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The West must call out attacks on religious freedom in Ukraine

For the last five months, I have been working on one of the most challenging cases of my career. It is a case that cuts to the heart of Ukraine’s complex history and its religious and cultural divides. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is a one-thousand-year-old institution. Since its inception, it has weathered the storms of political change. Yet despite surviving the Stalinist terror, the Church is under threat like never before, following the Ukrainian Government’s efforts to wipe it from the religious landscape of Ukraine.

This story has received minimal press attention. My efforts to raise the UOC’s plight have been stonewalled by newspapers at home and abroad. In the 45 years I have practiced law, I have never encountered such resistance from the fourth estate. Much of the media – understandably – wants to see victory for Ukraine. I also support Ukraine’s desire to defeat Russia. However, that does not mean we should blindly abandon our professional obligations. The press has a duty to report fairly and without bias. Yet it is increasingly clear that journalists have become mouthpieces for Ukrainian propaganda. They are, if you will, zealots for Zelensky.

I agreed to act for the UOC because their case involves clear breaches of the freedom of religion and the rule of law. During a recent fact-finding mission to Kyiv, I met with more than 25 clerics of the UOC, from parish priests to the head of the Church. I also met with a similar number of Ukrainian lawyers and government officials, including deputies from Zelensky’s own political party. I was left deeply troubled about the state of democracy in Ukraine and wondered why we are not being presented with the truth. Only when you visit Ukraine do you begin to understand the serious misgivings that many Ukrainians have for the Zelensky regime.

Only when you visit Ukraine do you begin to understand the serious misgivings that many Ukrainians have for the Zelensky regime Quote

The campaign against the UOC has been going on since at least 2014. The nationalist administration of Petro Poroshenko stoked a propaganda war reminiscent of the Hate Week described by Orwell in 1984. Poroshenko was closely involved with the establishment of a competitor church – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – that was designed to draw support from the UOC. Yet notwithstanding these efforts, the UOC remained popular with its parishioners.

However, Russia’s full-scale invasion provided the Government with fresh impetus to destroy the UOC. Although the UOC does have historical ties to Russia, the Ukrainian authorities have ignored the lengths the UOC has gone to distance itself from the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Onufry – the head of the UOC – has made clear his loyalty to Ukraine. He continues to pray for Ukraine’s victory in the war. The UOC has also provided huge amounts in aid to the Ukrainian military; it has supported thousands of displaced Ukrainians at home and abroad.

Notwithstanding the UOC’s commitment to Ukraine, 1500 of its churches have been illegally appropriated and handed over to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, often with violence against priests and parishioners. Meanwhile, large numbers of UOC bishops and priests have been arrested on false or spurious charges, as documented by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I met with some of them during my time in Kyiv. These are men of sincere faith, many of whom are of advanced age. Every single one of them was interrogated by the Ukrainian Security Services after I left. One was so shaken by the ordeal, that he suffered a cardiac arrest. This is not the kind of behaviour you would expect of a country aspiring to join the EU.

In addition to this intimidation, the Government is seeking to pass legislation that will ban the UOC outright. By pursuing a ban, the proposed law is draconian and disproportionate. It amounts to a form of targeted discrimination, which will collectively punish innocent Ukrainian citizens by depriving them of the church they call home. Ukraine will be in flagrant breach of international law if it passes this legislation.

Ukrainian lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the Government’s policy against the UOC. I met with eight deputies of the Ukrainian Parliament, and each recounted stories of intimidation and beatings of clerics as a matter of casual knowledge. Yet they have found it impossible to communicate their concerns to the Office of the President, which is the only source of power currently in Ukraine. That Ukraine’s political opposition and media have been severely curtailed under martial law does not help. Indeed, the press conference I organised in Kyiv had to be cancelled after the President’s Office instructed reporters to keep clear. So much for press freedom in Ukraine.

The attack on the UOC has provoked much consternation among Ukrainians. It is a story that deserves to be heard. Yet the Western press has become enfeebled by concerns it will be accused of supporting Russia if it presents an accurate picture of Ukraine. But if we fail to take our jobs as journalists and lawyers seriously, we are in grave danger of damning Ukraine to a perpetual cycle of democratic failure. It is time for the press to do its duty and report on Ukraine without fear nor favour. Those of us who support Ukraine must become critical friends.

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Robert "Bob" Amsterdam is a Canadian international lawyer of the law firm Amsterdam & Partners, with offices in Washington, D.C., and London.

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