Region: Church and state collide in Ukraine
Calls for clergy to stay out of politics go largely ignored
Posted: October 24, 2012
Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill blesses the congregation during a public prayer to mark the anniversary of the christening of the region formerly known as the Kievan Rus in Kyiv July 27. Polls reveal that 71 percent of the population is religious, and Ukraine has a long history of clergymen and politicians helping each other out.
By Anna Shamanska
For the Post
The separation of church and state is sometimes not as simple as it sounds, particularly in a country as religious as Ukraine. And despite calls from church leaders for congregations to stay out of upcoming elections, such a scenario seems unlikely.
Recent polls conducted by the Razumkov sociological center indicate about 71 percent of Ukrainians are religious, with almost 52 percent associated with the Orthodox Church and about 11 percent Greek Catholic. Both churches have recently issued statements forbidding clergy to campaign for any candidates.
The statement issued by the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church read, "The church must unite people with different political views, therefore political slogans must stay outside of the church walls." The Greek Catholic Church has taken a similar position. "A priest has no right to praise anyone but God," the church said in its own statement.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has also chimed in. "We have to agree for it not to happen, for the church not to participate in the political process. It will only work to split society," he said.
Still, in a country where religion is so intertwined with politics, those calls are largely being ignored.
"It's a tradition in Ukraine for the church to be involved in the political life of the country in one way or another," said Taras Antoshevskyi, head of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. "Nowadays, the church is dependent on politics, and politicians often use the church for their own purposes."
So far, clergymen from both major congregations have been actively involved in countless political campaigns. Yanukovych said the reason is simple. "Politicians have one of the lowest rates of trust in society, while the church has one of the highest," he said.
Instances of priests actively campaigning for politicians have been highlighted by the Ukrainian media. Recently, three deans from different deaneries along with several priests attended a meeting of voters to show their support for a candidate. When asked to explain why, the press secretary of the local eparchy said the clergymen were not in fact supporting the candidate as a political figure but simply thanking him for his patronage.
The same tactic was used by another candidate when he had representatives of the Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox churches speak at a rally.
In a village in the west of the country, a priest was campaigning for a candidate during a church service. "You all know that [he] helps your community," the priest said. "The church doesn't take part in state affairs, but you see there are people who actually do help the church and everybody else, too. So give your vote to good people," the priest told his congregation.
Father Hryhoryi Bolshakov, a dean of a Kyiv church and a local candidate, has gone so far as to use his position to campaign for himself. A banner hangs on his church with his picture and reads, "Vote with your heart, vote with your soul!"
According to church rules, a clergyman can only be involved in politics with a blessing from the head of the church. According to the Ukrainian Orthodox archbishop, no priest has been granted such permission. "If you want to be a member of Parliament, quit the church and take part in the elections as a private person," the archbishop said.
Still, priests who do get involved in politics are rarely punished by the church, Antoshevskyi said. "There is no specific punishment for such actions," he said.
Antoshevskyi added, however, that he thinks the importance of the church in politics is overstated.
"I don't believe that church influences the elections that much," he said. "We have so many religious people, yet such a high rate of corruption. Well, where are all the religious people then?"
Anna Shamanska can be reached at
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