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A religious touch to the election campaign

Why are clergymen running for local councils?
28 October, 00:00
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY, from The Day’s archives, 1998

The upcoming local elections will be memorable for a number of reasons. One of them is the strong presence of the clergy among the contestants. Despite the hierarchs’ interdictions, party rosters feature the names of counterparts matching them in rank and position. Clergymen are also canvassing for their beloved candidates, with the Church striving to enhance its influence on the faithful electorate using political tools, including direct and indirect propaganda. However, the main reason behind this political crusade is in the Weltanschauung and ideological battles being fought over past, present, and future Ukrainian realities. For some clergymen, the important thing is to re-assert the majority’s victory; for others, it is an opportunity to keep telling the truth; others still are focused on their careers.


In Ukraine, interrelations between the Church and the State take several different forms. First, the Church is directly involved in the election campaigns as a power player, putting forth her candidates, using rosters on a majority basis. Second, our clergymen do the canvassing, focusing on the “most acute” issues. Third, a large number of secular contestants take advantage of their contacts within the Church to make mutually advantageous deals — in return for voicing elevated spiritual principles and parting with considerable sums to provide for some of the needs of the Church, each such contestant is promoted by so many parish priests, in some cases receiving their blessings.

Among the [Eastern Orthodox] clergy, there has never been a short supply of priests lacking in eloquence or the ability of tending to their flock. By his calling and ultimate mission, every priest must display a certain spiritual and cultural standard, and of course, utmost dedication to his flock. Considering that quite a few reverend fathers are involved in some business or other — and that they prove very smart businessmen, with Church-related businesses making tangible profits (reaching millions of dollars, according to the latest businessmen-cum-clergymen media exposes), there can be no way to avoid the business dimension in the relationships between Church and the State.

During the local campaign, however, the emphasis is on ideology. Gentlemen’s agreements made between party leaders and clergymen on party rosters or those who support certain political forces may well produce significant results — or none at all, in which case our reverend fathers will have to wait until 2012 or 2014.

Local election campaigns are being held out of sync, so the canvassing by the clergymen involved appears more depersonalized than during the presidential race, although there is nothing to prevent them from displaying photos of the current head of state in their temples, as in previous years. This time parish priests include political statements in their sermons. Clergymen who are actually taking part in the campaign are not different from other candidates, being exposed to the same degree of political pressure and competition.

Generally speaking, the interrelationship of the Church and the State — and interference into each other’s affairs — has gone so far, in the course of recorded history, that it has taken several blood-shedding revolutions to universally recognize the principle of separation between the two, rather than regard it as heresy.

However, the very Eastern Orthodox principle of humility, non-involvement in or with any secular affairs, practiced in Ukraine before the triumphant socialist onslaught, appears to be deliberately ignored by numerous clergymen who are currently running for seats on local councils. In the 19th century, as well as in the first couple of decades of the 20th century (particularly in Western Ukraine, until 1939, and in Transcarpathia, until 1945) clergymen played an extremely important role in the struggle for human rights and education, emerging as men of letters, historians, and experts in other fields of knowledge. There is no denying the role of distinguished clergymen in defending Ukraine against its enemies, but is that model still valid? Are they still progressive in their sermons, considering that oftentimes they betray their political affiliation, coming up with at times ridiculous statements?


The Odesa Eparchy, UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), can serve as a case study. The Odesa oblast’s roster is topped by Metropolitan Agafangel (Savvin) of Odesa and Izmail (back in 2006, he also topped the list of local Party of Regions’ nominees). This clergyman has long been Yanukovych’s outspoken supporter, beginning in 2004. At the same time, Agafangel should be regarded as one of the most conservative Orthodox Church figures, and one of the best exponents of Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow. Agafangel was openly opposed to the previous Ukrainian government while propagandizing the “world of Rus’.” He declared last November: “The territory of Divine Rus’, the World of Rus’, with its nucleus in today’s Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, has been the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, since the time of Baptism.”

Needless to say, according to Metropolitan Agafangel, this “world of Rus’” is surrounded by all kinds of enemies, among them the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is “constantly” plotting against the ROC, scheming to deprive it of its “canonical” Ukrainian territory. The West, however, remains the worst enemy, notably because it keeps contaminating the Eastern Orthodox community in Mother-Russia with sects, liberalism, and the good old enemy of the Latin-speaking Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism, according to Agafangel, has no right to approach any closer to the lands of “Divine Rus’.” This metropolitan still believes the late John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine in 2001, on the incumbent president’s invitation, was the most flagrant concession made to the inveterate enemy of the Orthodox adherents, for it signaled the beginning of another Catholic and Uniate expansion into Ukraine, soon to climax in the transfer of the Uniate center [from Lviv] to Kyiv, the cradle of Rus’ Orthodoxy, and the institution of a Roman Catholic exarchate in Odesa. The Moscow-minded metropolitan declares, impassionedly, that the Ukrainian bureaucrats, then in power, ignored the “blessed supremacy” of the Ukrainian as well as Russian Orthodox Church.

Last but not least, Metropolitan Agafangel, being a faithful servant of his Moscow Patriarchate, remains firm in his opposition to any kind of Ukrainian national church: “We must not take a single step away from the canons of our Church; we must make every effort to do away with dissent in Ukraine, not by achieving a compromise but by accepting acts of repentance on the part of the dissenters, by returning them to the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church, without any preconditions.” Doubtlessly, this impassioned Russian Orthodox metropolitan uses his authority to raise the ratings of the Party of Regions in Odesa oblast sky-high.

Metropolitan Agafangel could be quoted as addressing lots of other subjects, such as the issue of sexual minorities and Ukrainian history, but this doesn’t seem necessary considering the main source of his quotes, Agafangel’s immediate superior, Patriarch Kirill. Agafangel keeps conveying his Moscow boss’ rhetoric practically verbatim.

The Party of Regions’ religious portfolio also includes Bishop Aleksii (Grokha) of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, UOC MP Vicar. Back in 2006, he spoke for Lytvyn’s party, but later sided with the Party of Regions (PoR), of course. Among the candidate members of Odesa’s City Council is Serafyma Shevchuk, Mother Superior of Archangel Michael’s Convent.

In fact, Odesa’s tradition of high-level clerical involvement in election campaigns serves as the best graphic example, for want of such evidence anywhere else in Ukraine. Instead, there is ample evidence of clergymen on and below the episcopal level, of both Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC MP; UOC KP) being directly involved in the election campaign. The UOC KP ones, of course, have their electorates in the central and western regions of Ukraine, with the most noticeable ones taking stands just as radical as that of Metropolitan Agafangel, albeit ideologically polarized. In Volyn oblast, Vitalii Sobko, head of the local UOC KP press service (VO Svoboda) is campaigning to get a seat in the local council, ranking fourth. Considering the alignment of local political forces, this position practically guarantees his post as a local lawmaker. There is also Bishop Onufrii (Khavruk) of Vinnytsia and Bratslav, who can be placed second on Svoboda’s ticket in Vinnytsia oblast, with 15 clergymen under his command already there, nominated by Tiahnybok’s party.

Svoboda is active in other regions of Ukraine, having nominated Bishop Hryhorii Bolshakov to the Kyiv Regional Council. This candidate places seventh, considering that Svoboda’s influence isn’t as strong in Kyiv oblast [as it is in the west of Ukraine]. This places Bolshakov in the risk group, leaving his Chernivtsi counterpart, Mykola Semeliuk, head priest of a local church, slated fourth on the Svoboda roster.

Svoboda appears to be acting to spite ultra-Orthodox figures like Agafangel, hence the numbers of priests’ names on party rosters. Svoboda’s experienced spin doctors resort to actions that no obedient national democratic parties would have tolerated anywhere else in this world. Svoboda activists are recruiting parish priests, urging them to canvass during sermons. Considering the strong impact of the Church on the western regions of Ukraine, this tactic seems quite astute.

To top this all off, leaving the Moscow Patriarchate to grind their teeth and foam at the mouth, UOC KP Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko) of Kyiv and All-Ukraine conferred the St. Volodymyr Order, 3rd Class, on Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tiahnybok, in recognition of his “meritorious service in restoring Ukrainian spirituality and reaffirming the Local Ukrainian Orthodox Church…” Moreover, he gave his blessings to his political party as a campaign participant. The award ceremony took place on Aug. 25, 2010, four days after President Viktor Yanukovych had conferred the Yaroslav the Wise Order, 5th Class, on Metropolitan Agafangel. Verily, our political and religious leaders are attaching too much importance to the award ceremonies. It is like a king awarding his vassal for faithfully fulfilling his duty. Needless to say, each ceremony is completed with blessings for keeping up political warfare.

In fact, priests on party rosters are regarded as an asset to be treasured, especially in the areas, particularly in the west of Ukraine. Oksana Dashchakivska, chairperson of Lviv’s branch of the Ukrainian Electorates Association, says there is a hunt for priests to add their names to the parties’ rosters.


Statements made by ranking clergymen appear to strike a discordant note in this politicized choir. Bishop Nifont (Solodukha) of Lutsk and Volyn (ROC MP) has expressly forbade all priests within his jurisdiction to take part in any election campaign, and refused to give his blessings to about twenty clergymen who wanted to run for local councils, declaring that “This will run counter to the Constitution, which states, in black and white, that the Church is separated from the State; that each member of the Church, when taking the Oath, simultaneously swears to never take part in any political activities by any political groups.” Metropolitan Sofronii (Dmytruk) of Cherkasy and Kaniv made a similarly resolute statement, after learning that his name had been added to the local PoR roster, from none other than Serhii Tulub, the governor. He explained that he had no desire to take part in the election campaign, referring to his previous negative experience, saying, “I wouldn’t want to neglect my conscience.”

While some of the ROC MP and ROC KP clergymen are apparently prepared to sell their flock — as well as spend their heartfelt contributions — in return for political posts, vying in the local election campaigns, what with the outward pluralism of the current Ukrainian government, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine has long been forbidden to take part in any election campaigns. In 2006, the UGCC Episcopal Synod ruled that none of the priests would ever take part in any election campaigns — and this considering that the Greek Catholic Church had accumulated the biggest experience of defending Ukraine’s interests in the Austro-Hungarian Parliament.


In Russia, the clergy was forbidden to take part in the 1995 election campaign — this was done when Yeltsin’s democracy, with its arbitrary rule (currently an official anathema), was going full blast. Patriarch Kirill might well feel nostalgic, precisely because he isn’t likely to be allowed to have additional sources of influence on the current overly ambitious and politicized Russian government. Besides, United Russia, as the political party in power, doesn’t need any help from the Church.

There are no legal restrictions on clergymen’s participation in election campaigns in Ukraine. Only recently we could feel proud about this absence; that this signified a higher degree of democracy. Now that our “democracy” is being replaced by a frozen stability, our clergymen’s political activities could well be outlawed. This would, of course, reduce somewhat the ruling party’s capacity of brainwashing its electorate, with UOC MP clergymen’s propaganda remaining on the same level, similar to that of their counterparts in Russia. At the same time, this would considerably lower the chances of priests of the opposing confessions, although they would still have the National Idea to profess.

One point has to be made absolutely clear: none of the UOC MP or UOC KP clergy can have a decisive impact on the Ukrainian decision-making process, even on a local level. These religious candidates appear to be figureheads, serving as a backup force for all those involved in shady businesses with the Church, organized crime, and politics. Well, this is a different long story. In this context, there is no need for any reverend father to be vested with political authority.

On the other hand, the Church appears to be a permanent propaganda tool in the hands of those in power. Given today’s split Ukraine, it is practically impossible to visualize our clergy at large as totally separate from politics. This is especially true of the secular clergy. How can a parish priest stay away from secular preferences, particularly in the countryside where he represents a certain community and is its mouthpiece? Over these years, packed with election campaigns and revolutions, a number of hierarchs and rank-and-file shepherds have had ample time to show their stand in regard to the government’s policy and ideology, also to take an active part in politics. There is no way to deny this fact. Now few, barring personalities such as Metropolitan Sofronii, are prepared to part with their past political experiences and volunteer to distance themselves from secular realities that are often unsavory, as in the case of an election campaign.

Considering that there are two large Eastern Orthodox patriarchates in Ukraine, along with several smaller but ambitious ones, the latter may very well take their time prohibiting their clergy to run for [local] councils. The UOC MP or UOC KP, by making this decision, would give their competitors an advantage, something neither is likely to do, as their competitors would not hesitate to use it. Anyway, the Kyiv Patriarchate will never do so, considering its current status leaves much to be desired, and its bleak prospects. In a word, it can’t afford to stay away from secular matters. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church isn’t likely to issue such an interdiction either, not in the nearest future at least, what with Patriarch Kirill being keenly aware of the role the parish priests can play in the political process, especially in Ukraine, which is strategically important for the “world of Rus’.” As a matter of principle, Metropolitan Agafangel remains an effective tool in the construction of this kind of world even without taking part in an election campaign. However, when such a metropolitan makes up his mind to promote a party roster — especially that of the party in power — this “noble undertaking” appears worthy of the adherents’ support.

Therefore, distancing the priests of Ukraine’s two major confessions from politics will long remain a matter of their personal choice. In principle, political affiliation is not a crime or an act of heresy, in view of the Christian canons. It is actually another manifestation of democracy being practiced across the world, including in countries that can by no means be described as suffering from clericalism. On the other hand, the excessive politicization of Ukrainian clergy during the 2010 presidential election campaign was flagrant. If the next, parliamentary, elections take place in 2012, as scheduled, there is every reason to expect an even higher degree of clergymen’s political involvement, considering that the first battle for seats at the Verkhovna Rada during the Yanukovych epoch promises to be severe. Hence, Ukrainian clergymen on all levels are sure to come up with a solid political front, determined to fight for every height, this time as members of the Ukrainian parliament.

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