Zelensky must protect religious freedom, not quash it

This December, while the world prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky proposed a law to ban all religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia. Zelensky justified his decision as necessary to prevent Moscow from being able to “weaken Ukraine from within.” He said the move would protect the nation’s “spiritual independence” amid their bloody battle with Moscow.

Concurrently, Ukraine’s domestic security agency [SBU] launched a counterintelligence operation against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [UOC]. The assault targeted at least eight religious sites, including monasteries. The authorities have been looking for individuals suspected of subversive activity against the state. More than 30 priests are under investigation due to the raids across the country to root out pro-Russian clerics. Though SBU claimed they were checking for weapons and searching for Russian collaborators sheltered in church buildings, no weapons were found in any of the raids. Although no actual crimes were committed, several clergy members were charged with “glorifying Russia” during church services.

By way of background, of Ukraine’s 43 million people, around two-thirds identify as Eastern Orthodox Christians. In 2019 the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople permitted Ukraine to form a church independent of Moscow, named the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Nevertheless, many parishes and priests remained under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchate until May of this year, when the UOC formally broke ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over the invasion of Ukraine. Zelensky’s ban on the religious activities of the UOC, despite its formal split from Moscow, effectively curtails the spiritual practices of millions of already beleaguered Ukrainian people. They will not be allowed to attend their church, seek prayer from their pastors, or associate with the church community they have sought comfort from their whole lives.

Here in the US, Congress approved billions of dollars to support Zelensky under the guise of defending freedom and the right to self-determination for the Ukrainian people. US taxpayer dollars are being used to defend Ukraine’s “democracy” against Russia, one of the world’s most ferocious superpowers, despite its potentially catastrophic consequences on America if Russia retaliates. As champions of religious freedom and the freedom of conscience, how then can the US turn a blind eye to the criminalization of an entire religious denomination?