Possible Leak From the Ukrainian SBU Sheds Light on Zelensky's Religious Policy
Anonymous sources from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) consider Zelensky’s policy flighty and inconsistent, and criticize the efforts to counter Moscow’s influence in the religious field. According to them, the request of the President’s Office for the country’s largest religious association’s elimination seems artificial to them, due to the prolonged indifference of the authorities to the church situation in the country, while the responsibility hastily assigned to the security service is disproportionate.
In an attempt to attract Ukrainian legislators and relevant departments to more actively participate in achieving the “emergency” tasks set by Zelensky, sources close to the SBU apparently leaked proposals prepared in a forced hurry to expel monks from the most preeminent Ukrainian Orthodox shrine. Anonymous publications indicate several areas of work which must be dealt with by various state bodies in order to achieve the goal. The media have already criticized the leaked proposals as late, inefficient and lacking a comprehensive approach to religion.
The situation around the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the preeminent monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which many Ukrainians associate with Moscow, continues to be stably difficult. Just like two weeks ago, the believers of this religious organization refuse to leave the territory of the monastery, despite the lease agreement was terminated by the state. In late March, the commission of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine tried to get into the territory of the Lavra in order to compile an inventory of property and church utensils, to accept them on the balance of the state. The commission was prevented by the hierarchs and believers of the UOC, who come to populous open-air prayer services every day and thus form a human shield around the buildings of the historical monastery.
The UOC explains its determination by the fact that the contract with the monastery for the use of the UNESCO monument was terminated groundlessly, since violations allegedly revealed by the commission of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine are hidden from the public, and the contribution of the UOC to the restoration of the shrine since Soviet times is not taken into account. In addition, they remind that the Ukrainian state has not carried out the restitution of the monastery’s property, and no other organization will be able to ensure the preservation of the monastery complex and its intended use.
Rumors are also spreading about the plans of the Ukrainian authorities to transfer the buildings of the ancient monastery to the Ecumenical Patriarchate Stauropegion, opened in Kyiv under the previous president Petro Poroshenko, since the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) created under him will not be able to financially maintain the buildings of the Lavra properly.
Recall that the preservation of the UOC monastery on this territory is excluded due to President’s Office’s focus on banning its activities because of “canonical connection with the Moscow Patriarchate.” Since December 2022, when President Zelensky launched a campaign for “spiritual independence from Moscow,” three bills delegitimizing the organizations of the UOC have been registered in the Ukrainian Parliament to date. And, apparently, the fact that none of them has yet been adopted seriously complicates the task assigned to the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies to clear the Kyiv–Pechersk Lavra from the structures of the UOC before Easter Day according to the Julian calendar (April 16).
It is worth noting that in the western regions of the country, the authorities are massively breaking lease agreements with the UOC communities for the use of land under church buildings, and meetings of pro-Ukrainian-minded people are seeking to transfer the keys to the churches to the OCU clergy. Therefore, far-right activists, as well as the country’s authorities, could really expect success with the Lavra. Meanwhile, a protracted confrontation with believers creates quite an undesirable background for President Zelensky. Especially in the context of the announced counteroffensive and the need to stabilize the situation in the rear.
In this regard, a number of Ukrainian media, with reference to information allegedly leaked from the SBU, mention the possibility of “speeding up the consideration” of the claim of the state National Reserve Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra to the Holy Dormition Monastery of the UOC on the non-admission of the commission to the Lavra, as well as ensuring a “positive verdict” in this case. This is despite the fact that the case was opened on April 5, and a preparatory hearing on the case has already been scheduled for April 24. It is unclear how this process can be accelerated without interfering in the proceedings.
In addition, Ukrainian sources focus on the intensification of the investigation and prosecution of UOC activists under criminal law. This mechanism, which has already been tested on a number of hierarchs of the UOC accused of collaboration or inciting inter-confessional discord, will most likely be applied primarily to Victoria Kokhanovska, the coordinator of the rallies near the Lavra. It is reported that she can face punishment under Article 161 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – “Violation of equal rights of citizens in connection with their racial, national or religious affiliation.” The recent summons of Kokhanovska for questioning as a witness in the criminal case against the Abbot of the Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel Lebed, suggests that the SBU officers are closely watching her and will not miss the opportunity to involve her as an accused.
Another hint at the implementation of the ideas described by the anonymous whistleblower is the call of Metropolitan Pereyaslav–Khmelnitsky and Vishnevsky of the OCU Oleksandr Drabynko to dialogue with contractual representatives of the UOC. The importance of organizing authoritative round tables and conferences in Ukraine and demonstrating a constructive dialogue with representatives of the UOC was especially emphasized along with the need for more active communication of the Ukrainian state’s position to the international community. By the way, just the other day, the Ministry of Culture really stepped up and, almost a month after of the memorial protection examination of the Lavra was complete, at last published a photo of “violations”. The accusations, however, turned out to be false.
Besides that, Ukrainian publications mention the scenario of cancelling the monks’ registration in the monastery, which, in turn, will deprive them of another argument proving the legality of their presence in the relevant territory. In addition, it is hinted that some conditions can be created to make it physically difficult for the UOC supporters to keep the “internal siege” of the Lavra from representatives of the rightful owner – the Ukrainian state. It is possible that this means disconnecting the water and electricity supply to the monastery, but the media find this scenario problematic.
Thanks to all these measures, it is planned to provide access to the Commission of the Ministry of Culture to the territory of the Lavra with the help of police officers for the reception and transfer of objects returned to the use of the National Reserve. In the end, all these seem to be obvious measures to save the reputation of the Office of the President and Zelensky personally, who agreed to the elimination of the largest religious association.
It seems that none of the Ukrainian leadership expected that the wave of bans on the activities of the UOC, which swept through the western, traditionally nationalist regions of the country, would stumble over the protests in the heart of the Ukrainian capital. Probably, it is for this reason that the Office of the President now attracts the SBU as a “fire brigade”. Another thing is that this approach can reflect lost time or a deep management crisis. This happens until there is a suitable solution to get out of the crisis – any solutions, any price and any risks seem justified.
And here again we witness incongruity: for nine months after the start of a full-scale war, Zelensky’s Office was distancing itself from the religious sphere and the now “acute” problem of the “Moscow priests”, despite the media’s attempts to prompt its reaction. So, was the President’s Office criminally inactive being indifferent to the “issue of national security of Ukraine” or is the need to liquidate the UOC really far-fetched being artificially promoted, for example, as part of some international deal?
In any case, taking into account the serious burden on the security service, Zelensky’s idea of using it as “heavy artillery” to compensate for the urgency of tasks imposed from the outside or the inability of the authorities to plan a public solution to the issue in time for all legal procedures – instead of solving military tasks and fighting corruption – seems extremely doubtful.
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