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.
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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