In State Department we trust: Pompeo gives support to Ukraines new church amid fears of persecution

Mike Pompeo has expressed support for Ukraines newly-formed schismatic church and religious freedoms. It comes as radical activists are on standby to seize property from the internationally recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine is currently undergoing religious change that pits priests loyal to its government against those answering to Moscow church authorities, with tensions aggravated by the secular conflict between the two countries.

Last Saturday, members of the two unrecognized Orthodox churches in Ukraine decided to merge into a new entity, called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” Its technically part of the canonical Patriarchate of Constantinople, but is expected to be granted independence next month. The gathering was mostly ignored by the countrys biggest internationally recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is an autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The so-called unification is a crucial part of President Petro Poroshenkos re-election campaign, so its hardly a surprise that Kievs key foreign sponsor, the United States, has formally approved the Saturday move.

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US Secretary of State Pompeo phoned the newly elected head of the Kiev-backed church, Epifaniy, “to underscore US support for religious freedom and Ukrainian sovereignty,” according to a statement made by the State Departments deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino.

Religious freedom in Ukraine however is far from being in perfect shape. The Moscow-loyal Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now bracing for persecution. Its property may be seized by force in favor of the new organization and its priests targeted by violent activists.

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A call to hunt down them was openly voiced by a far-right MP, the former leader of the radical nationalist Right Sector group.

The potential for violence should not be underestimated. Poroshenko on Tuesday called on radically-minded Ukrainians to show restraint. “I want to warn the radicals, who would tomorrow go and seize the churches against doing it. You will not be taking the churches from Moscow, but from the communities,” he said, adding that the conversion needs to be done through conviction.

The rhetoric seems to be pacifist, but there is a caveat. There are two draft bills floating around in the Ukrainian parliament, the goal of which is clearly to undermine the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as was explained recently by MP Aleksey Goncharenko, who belongs to the presidents faction in the parliament.

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The new legislation forbids it from using the word “Ukrainian” in its name, for example. But more importantly, it would stipulate a procedure, under which church property can be forcefully transferred to a new owner on a request from the “community”.

Considering that dioceses dont have lists of churchgoers, there is strong suspicion that the “will of the community” could be easily fabricated to give justification for ousting priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and replacing them with those loyal to Kiev.
Whether these fears materialize next year remains to be seen. But if they do, one can safely expect that the next report on freedom of religion coming from the US Department of State would not pay attention to the situation in Ukraine. After all, Pompeo supports it personally.

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