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Imitating Response to Attack on Freedom of Conscience

If Viktor Yanukovych’s official response to the pressure on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its clergy was supposed to reduce the negative fallout, it failed

If Viktor Yanukovych’s official response to a brazen attempt to put pressure on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its clergy was supposed to reduce the negative fallout, it failed.  The words demonstrated either worrying ignorance of Ukraine’s Constitution and legislation or a no less disturbing hope that the public might be fooled. 

Only hours after the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Shevchuk announced that the Ministry of Culture had threatened the Church with court action to remove its “registration” because of clergy’s public prayers, prayer tents and other actions linked with the EuroMaidan demonstrations, a short notice appeared on the president’s official website, It informs that the “President considers it necessary to provide believers with the right to pray where they wish.  The Head of State is convinced that legislation should safeguard such a possibility for all citizens regardless of their faith”.

As if this were not enough, by the following morning, Jan 14, one of Yanukovych’s most obsequious mouthpieces, Hanna Herman announced to parliament that she had registered a draft bill which removes restrictions on holding prayers.  She claimed that current legislation envisages the need to inform local administrations about the holding of prayers in places not stipulated by legislation.  However, she says the president is in favour of making the law less strict and she has registered “the relevant draft law which removes all restrictions”.

The Ukrainian media did as it always does, and reverted to copy-paste only.  This is most unfortunate since not all members of the public are sufficiently familiar with legislation to understand that what was supposed to be “provided” is already enshrined in law.  What was needed, and was not provided, was an adequate reaction to a clearly menacing letter from the Ministry of Culture signed by First Deputy Minister T. Kokhan.

Viktor Yelensky from the Ukrainian Catholic University, for example, points out that the prosecutor should have responded to what can only be called an attack on freedom of conscience, and attempt to intimidate clergy and believers.

As reported, the letter asserts that certain priests are breaching the law through prayer services, prayer tents and other religious rites and ceremonies on Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] in Kyiv.  It claims that such activities are in breach of Article 21 of the Law on freedom of conscience which lists a number of places where prayer services, religious rites, ceremonies and processions are allowed without permission, with the list not including a public square or maidan.  Other venues must, it is asserted, have the permission of the local authorities. If the Church does not comply with this alleged legislation, court action could be taken to remove the Church’s registration, and ability to function.

Maxim Vasin, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Freedom, is clear that the letter is legally flawed.  He explains that the article of the law cited is overridden by the Constitution or main law of the land.  Article 39 of this stipulates only that there must be notification of plans to hold peaceful gatherings, no permission is required.  He stresses that the prayer services, etc, have taken place as part of larger peaceful gatherings, with notification given.

The letter is quite simply a monstrous offensive on people’s right to gather and to pray where they wish.  This is a right that they have, not one which the president as guarantor of the Constitution is free to “provide”.  As Major Archbishop Sviatoslav stated on Monday, ““We are convinced that praying for peace together with those who are peacefully expressing their wish to live in a law-based country is an appropriate place for prayer. No permission is needed from a state authority for this”.

Fitting words to end with, however, there is, unfortunately, more to be said.  

Such letters from the Ministry of Culture will probably have been received by other religious bodies.  Various forms of pressure have been applied of late on a number of participants in the peaceful EuroMaidan demonstrations.  The traffic police and courts have engaged in repressive measures, including against Father Mykhailo Dymyd, who has been ministering to members of the Lviv EuroMaidan. He received a visitation from the traffic police at the beginning of January who claimed that he had failed to stop at the demand of a traffic officer somewhere in the Kyiv oblast. 

This is not the first time that traffic police have been used to infringe Ukrainians’ freedom of worship.  In July 2010 while Yanukovych was providing Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church with a near state reception, traffic police were deployed to prevent believers from the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate from getting to Kyiv to take part in ceremonies for the Festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus.  Such interference from different authorities has become all too frequent.

This latest is extremely serious and it is not surprising that the head of the Church should have spoken of the days of the persecution of his Church which all hoped had passed forever.  The president must do considerably more to prove that they have. 

Halya Coynash
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