September 2014, visit of the UCCRO delegation to Oslo for meetings with Russia religious leaders
Oleksandr Zaiets, founder and head of the Institute for Religious Freedom
May 2004, Oleksandr Zaiets represents IRF in the international conference in Kyiv
Referring to the tasks performed by the Institute, how have they changed? How does the problem sector look right now, how do you see your mission?
Oleksandr Zaiets: Talking about the protection of religious freedom, the threat related to the development and introduction of amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations” remains relevant as never before. In 2002-2003, there was an attempt by the authorities to change this law. It was an interesting case when a number of churches together, having passed certain trials, defended religious freedom in Ukraine and prevented restrictive amendments. The result of joint activities inspired the church leaders to form an interfaith council named as the Meeting of Representatives of Christian Churches of Ukraine (2003).
April 2008, members of the Meeting of Representatives of Christian Churches of Ukraine
April 2012, meetings of the UCCRO delegation in Washington, D.C.
By the way, UCCRO membership involves responsibility. Every religious association contributes to the development of interfaith dialogue, and the dialogue between faiths and authorities, society. It involves time and resources, work on collective statements and other documents, and participation in the framework of the Council of Churches etc.
UCCRO is a full authoritative, powerful civil society actor. Just note how the range of questions to authorities has expanded – it is not the case of freedom of conscience, but also of the establishment of justice, public morality, values of marriage and family as well as the protection of children's rights and basic social rights. In the final address to the President of Ukraine in April 2016, the Council of Churches stressed that government policy should be “socially fair and in time of reforms it should not impose excessive financial burden on impoverished citizens against the background sometimes excessive and unnecessary costs for maintenance of the state bureaucracy and the privileged social support for former and current officials.” That is, it was a call not to implement reforms at the expense of people against the backdrop of embezzlement of budget funds and lack of political will for countering corruption.
October 2009, meeting with Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the Supreme Archbishop of the UGCC
Maksym Vasin: Speaking about UCCRO’s role as a civic institution, before EuroMaidan (Revolution of Dignity) its key activities comprised the appeal of Council of Churches concerning violence and arbitrariness of law enforcement officers in Vradiyivka village, later – the open letter to the Government and ex-President Yanukovych to protect the right to peaceful protest as well as direct peacemaking activity in response of the socio-political crisis that had led to public protests across Ukraine.
Let us get back to the Institute. How does it function? It is quite difficult for an outsider to grasp how the IRF operates.
Oleksandr Zaiets: Actually, our work is simple – monitoring, analysis, direct dialogue with religions, authorities, experts and subsequent development of proposals and recommendations, draft laws and other legislation, publication of newsletters and analytics, providing advice and legal assistance on strategic issues and more. For example, the monitoring is carried out in constant contact and dialogue with religious and civic organizations, scholars and experts, national officials and international organizations.
December 2005, Maksym Vasin – a year as a staff member of the IRF
October 2014, UCCRO meeting with O.Turchynov, the chairman of Parliament, and Prime-Minister A.Yatsenyuk
April 2012, visit of the UCCRO delegation to the U.S. – meeting at the house of Estee Lauder in New York
April 2015, consultation meeting in London on the religious side of Ukrainian-Russian relations
May 2015, Maksym Vasin delivered a report at the OSCE conference in Vienna
on the religious situation in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
September 2015, Maksym Vasin before his speech at the OSCE conference in Warsaw
Another aspect is an opportunity to show that the Minsk agreements, formal armistice and political declarations do not mean cessation of religious persecution in the occupied Donbas – it is continuing now.
We try to use these international meetings to deliver objective information about religiously motivated crimes of elimination all Ukrainian identity from the occupied Crimea and Donbas. While on the other hand, we know that such high-level conferences are often limited to numerous speeches – just a lot of words, but we are focused on achieving practical results.
Oleksandr Zaiets: In addition, our Institute has been providing information to other countries’ diplomatic missions, the OSCE and other international organizations. We expect the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to verify the religious persecution and numerous violations of the believers’ rights in the occupied areas of Donbas, check the information on captured temples, houses of worship and other religious buildings, and facilitate their return to believers. Unfortunately, at the moment, we see no relevant effort and even response by the OSCE, but we hope that they show up on time.
If we get back to church-state relations in Ukraine, it should be noted that in the last two years there was a lot of meetings and contacts between the authorities and confessions. However, the important question remains the actual dialogue between the government and confessions, which would be the result of decision-making and preparation of necessary legislative initiatives and not just words. Basically, this perspective is a typical one for the relationship between government and society, as in many cases when the authorities conduct dialogue for the sake of dialogue – that is purely formal.
Despite this, the state-church relations and a high level of freedom of religion are still rising up in Ukraine. If we get back to interfaith institutions, the large churches along with religious minorities demonstrate ability to conduct effective dialogue based on mutual respect, implement joint social projects and other work on common goals. This is a very good example both for our society and politicians, and the international society.
2011, meetings of the Council of Evangelical Protestant Churches of Ukraine
What are the achievements you would like to see in the near future, and what is the objective that can change things today?
Oleksandr Zaiets: Speaking about future, it is important that our proposals gained momentum and practical implementation. Also it is important to establish a dialogue – between church and state, between church and society, and we want to contribute to its development, in order that different subjects of the dialogue could hear each other and decide who would be the good of society and the people. In the area of legislation we have witnessed the important changes to the Constitution of Ukraine being recently developed and adopted with virtually no dialogue with society. But it is important that people in power stopped living in a parallel world, but try to cross with real life and to hear Ukrainian society. Most of the people remain out of the dialogue, and its development could contribute to the development of the entire state.