How Will the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Affect Religious Freedom?

In 1946, at the point of Soviet NKVD guns, 216 priests of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church annulled the Union of Brest-Livotsk which had brought them into communion with Rome; according to the Soviet authorities, this action ended the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church as an entity within the Soviet Union. Following this event, later known as the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church became the world’s largest illegal religious body. By the end of the Soviet Union, a Church that had once boasted over 3000 priests had only 300 left, most of them outside of the former Soviet territories.

When Westerners think about post-Soviet Russia, they assume that Russia did away with the Soviet restrictions on religious expression, and, if one looked solely at their constitution, these Westerners would be right. The government, however, of the Russian Federation greatly restricts religion. Russia’s Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, passed in 1997, gives the government broad powers to restrict, and even ban, religious groups; since its passage, the Russian Federation has “dissolved” around 2000 religious communities. The Law on Public Associations, passed in 2006, gives the Russian government authority to obtain documents from religious communities, to conduct “reviews” of a religious community, and to send representatives – normally armed security forces – to “observe” religious services. Further, the so-called Yarovaya Law, passed in 2006, bans evangelization under the pretext of counter-terrorism. Along with these laws, there have been several accusations that the Russian government has denied building permits to religious communities that the government does not deem sufficiently “Russian,” including the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic Churches.

The West has largely ignored the religious questions in the discourse surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Americans, and as supporters of religious freedom, these questions, however, should be paramount in our minds. Ukraine is a religiously pluralistic society, with sizable populations of Orthodox Christians, Catholics of both Latin and Byzantine Rites, Jews, and Muslims. The possible fates of the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics of Ukraine are instructive.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, three jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church began competing for followers in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, only the Church connected with the Moscow Patriarchate was an actual Church – the other groups were Orthodox schismatics who, under Russian law, would be unable to worship. This situation was made even more confusing in 2018 – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church combined and formed, with the sponsorship of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Following this merger, the Russian Orthodox Church stopped commemorating the Patriarch of Constantinople and declared the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine a “subversive” institution composed of schismatics. If Russia succeeds in its invasion of Ukraine, there is a great chance that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine will fall victim to Russia’s “religious freedom” laws and will be liquidated by the state. Shortly after the invasion, the Greek City Times reported that Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was on a list of Ukrainian leaders to be assassinated by Russian forces.

The other instructive examples are the Byzantine-Rite Catholic Churches of Ukraine, the largest being the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. As mentioned above, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was liquidated by the Soviet Union at the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv. The Russian Federation still sees the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv as an official synod of the Church, however, so, technically, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church is illegal in the Russian Federation. It is, therefore, not a stretch to believe that a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church being forced underground again. The Russian illegal annexation Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 illustrates this point clearly. One of the first actions of the Russian security services was to close the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic parishes in Crimea and to arrest Fr. Mykola Kvych. According to Fr. Mykola’s account, he was held, and beaten, for over 9 hours by the security forces before being released and told to leave Crimea. Now, with the full Russian invasion of Ukraine, the leader of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav, is one of the targets of Russian assassination, and, in several of his daily addresses to the faithful during this invasion, has predicted his martyrdom.

As Americans, as supporters of religious freedom, and as members of the American Solidarity Party, why should we care? Throughout the last several decades, there has been a push in the United States by some to argue that “religious freedom” solely means freedom of worship; once you leave your church, mosque, or synagogue, however, your religion should not be seen. This view of religious freedom is the one found in the Russian Federation, except for those churches part of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Do you like bells, processions, or sidewalk evangelism? You will not find that in Russia and, if Russia succeeds in their invasion, you will not find it any more in Ukraine. The actions of the Russian Federation regarding religious freedom should be a wake-up call for Americans.

Further, the actions of Russia, and the previous support of actions by Russia by American religious conservatives, should give us pause. Over the last decade, a certain subset of American religious conservatives have seen Putin’s Russia as a bulwark of traditional morality. This view of Russia, however, is a Potemkin village, and religious conservatives in the United States and elsewhere need to acknowledge that fact. While Russia has enacted laws against ‘homosexual propaganda’ and, on the surface, promoted increasing the birth rate, this face is not the real Russia. Along with their quashing of religious freedom, the abortion rate in Russia is the highest in the world, according to data compiled by the United Nations, at 37.4 abortions per 1000 women (the rate in Ukraine is significantly lower at 17.4 per 1000). In a mind-numbing statistic, there were nearly a million abortions in Russia in 2016, the last year we have reliable data; while the number is similar to the horrifying number in the United States, when adjusted for population, the Russian number is terrifyingly higher. Moreover, Russian attitudes regarding race hearken back to the antebellum period in the United States. American religious conservatives should see Russia as a terrifying vision of what the United States could be if things were to go horribly, horribly wrong; it should not be our goal to emulate them.

The platform of the American Solidarity Party states that “We are committed to the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed by the First Amendment, which should not be limited to “freedom of worship” that merely exists in private and within a house of worship.”” As we look at the events unfolding in Ukraine, we should be mindful of the religious questions. And, as Americans, we should see this invasion as a time to redouble our efforts to promote a truly pro-life culture with a Consistent Life Ethic, including a robust defense of religious freedom.


Nicholas Mataya is a teacher in San Antonio, Texas. He is married with one child and another on the way. He is the Secretary of the Texas Solidarity Party and Vice-Chair of the Bexar County Solidarity Party.

One thought on “How Will the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Affect Religious Freedom?

  1. This article was incredibly informative. I had no idea Russian totalitarianism stretched so deep into religion. Just another reason to further support Ukraine and help them end this war. Thank you for your work!

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