At the end of the ceremony, the devotees perform a dance called Semah accompanied by music played on a Saz, a traditional string instrument.

“The main rule is justice. Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you,” Degirmenci said. “Don’t say things that you won’t want said to you. We don’t have a book. Our belief is passed on orally. We respect the four holy books (the Quran, the Bible, the Torah and the Book of Psalms) and we expect the same respect from others. We exist, even though we’re not recognised by authorities.”

‘They killed children’ 

Ever since the rule of the Ottoman empire, Alevis have been regarded as apostates, miscreants and followers of Islamic fanaticism in Turkey. Often persecuted for their faith, Alevis have been the victims of several pogroms. Hasan Husevin Degirmenci has himself survived the 1978 Maras (short for Kahramanmaras) massacre, during which over a hundred Alevi Kurds were killed and more than 500 injured by neofascist groups according to official figures. 

“The fight was mainly between left and right wingers (communists and neofascists from Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party) but armed groups took it out on Alevis,” Degirmenci said. “They killed children, they eviscerated pregnant women. At that time, there were a lot of Alevis living in Maras, and the community was prosperous. They did it to divide and to weaken us. They reinvented history by pitting Sunnis against Alevis.”

Another more recent pogrom has also left its bitter mark on Alevi history. On July 2, 1993, Islamic fanatics carried out an arson attack on a hotel in Sivas, a city in central Turkey known for its religious conservatism. Academics were gathered at the hotel to celebrate Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century Alevi poet. The arson attack left 37 people dead, and among them 33 Alevis. The faces of the “martyrs” cover one of the walls of Cemevi’s main hall. 

The faces of the victims of the Sivas massacre cover one of the walls of the Pazarcik Cemevi’s main hall.
The faces of the victims of the Sivas massacre cover one of the walls of the Pazarcik Cemevi’s main hall. © Assiya Hamza

Despite making up to an estimated 20 percent of the population, the Alevi community in Turkey continue to face death threats and attacks for not observing Ramadan, and their houses are often marked with a cross.

“When I was a child, we weren’t even allowed to speak Kurdish. We had to hide our faith after the Maras massacre. But after what happened in Sivas in 1993, people refused to endure it anymore,” Degirmenci said. 

Struggle for equality 

“I was born Alevi, I didn’t choose it. I have an identity card, I did my military service, I pay my taxes. I fulfil all my duties as a citizen. There are between 15 and 20 million Alevis in Turkey and all that we’re asking for is to be recognised in the Constitution.”  

Despite the continuous hardships, the Alevi community in Turkey have recently been given renewed hopes when the opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu spoke publicly of his Alevi heritage, breaking a political taboo. 

Backed by strong popular support, Kilicdaroglu would become the first Alevi president in Turkey’s history if he is elected on May 14 against Recep Tayyip Erdogan

“We Alevis, we have hope. We will never give up,” Degirmenci said. “An Alevi candidate will apply his beliefs in morality and justice. There are other minorities in Turkey: Kurds, Syrians, Yezidis … He will not point fingers at anyone.” 

However, Kilicdaroglu’s victory is not yet guaranteed, and fears over the incumbent’s potential re-election remain high among Alevis.

“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “The Christians have already left the country. If he is re-elected, the Alevis will leave.”

This article was adapted from the original in French

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Ukraine hunts collaborators in its divided church

KYIV — “He consecrated their tanks — blessed military equipment!”

Kyiv’s regional police chief Andrii Nebytov doesn’t hide his disgust as he describes how Father Mykola Yevtushenko, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, collaborated with the Russians, offering benedictions and urging his parishioners to welcome the invading forces.

The 75-year-old cleric, whose trial is underway in Kyiv, is accused not only of trying to stamp an ecclesiastical imprimatur on the invasion, but also of identifying locals most likely to resist Russia’s savage 33-day occupation of Bucha, the suburban town just northwest of Kyiv that has become a byword for war crimes.

Yevtushenko is far from being the only clergyman in the sights of the Ukrainian authorities over accusations of collaboration. More than 30 priests are under investigation, and the intelligence services mounted a series of raids in monasteries and churches across the country to root out pro-Russian clerics.

The investigations cut to the heart of a profound and highly political schism that divides the churches of this predominantly Orthodox nation. The growing tensions raise significant questions over how far President Volodymyr Zelenskyy can go in ratcheting up pressure on what is ostensibly a religious institution over fears that it is a hotbed of dangerous fifth columnists.

Ukraine’s church splintered in 2018 into two bodies with unhelpfully similar names. In the teeth of opposition from the Kremlin, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted ecclesiastical independence by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019. In a sign of the political fault lines underpinning the feud, OCU churches had offered support to the Maidan protesters of 2014, who toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s satrap in Ukraine. 

This left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was still loyal to Moscow and is the church to which Yevtushenko and the other investigated clergy belong. The UOC has more land and buildings but the OCU claims at least double the number of worshippers. Although the UOC claimed in May to have ended its subordination to Moscow’s Metropolitan Kirill, a vociferous supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, few believe the split is sincere. Kirill casts the invasion as a religious war, an apocalyptic battle against evil forces determined to shatter the God-given unity of Holy Mother Russia, and Ukrainian lawmakers and other critics accuse the UOC of faking its rupture with his authority.

Butchery in Bucha

The army that Yevtushenko blessed in Bucha committed atrocities.

As they withdrew, they left behind 458 bodies, mostly civilians, including those of children. All were victims of a reign of rape and murder, that saw an old man shot dead in his garden and a family machine-gunned to death in their car as they tried to flee to safety. After the Russians withdrew, the town was littered with bodies, some buried and others not. Eighteen mutilated corpses of men, women and children were found in a basement — and on a roadside under a blanket, three naked women, whom Russian soldiers had attempted to incinerate before retreating.

The bestiality didn’t deter Yevtushenko.

As the rampage unfolded, he persisted in supporting the Russians, singling out local officials, Ukrainian army veterans and the “houses where wealthy people live, which were later robbed by the occupiers,” according to investigators.

The priest’s defense is that he was forced into his actions, but the police chief has little sympathy.

“He doesn’t accept his guilt and says the Russians threatened to kill him, or something like that,” Nebytov said, with a shake of his head.

Among the other 30 priests under investigation is Oleksandr Boyko from the village of Deptivka in Sumy Oblast, detained on suspicion of having “propagated hostile ideology, justified the actions of the aggressor country in Ukraine and supported the occupation,” according to prosecutors. Locals have told Ukrainian media that Boyko accompanied the Russians in his car around the village, delivering a pro-Moscow sermon: “We must love Russia. Without Russia, we are nothing.”

Ukrainian prosecutors announced Wednesday that a priest from the Luhansk region had been convicted of collaborating with the Russians and sentenced to 12 years. He was found guilty of supplying the Russians with intelligence on Ukrainian forces. 

“A priest from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate in Luhansk region has been sentenced to twelve years in prison for informing the enemy about Ukrainian defense positions. The prosecutors proved in court that the priest from Lysychansk-based church assisted the Russian armed groups during hostilities against the Ukrainian army,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said on its Telegram channel.

As more evidence emerges about treacherous priests, public clamor is swelling for a ban on the UOC. A public petition last week calling for the UOC to be shuttered rapidly attracted the required 25,000 signatures for it to be referred formally to President Zelenskyy.

To ban or not ban

Even before the petition reached Zelenskyy’s desk, more than 30 Ukrainian lawmakers led by Kniazhytskyi and drawn from a variety of political parties, sponsored legislation that would ban the church and transfer its property to the OCU.

In the past, Zelenskyy’s government has been wary of acting against Moscow’s church in Ukraine, not wanting to cross any lines on the freedom of religious belief, or fall foul of the European Union or international norms in protecting worship. It has wanted to avoid offending the church’s adherents, acutely aware that within the ranks of its priests and worshippers are plenty of patriotic Ukrainians, some fighting on the frontlines against the Russians.

But evidence that church leaders have acted to varying degrees as cheerleaders for the enemy has prompted a change of heart.

In one of his nightly addresses, Zelenskyy announced his government was working on legislation to protect the country’s “spiritual independence” and to make it impossible for “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia to function in Ukraine. He has called for the naming and shaming of leading church figures and priests who have aided Russia.  

The Ukrainian leader has also ordered a probe into the management of the UOC and its canonical relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate, to be completed within two months.

Talk of banning the UOC has prompted fury from the Kremlin. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has accused Kyiv of mounting a “war on the Russian Orthodox Church” — an odd turn of phrase considering the UOC’s claims to be no longer affiliated with its mother church in Moscow.

Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Vladimir Legoyda has dubbed the proposed moves as an “act of intimidation” and the latest round in the persecution of Orthodox faithful that he claims began in 2014 after Yanukovych’s ouster. He offered no examples of persecution. The Moscow Patriarchate and Putin and his aides cited Kyiv’s oppression of the UOC as justification for military moves into Ukraine’s Donbass region after 2014.

Russian world

Among the institutions targeted by Ukraine’s security service was the 11th-century Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, a preeminent center of Orthodox Christianity. In western Ukraine, agents raided the Koretsky Convent and the Volyn monastery of the icon of the Mother of God.

In a statement, Ukraine’s security agency (SBU) said it needed to conduct inspections to check for weapons and to ensure saboteurs or collaborators wanted by the police weren’t being sheltered in church buildings. “These activities are being carried out to prevent the use of religious communities as cells of the ‘Russian world’ and to protect the population from provocations and terrorist acts, among other things,” the SBU said. Ukrainian officials say material was found during the raids that indicated the UOC had maintained links to the Russian Orthodox Church throughout the war. (The phrase “Russian world,” or Russkiy mir, is a concept Putin evoked to justify his annexation of Crimea and has cited as his reason for invading Ukraine.)

Speaking to POLITICO, Metropolitan Klyment, the UOC’s spokesman, initially made light of the raids, saying “the security service was more looking into health measures in terms of COVID.” But then added: “It is political manipulation — they want to accuse the Lavra of wrongdoing, but in the end, they didn’t find anything incriminating, weapons or saboteurs or anything like that.”

Weapons maybe not, but the SBU has charged several clergymen from the Lavra with “glorifying Russia” during church services, leading hymns and songs about a Russian awakening and offering justification for the invasion of Ukraine. “Those who wait for the ‘awakening of Mother Rus’ during the full-scale war that Russia is waging against Ukraine need to understand that this harms the interests and the security of Ukraine and its citizens,” SBU head Vasily Malyuk said. “We will not allow such expressions.”

Pro-Kremlin pamphlets, books and newspapers such as the “Russian Messenger” were found during the raids, say SBU officials.

Since the 2014 Maidan uprising, there have been episodic calls for the Russian-linked church to be banned, with detractors accusing it of being a Trojan Horse. Around 600 parishes defected to the OCU from 2014 to early 2022. After the invasion, that turned into a torrent with another thousand parishes switching affiliation.

With criticism mounting — and in a bid apparently to try to stem defections — the church announced in May that it had rewritten its charter, ending its subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Kirill. But the UOC has failed to publish its new constitution and continues to hold services where priests pray for Russia and promulgate a vision of the Russian world.

Still loyal to Moscow

The rewriting of the charter “is just a game,” Archbishop Yevstratiy of the breakaway OCU told POLITICO. “It is cosmetic and just rhetoric; it is not a real decision to break with Moscow. They said they changed the laws of the church to omit their ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. But that was more than six months ago and they have still not published the new version,” Yevstratiy said.

He says a ban is justified. “Ukraine resists Russian aggression not only on the battlefield but across different spheres. Ukraine prohibits the activity of Russian banks, of Russian media, and Ukraine has banned pro-Russian political parties, and I think there should be a law that prohibits a church tied to Russia, which Moscow uses as a tool of ideological aggression. That doesn’t mean people can’t believe what they want and pray how they want, but we can’t have Ukrainian religious entities controlled by Moscow,” he said.

The archbishop highlighted the origins of the Moscow Patriarchy and its establishment in 1943 by communist dictator Joseph Stalin as the governing body to run Orthodox religious affairs in the Soviet Union. “The Moscow Patriarchy is a Russian state agency,” Yevstratiy said.

That is also the view of the late KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, who defected in the early 1990s to Britain. In a subsequent book, Mitrokhin revealed that the Patriarchy was set up as a front organization of the Russian intelligence services, with its priests used as “agents of influence” and even for “active measures” and spying missions.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, not much has changed, say some Western analysts and Ukrainian lawmakers, including Kniazhytskyi, who has long campaigned for a ban on the UOC.

Kniazhytskyi told POLITICO the Russian Orthodox Church and UOC are one and the same — “part of the Russian state” used by the Kremlin in Ukraine and elsewhere in subversive hybrid warfare and as a tool of foreign policy as well as an agency for Russia’s intelligence services. 

Kniazhytskyi and others say the use of the church for state purposes predates Stalin — orthodoxy was used by Russian leaders, including Catherine the Great and Czar Nicholas I, as an ideological justification for the expansion of the Russian empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The church is not religious in nature; it implements the state policy of the Russian Federation,” he said.

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