Washington - Pending legislation in Ukraine aimed at preventing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from becoming a conduit for Russian influence is attracting attention in the United States and is being used by some U.S. conservatives to paint Ukraine as hostile to religious freedom.
Ukrainian authorities insist the proposed law would not limit the activities of the church, which many believe maintains a relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and has seen its membership plummet since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
They say it would simply authorize a relevant state agency to investigate the presence of connections between any religious organization and Russia and require it to remedy the situation if needed.
The actual text of the draft bill, which received preliminary approval in the Ukrainian parliament on Oct. 19, prohibits 'activities of religious organizations that are affiliated with the centers of influence of a religious organization (association) whose management center (management) is located outside of Ukraine in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine.'
Any such ban 'is inexcusable, illegal, contrary to international law, and contrary to the interests of Ukraine,' argue lawyers Robert Amsterdam and William Burke-White, who are registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as representing the interests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
'And I think that's what I find most frustrating,' Amsterdam said in a phone interview with VOA. 'Somebody who supports Ukraine as I do, that this government would put in front of the Rada legislation that is so contrary to law and contrary to international practice. The Ukrainian government has got to go back to the rule of law.'
FILE - Hundreds of believers attend a church service on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery, which is the headquarter of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy in Kiev on Oct. 14, 2018.
Perhaps more worrisome for the Ukrainian government, the issue has been taken up by some U.S. opinion influencers who argue against further U.S. military assistance to help Kyiv resist the Russian invasion of its territory launched last year.
During the third Republican presidential debate in Miami on Nov. 8, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy accused Ukraine of banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 'The parliament did that just last week, supported by our U.S. dollars,' he said.
Earlier, in a popular show on X, media personality Tucker Carlson accused the Ukrainian government of banning 'an entire Christian denomination.' As of this week, the show had been viewed almost 55 million times.
But Viktor Yelensky, head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience, insisted in an interview with VOA that the proposed law simply authorizes his service to examine any religious organization's connections with Russia, whose unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
According to the legislation, the service will do this by 'conducting a religious-study examination of the activities of religious organizations to identify subordination in canonical and organizational issues with centers of influence.'
The agency will ask an organization to make specific changes if they find such a connection, he said. 'If a religious organization refuses to comply with the law, we will bring it to court. So, the civil court will have the final say. It is not a ban.'
The UOC spokesperson, Metropolitan Kliment, acknowledges that his church is not specifically named in the proposed legislation. But he says he is worried that the final version of the draft law may be tougher and name his church.
The complex relationship between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Russia has been the subject of discord within the country's religious community since long before the invasion.
After centuries in which the Russian Orthodox Church was the predominant Christian denomination in Ukraine, represented by the Ukrainian Exarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church established itself as a separate entity in 1990 while maintaining relations with the Russian church.
In May 2022, its leaders announced their full independence from the Moscow-based church, which has been a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to conquer Ukraine.
There is also another Orthodox Christian church in the country - the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It was formed in 2018 after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate merged with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Both churches claim to be successors of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine going back to the 10th century.
FILE - People light candles in a church to mark the Orthodox Christmas in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra church in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 6, 2012.
Last year's invasion accelerated the drift of believers from the UOC to the OCU, with whole parishes permitted to switch from one to the other with a two-thirds vote at a parish meeting.
Followers of the OCU accounted for 54% of all Ukrainian churchgoers as of July 2022, according to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. The same study found that only 4% of churchgoers still attended the UOC as of that date, down from 18% a year earlier. Church spokesperson Metropolitan Kliment maintains that the true number is higher.
Amsterdam sharply criticized the transfer process, claiming that some parishioners have been subjected to intimidation. 'I've seen these pictures of men in balaclavas coming in and threatening and intimidating people to change,' he said.
Yelensky told VOA that most transitions took place peacefully although there were some clashes in cases where a majority wanted to switch but a minority sided with the priest who was against it. He said the most tumultuous transitions happen in villages, where communities often build and maintain temples, and that opposition to a switch is also organized.
Since the start of the war, the UOC's ties to Russia have been under scrutiny.
Between February 2022 and October 2023, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) opened 68 criminal proceedings against representatives of the UOC, including several high-level religious leaders, for such crimes as treason, collaborationism and aiding and abetting the aggressor country, RFE/RL reports.
'In addition, law enforcement officers are investigating 18 cases of public agitation for religious hatred, the sale of firearms, and the distribution of child pornography,' the SSU said in a statement.
Ukraine's law enforcement authorities insist that they do not prosecute anyone because of their religious beliefs but only for actual crimes.
'Having a cassock and incense is not aggravating, but it doesn't exempt from criminal liability. We work exclusively within the framework of the law, regardless of church rank,' said the SSU head, Vasyl Malyuk, in an interview with the UNIAN agency.
Both the proposed new law and the underlying controversy have attracted the attention of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent agency responsible for reviewing possible violations of religious freedom abroad and making policy recommendations to the U.S. administration and Congress.
USCIRF members have discussed the draft law with Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States. VOA was told in a written reply from USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper, 'The Ambassador strongly advocated for Ukraine's ability to defend its national security given Russia's unjustified war and influence campaign in Ukraine.'
Cooper said the commission expressed its understanding of Ukraine's challenges but asked it to ensure that the law, when adopted, doesn't violate religious freedoms.
'Ultimately, the Ukrainian government should ensure that the law does not target law-abiding citizens due to their religious beliefs or affiliation, or in any way prevent people from peacefully practicing their religion in community with others,' says his written reply.
Amsterdam denied any suggestion that his activity on behalf of the UOC might play into Russia's hands by providing an argument to those in the U.S. Congress who wish to halt U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. He argued that Kyiv should simply withdraw the draft.
Faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is accused of maintaining links with Russia, pray outside the historic monastery Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on July 4, 2023.
'Don't put together illegal legislation and talk about going to Congress. It's so foolish. It's ridiculous. It's the stupidest thing Ukraine could do,' he said.
Metropolitan Evstratiy (Zorya) of the rival OCU rejected any suggestion that religious liberty in Ukraine is at risk. 'Ukraine has never in its entire history had the level of religious freedom as it has been enjoying since gaining its independence,' he told VOA.
Evstratiy was part of an 18-member delegation of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations that visited the United States earlier this month, meeting members of Congress, politicians, experts and leaders of religious communities.
The council claims to represent 95% of all religious denominations in Ukraine, although Metropolitan Kliment of the UOC says no one from his church was invited to participate.
Yaakov Dov Bleich, the U.S.-born chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, told VOA that he explained the draft law to Americans during the trip: 'This is a law that says that if an aggressor country is going to use a religious organization or any other organization to try to influence people and life in Ukraine, it is a danger to Ukraine.'
The delegation also talked about massive violations of the right to freedom of religion and the use of physical violence against religious minorities by the Russian authorities in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
Anatoliy Kozachok, senior bishop of the Ukrainian Church of the Evangelical Faith, who participated in the trip, told VOA in a written reply that since Ukraine gained independence, evangelicals have enjoyed their greatest religious freedom.
'Not a single church is closed in Ukraine; not a single clergyman is persecuted for religious activity,' he wrote. But in the Russian-occupied territories, he added, his community was subjected to religious restrictions, discrimination and persecution.
'For example, in the occupied Luhansk region, not a single functioning church has survived,' he wrote.
Metropolitan Evstratiy said that while in the United States, the delegation "talked about kidnapped priests who are now in Russian prisons; we talked about destroyed and looted shrines.'
"If a person, be it a lawyer, be it a journalist, be it a politician, says that there is no religious freedom in Ukraine, and at the same time not a word about the occupied territories, this is already a direct sign that this is exclusively Russian propaganda, and not the truth,' he said.
Amsterdam agreed that the situation in the Russian-occupied territories is 'horrific,' and Metropolitan Kliment said that the UOC has repeatedly condemned the situation.
'Our Church has repeatedly condemned attempts at religious discrimination, and representatives of our communities in the occupied territories have categorically opposed illegal actions against any religious denomination,' he said.
On that point, the USCIRF is also in agreement.
'Ukrainian religious communities in Russian-occupied territories have had to endure some of the worst religious freedom violations as Russian military forces and de facto authorities have regularly banned religious groups, disappeared, tortured and killed religious leaders, and destroyed Ukraine's religious and cultural sites,' Cooper said.
'However, we reiterate our concerns about the possible impacts of law No. 8371.'
Nataliia Churikova and Myroslava Gongadze contributed to this report. Materials from Euromaidan, RFL/RE, and UNIAN were also used.