Few appear to have paid attention to the Verkhovna Rada passing a bill on amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” allowing those in power to have control over confessions and religious organizations.
During a meeting with the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (October 17), President Viktor Yanukovych was asked to veto Bill No. 10221. His reply was: “I heard you.”
“Unfortunately, the result will be the same as that of the language and other bills the church hierarchs asked him not to sign. Yanukovych will once again deceive the heads of the Ukrainian churches,” says the religious expert, Viktor Yelensky.
Ukraine’s religious leadership was outraged by the bill, as well as by the manner in which the amendments were made, considering that, on April 21, 2011, during the first meeting with the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), President Yanukovych promised that there would be no amendments to the law, unless agreed upon among the confessions. As it was, the bill was passed without debate, regardless of all proposals submitted for the second reading.
Yaakov Dov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and All Ukraine, told The Day he was amazed by this legislative move: “We have worked hard to submit numerous amendments to the Law of Ukraine ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.’ It has taken us almost 15 years and dozens of sittings with religious figures representing various confessions, and lawyers… We had finally worked out all nuances, but then this bill was passed; it allows various authorities rigid control over us. Worst of all, no one asked our opinion; we found ourselves absolutely ignored; no one wanted to hear our proposals. As it is, we are not sure who in power will want to do what about us, if and when he decides he doesn’t like what we are doing… I can’t visualize a way to cooperate with the current administration, under the circumstances.”
The stand taken by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the same as that taken by the AUCCRO, as stated during the meeting with the president of Ukraine. The statement reads that all of the signatories are resolutely opposed to Bill No. 10221 that allows the public prosecutor to have control over freedom of conscience and confessions, as was practiced under the Soviets; just as this bill empowers the Ministry of Culture, other ministries, even local authorities, to exercise this kind of oversight.
The new law complicates the procedures of receiving the status of a legal entity for the religious organizations – e.g., registration of statutory documents and state registration (entering data into the Unified Register of Legal Entities): two unbalanced bureaucratic procedures that spell a great deal of red tape. And this considering that the AUCCRO has long proposed to prohibit the notion of legal entity for the churches and religious organizations/communities.
“We believe that Bill No. 10221, worked out by the Ministry of Justice and passed by the Verkhovna Rada, serves to destabilize the religious situation in Ukraine, lower the level of freedom of conscience, and create tangible obstacle in the way of worship and performance on the part of religious organizations,” reads the AUCCRO letter to President Yanukovych.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the auspices of Kyiv Patriarchate believes that the consequences of this newly passed bill can be quite “unexpected.”
Says Bishop Yesvtratii Zoria: “These amendments were adopted without any consultations. The religious sphere is very sensitive to any changes, especially in the legislative domain. Such arbitrary alterations may well cause public unrest that will be hard to suppress. The powers vested in authorities, specifically in the public prosecutor’s office, are expanded in regard to the religious organizations. We know that such expansion is a strong temptation for the local bureaucracy. I mean abuse of office, when a given ranking bureaucrat does not like this or that confession. There are a number of other reasons that caused the hierarchs of the churches to address that letter to the president of Ukraine, asking him to veto the bill.”
Zoria can’t explain why it was disregarded: “Several months had passed between the first and second readings; everyone assured us that all clauses lacking consultations with the churches would be deleted, but the end result was the exact opposite. We called Yurii Miroshnychenko, the president’s representative in parliament (a co-author of Bill No. 10221) and asked why our amendments were disregarded by the Verkhovna Rada, also whether he would advise the head of state to veto the bill. He told us he wouldn’t, but that another bill would be prepared, and that it would take into consideration ‘the wishes of the churches.’ Another promise? When will this happen? Yurii Miroshnychenko did not specify.”
Miroshnychenko explains the [VR] committee failed to submit the required comparison chart. When asked why, he said there was no quorum, with all MPs being busy with the parliamentary campaign. When asked if this meant that some MPs weren’t carrying out their duty, Miroshnychenko said it was every MP’s right to assemble or not. No one could order them otherwise. A more than amazing answer.
Obviously, he interprets these amendments only in the context of administrative reform, saying the bill doesn’t harm the freedom of conscience law, that it just vests new power in certain authorities.
Viktor Yelensky: “It is hard to say what reasons were behind the amendments. The fact remains that the current administration has full control over Ukraine’s religious life and all other spheres. In other words, those ‘upstairs’ aren’t interested in upholding liberties, including the freedom of conscience… Under president Leonid Kuchma, the authority in charge of religious affairs struggled to get full control over all religious organizations in Ukraine. Kuchma said no, saying that this would be another Soviet hangover. Now this bill will allow any local bureaucrat to act the way he pleases. Now the administration can make any confession act the way official Kyiv wants.”
Dr. Dmytro Stepovyk: “This is not a Christian approach, rather one strongly reminiscent of Soviet times. Churches and religious organizations are self-sufficient entities; they abide by the Book, not by laws written by sinful, often heretical mortals.” He regards Yurii Miroshnychenko, the [co-]author of bill, as a “product of the communist system, that’s probably why the Church is an obstacle on his road.”
Dr. Stepovyk believes that the AUCCRO’s letter to the president of Ukraine is well-grounded, that the head of state should have vetoed the bill.