Sanctions against Ukrainian Orthodox Church lead to confusion


Eastern Europe

Lennart Nijenhuis,

The Ukrainian government is studying the possibility to curb the legality of that part of the Orthodox Church that is connected to Moscow. It is not clear whether international law allows that. Photo AFP, Sergei Supinsky

President Zelensky has brought confusion with the sanctions he announced to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). According to the President, spiritual independence is part of the national independence of his country. Since the UOC is (on paper) connected to Moscow, he tries to limit it.

This is reported by both the Ukrainian SPZH and Russian Ria Novosti.

Zelensky announced on Friday morning that he would introduce sanctions against the church. At that moment, it was not clear what he had in mind. After that, SPZH reported that the sanctions are directed to ten UOC clergy, from which two of them have been deposed already.


The UOC is an independent Orthodox church but is canonically still connected to the Moscow Patriarchate. The leader of that, Patriarch Kirill, is a staunch defender of Putin's war. The front in Ukraine is the defence line of the Russian civilisation, he said last week to children from Donetsk.

Since the invasion in February, the UOC has been very clear against the war. Last May, the UOC announced to get rid of the connection with Moscow and changed all its statutes. But since the Moscow Patriarchate is a party in the same statutes, it is impossible to do that unilaterally. The government in Kyiv now says to scrutinise the books whether the church is really independent of Moscow.

Zelensky has announced too to prepare a bill for banning all confessions that have a relationship with Russian power centres. This bill has to comply with international law, he said. But it needs to be clarified whether that is possible. Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe and therefore bound to the freedom of religion.

One of the defenders of a bill banning the UOC in Parliament at the moment, Member of Parliament Vadym Novinskyi, states, however, this has not to do with religion but with national security. According to him, the Russia-connected church is a threat to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as RISU reports.

From the Russian side, the Vice-President of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said that Kyiv had become an "enemy of the Orthodox faith", as reported by Ria Novosti.


The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is the traditional church in Ukraine. Since 2019, there is an alternative as well: the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is connected to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The fact that this church was born under the influence of then-President Poroshenko illustrates how politics and religion are interconnected in Ukraine. That is still the same.

Currently, it is not clear how much popular support both churches have. It is clear, though, that the number of transitions of parishes from the UOC towards the OCU is growing. But from the outside, it seems that the UOC is still by far the largest church in Ukraine.


A few hours after Zelensky's announcement, the OCU claimed to right to use Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the world-famous monastery that is the headquarters of the UOC, as SPZH reported. Initially, the news went that this right was granted to them by the state, but later this was denied.

In the past weeks, the Ukrainian security services SBU raided several UOC monasteries and centres, as was reported by several media. This Lavra in Kyiv was the first premises that was searched. According to the SBU, much suspicious material was found, varying from child porn on a computer to literature with Russian political ideology.


On YouTube, the son of a UOC priest tried to warn the authorities of the misunderstanding that this church consists of traitors. He has been fighting on the front line "from the first day of the aggressor's invasion", he said. "Do not add to a war within the state, please", the anonymous serviceman asked. According to him, the UOC sends financial and material assistance daily. "You are driving us away. You are inciting an internal war", he warned.



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