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Inter-denominational conflict emerges in Kharkiv. Who is to blame?

Yevhen Zakharov

Kharkiv used to stand out from other regions in the level of tolerance as regards inter-ethnic and inter-denominational relations. There were certain moments of friction however in 15 years since independence I cannot recall any serious conflict.  This balance has now been aggressively overturned.

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) recently received a request from the parish of the Church of St. John Bohoslov[1](on Kotlova Street, no. 105a in Kharkiv), which belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP), to act as observers during a picket near the Church building. According to the Dean of the Church, Father Viktor (Viktor Andriyovych Marynchak), he had been unofficially informed that a picket would be held on 22-23 July by representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).  The purpose of the picket was apparently to stop the Patriarch of the UOC KP Filaret from coming to the Church with the relics of the Great Martyr Barbara.

Having received this information, Father Viktor on 21 July submitted a letter to the local authorities and administration which is given below. In fact Patriarch Filaret was not planning to visit Kharkiv on those days nor to bring the relics.

The picket itself is an intrusion by one religious organization in the activities of another which is prohibited by Article 5 of the Law “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations”. This means that such a picket is a priori unlawful. However the picket took place. We have no information as to whether written notification was provided of the plan to hold the picket, or who reviewed it.  The police did not receive a copy of any statement regarding the intended picket and had only the letter from the Leninsky District Executive Committee with a request to ensure law and order during the picket. This was safeguarded by twenty police officers.

KHPG representatives observed the events of 22 and 23 July and can state the following.

On the morning of 22 July the telephone in the Church was disconnected. Picketers began gathering at 6 a.m., having been brought there in coaches. Besides Kharkiv residents there were also people from Poltava and Krasnohrad. At 7.00 the picket began. In all there were around 200 picketers – mainly elderly women who were led by approximately 15 sturdy middle-aged men, among them two priests. The picketers chanted three slogans: “No to the schism on Slobozhanshchyna[2], “Filaret repent! The Lord will hold you to answer for each lost soul”.  “Denysenko, do not hide behind the national idea!  You’re a buffoon, not a patriot!”.  They also sang prayers. At first they stood at a right angle to Fastovsky Lane so that there was access to the Church and cars could drive through the lane. However at 9.00, following the instructions of one of the organizers, they blocked Fastovsky Lane, and prevented car access to it until the end of the picket   (18.00) while making it difficult to walk up to the Church. Several cars tried to pass through the lane however the picketers would not let them through. The police officers did not attempt to ensure car access: the picketers, aggressive and irritable from the heat, seemed unpredictable.

It was clear from talking to the picketers that they were convinced that Patriarch Filaret was coming and that they mustn’t let him enter the Church.  They said that Filaret had seized the Church, and that they would continue this picket until the Church was returned to them. They claimed it had been taken over by dissenters and that al the believers of the Church had fallen into the clutches of Satan. The men in charge of the picket were the most militant and aggressive. “The Church belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate and it will belong to us!”, they asserted. They were also insult about believers of other denominations and faiths – Catholics (“uncanonical”), especially Greek-Catholic (“dissenters!”), Buddhists (“and they’re just Satanists!”) etc.  They claimed that all the latter, like the believers of the Church of St. John the Baptist, should be driven out of Slobozhanshchyna. One lady plunged into esoteric explanations on how a horseshoe is the sign of the orange side – that’s from Satan, and anyone who hangs a horseshoe up at home as placed himself or herself in the hands of Satan. So it’s no wonder that the President supports Filaret! Here the priests, asked to explain what exactly was going on fled from us like the Devil from a Cross.

As a result of the large number of people at the picket, many of whom were behaving aggressively, the Church of St, John Bohoslov was forced to cancel their prayer service which is usually held between 12.00 and 14.00 on Saturdays. The evening service at 16.00 took place under enormous tension.

At 16.00 the Head of the Department on Religious Affairs of the Regional State Administration, Viktor Pevchuk. He began by saying that this was all Filaret’s fault, that he shouldn’t come to Kharkiv, stirring up Orthodox believers of the Moscow Patriarchate.  When asked directly whether he agreed that such actions are a breach of the law, Mr Pevchuk responded that he was holding talks with the organizers of the picket, pointing out possible violations, and warning that they did not have the right to go on the territory of the Church, however a decision about the holding of the picket was not within his authority. Permission had been given by the Secretary of the City Council, Mr Pevchuk stated. We drew his attention to the lack of telecommunications, the obstructed access to the Church, the blocking of the road, the aggressive behaviour of many of the participants. Mr :Pevchuk then began acting straight away.  Following his call to Ukrtelekom the telephone in the Church worked immediately. The crowd cleared a space of a metre and a half so that it was possible to get to the Church without coming into contact with the picketers.
One felt sorry for the elderly ladies who stood in the heat all day. However one felt no less sympathy for the members of the parish of the Church of St, John Bohoslov who felt upset and extremely insulted. “There’s a feeling of having been spat in the face”, one woman said.  Another added: “They’ve trampled on the most sacred thing that I have”.

On 23 July the picket began again, but there were considerably less people this time. At the same time many members of the UOC MP tried to get into the Sunday service in the Church of St, John Bohoslov. However the Church people allowed only the members of the parish into the service since they were worried that there could be an attempt to seize the Church during the service.

On the same day, members of the UOC MP picketed the premises of the Eparchy administration of the UOC KP at another of its churches in the Kyivsky district of the city. The same slogans were heard, and around the same number of picketers.

We are forced to state that the members of the UOC MP who took part in the picket interfered in the affairs of another denomination – the UOC KP (a violation of Article 5 of the Law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations), and obstructed a religious ceremony in the Church of St, John Bohoslov (an offence under Article 180 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine), insulted believers, members of the congregation of this Church, and deliberately fuelled inter-denominational enmity – the intentional nature is seen in the slogans prepared in advance, insulting Patriarch Filaret of the UOC KP (an offence under Article 161 of the Criminal Code). In our opinion, the responsibility for all of this lies mainly with the organizers of the picket who were perfectly well aware what they were doing, and the authorities and administration which abetted them in these unlawful actions. They did nothing to avert conflict. Moreover, the Head of the Kharkiv Regional Council Vasily Salygin virtually supported the illegal actions when, during a news broadcast on Channel R-1, he blamed Patriarch Filaret for all of it, claiming that the latter is spreading dissent in the south and east of the country. “We can see that believers are expressing their protest against the fact that Filaret is trying to get to Kharkiv. We will not allow a schism in Slobozhanshchyna”, Mr Salygin stated.

We consider that the most flagrant violation of the Constitution of Ukraine, of the Criminal Code and the Law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations was the address given the evening before on Television Channel R-1 by Mr Valery Kaurov who called on believers from the UOC MP to take this protest action. During a live broadcast, Mr Kaurov gravely offended believers of other denominations: Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Patriarch Filaret  worshippers at the Church of St, John Bohoslov, the President of Ukraine and his wife. He also called on people to not allow “the dissenter” on Slobozhanshchyna and claimed that all churches belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. This was a direct call to religious enmity. This was not Kaurov’s first such public call, he is constantly allowed time on the air on television channels. And we saw the consequences of this with our own eyes.

In the evening of 23 July on the same TV R-! news it was reported that a “Committee for the defence of canonical Orthodoxy” had been created in Kharkiv. Given the events of 22 – 23 July, the calls to not allow Patriarch Filaret on  Slobozhanshchyna, to return all churches to the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate, we are not hopeful that the activities of this Committee will be restricted to only conversations with members of the UOC MP.

What next?  If the inaction of the local authorities and administration, or even abetting of the initiators of conflict – Orthodox members of the UOC MP – continue, then one must expect new and more serious confrontations on religious grounds. The authorities must comply with the Law on freedom of conscience and avert such unlawful actions.

Letter from the Church of St. John Bohoslov regarding a planned picket


The Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, Arsen Avakov

The Mayor of Kharkiv, Mykhailo Dobkin

The Prosecutor of the Kharkiv Region, Vasyl Synchuk

The Head of the SBU for the Kharkiv Region, Major-General, Andriy Mukhatayev

The Head of the Kharkiv Regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs,  

Ihor Repeshko

The Head of the Leninsky District Council in Kharkiv, Anatoly Nomerovsky

Over the 15 years of its existence the parish of St. John Bohoslov of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate have shown themselves to be a religious community united in the love which brings peace to the world. It has never taken part in religious or political confrontation, still less has it initiated any such conflict.

The parish has learned that on 22 July 2006 (from 8.00 to 1800) a picket is planned directly outside the Church as a protest action against the visit to Kharkiv of his Holiness, Patriarch Filaret.
In fact this visit by Patriarch Filaret to the communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate took place on 13 July at a time and in a way that would avert disruption of the peace in the city and in the life of the communities due to displays of aggression by the clergy and believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The visit planned for 22-23 July 2006 was cancelled.

We would ask that the organizers of the pickets be informed of this and advised against holding their protest.  We would in any case ask that public order near the Church be safeguarded given that the community is categorically against any of the pickets entering the territory which it owns.

We would also inform you that due to the aggressive actions, pickets and threats expressed by people calling themselves defenders of Orthodoxy, it was also decided not to bring the relics of the Great Martyr Barbara which were to be here from 31 July – 3 August, was cancelled too. We would ask you to warn our opponents against conducting protest actions near our Church both on the mentioned days and in future.

We believe that holding pickets directly outside the Church violates the rights of our congregation, is a display of flagrant pressure on them and is an and encroachment on the freedom of conscience and religion, on the right of free choice of denomination, religious community or association, and is in its essence an overt expression of inter-denominational enmity.

We are disturbed that the Kharkiv authorities are allowing such protest actions in the city and are, in doing so, creating a precedent encouraging confrontation on religious grounds.

We would stress that no rhetoric by those connected with the Church can justify what our opponents at a press conference on 7 July, attended by V. Kaurov, a representative  of theUkrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate -  Father Aleksandr and others called a religious war, publicly threatening violence and not even excluding the possibility of bloodshed and the “release from captivity” of the relics of the Great Martyr Barbara.

We would ask you to take appropriate and adequate measures to turn the religious life in Kharkiv back on the course of law and legality.

The Dean of the Church of St. John Bohoslov

Archpriest  Viktor Marynchak

[1]  Bohoslov means theologian, however there seem to be divergent translations among Orthodox Churches – St, John the Theologian or the Divine [translator’s note]

[2]  Slobozhanshchyna or Sloboda Ukraine was a region in the 17th and 18th century of the Russian Empire.  It now basically refers to the Kharkiv region and parts of the Luhansk, Sumy and Poltava regions – or more figuratively, the East of Ukraine.  (translator’s note).

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