"The War Against Russian Orthodoxy:" How Russia Accuses Ukraine of Violating Religious Freedom

December 6, 2022
Russian propaganda has created a narrative about “a war against church” in Ukraine.
Photo credit: UNIAN

After the beginning of an investigation into pro-Russian activity at churches of the  Moscow Patriarchate's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Russian propaganda has created a narrative about "a war against church," where it accuses Ukraine and the West of violating religious freedom and of threatening "traditional Russian values".

On 13 November, on the territory of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, a video was recorded showing individuals singing a hymn with the words, "Sacred ringing over Russia. Mother Russia awakens." After the video spread on social media, the Security Service of Ukraine began investigating pro-Russian activity on the  Moscow patriarchate`s Ukrainian Orthodox Church premises. Despite positioning itself as the Ukrainian orthodox church, the institution  is dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church, and recognized Moscow Patriarch Kirill as its leader until May 2022. Moreover, it had been used as an instrument of pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine for decades and played a significant role in sharing anti-Western and anti-modern ideology among its parishioners.

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active role in state propaganda as a part of the ideology of the so-called "Russian World," as well as helping to legitimize war crimes. For example, on March 6,  Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill proclaimed that the war was about "salvation of mankind," and that it needed to be fought because  "people in Donbas region did not want to support gay pride parades and Western values." After the beginning of the mobilization in September, Patriarch Kirill also stated that soldiers who died in Ukraine "wash away all their sins." All these actions have been key parts of constructing the narrative of a "holy war" in Ukraine where Russia is opposing Western values which "threaten orthodoxy." After the beginning of the investigation into pro-Russian activity on premises of Moscow Patriarchate churches, Russian propaganda deployed a  new narrative accusing Ukraine of violating religious freedom.

Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova declared that "the Ukrainian government disrespects international law and violates the rights of congregations and clergy." Moreover, in comments to TASS, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that Ukraine was conducting a "war against Russian orthodoxy." This narrative about the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and its followers appears in Russian propaganda in different representations and targets different audiences - from parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church with more conservative values to mainstream and even  audiences. It uses different techniques and appeals to concepts of the sanctity of the church and "Russian values," the defense of pro-Russian people in Ukraine, violations of human rights, and fake news.

It is also essential to note that Russian propaganda has been using two strategies: to proclaim that the video from Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra with people singing was fake and was created intentionally to discredit the church, and to appeal to freedom of speech and the unity of Ukrainian congregations with the Russian church and values.

When claiming that the video was fake, Russian propaganda argues that it was edited and then used by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) (the Ukrainian autocephalous church created in 2018 and affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople rather than the Moscow Patriarchate)  and the Security Service of Ukraine to start investigation against the Moscow Patriarchate church in Ukraine. They assert that nobody can be seen actually singing, as the people in the video are filmed from behind.  However, when this narrative was refuted, another statement appeared about threats to freedom of speech for Ukrainian parishioners and clergy who support the Russian Orthodox Church. This narrative can be seen as a complex of different messages that is  connected with other narratives of Russian propaganda. Moreover, its essential part is an appeal to emotions due to the sensitivity of the topic of religion.

Firstly, Russian propaganda argues that there is a "Western trail" behind threats to the Moscow Patriarchate  in Ukraine. There are messages about the propaganda of Western values in Ukraine, the division of the so-called "canonical orthodox church," and activities of pro-European foundations and organizations that threaten Russian spiritual values. Russian propaganda represents the Moscow Patriarchate church as "the last Russian bastion" in Ukraine which keeps Russian historical memory and cultural heritage alive. It is beset by Western "attempts to destroy it with the help of the Ukrainian government." This messaging follows previous narratives about Ukraine as a "failed state," dependent on the United States and EU. Secondly, Russian media agitates about persecution of its orthodox church in Ukraine by appealing to emotional concepts with negative connotations, such as "Ukrainian sects," "satanists," "infidels," and comparisons of the Ukrainian government with Soviet persecutions of religion. These messages can be seen in media connected with the Russian Orthodox Church and targeted more at conservative audiences. Moreover, the message about "satanists" in Ukraine is consistent with Russia's a strategy of dehumanizing Ukrainians and previous claims by some Russian politicians about carrying out a "de-satanization of Ukraine." Lastly, Russian propaganda created a narrative about future threats to the life and freedom of all people associated with the Moscow Patriarchate church in Ukraine. Russian media describes Ukrainian actions against the Moscow-aligned church as a crime and violation of human rights will go unnoticed by Western institutions. This appeal to impunity and "double standards" by the West is also strengthened by messages about torture, illegal detentions, and persecutions of Moscow Patriarchate clergy and predictions about future terror against Russian-aligned church. These arguments can be found on blogs of certain more liberal Russian activists who push the narrative about the violation of religious freedom in Ukraine. Russian propaganda tries to accuse Ukraine of violating human rights and religious persecution. To prove their arguments and spread their narrative, they use appeals to anti-Western rhetoric, international law, and the sanctity of the values of the so-called "Russian World." These appeals to public fears, emotions, and religious faith are essential to Russia's dehumanization of Ukrainians and to legitimizing their aggression as a "holy war" against Ukraine and Western "satanists."

Dzvenyslava Shcherba
Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld

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