NARRATIVES: 1. The United States “breeds” inter-confessional conflicts all over the world. 2. Washington has supported “schismatic” Orthodox churches, including in Ukraine, thus violating international regulations.
BACKGROUND: According to the 2021 reports of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom and the US State department on the freedom of religion or belief and related rights in the world, Russia has been engaging in hostile actions impairing the rights of various religious groups. The reports particularly referred to the rights of believers other than pertaining to the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest religious denomination), also highlighting various violations of religious rights of the Muslim Crimean Tatars. In the Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, a number of ethnic and religious organizations have been banned, while the role of the Russian Orthodox Church has been consolidated through various state actions.
In early 2019, the “Saint Andrew Patriarchal Cathedral” in Istanbul played host to the signing of the Tomos officially establishing the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, in the presence of Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko. The autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church was founded in an extended Synod, without the participation of hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate – UOC-MP). In Ukraine, the majority of churches that are canonically subordinated to the Kiev Metropolitanate – the Moscow Patriarchate, have stopped recognizing the Tomos, and the Russian Orthodox Church has severed ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate over its dispute regarding the canonicity of the newly founded Ukrainian church.
The Russian MFA and media have criticized these annual reports on the rights of Russian believers. Without mentioning Crimea, Russian journalists and Moscow-based officials have replied that, in fact, the United States is “breeding” inter-confessional conflicts all over the world in order to strengthen its strategic positions.
PURPOSE: The purpose of these narratives, promoted by Russia’s state-affiliated media, is to divert public attention from the developments in Russia, particularly in occupied Crimea, and to paint the image of the United States as a destabilizing force, breeding conflicts and wars the world over.
WHY THE NARRATIVES ARE FALSE: In truth, the response coming from Moscow and the Russian media provides no explanation regarding the actual religious context. There’s no mention about Crimea and the rights of other religious groups in the peninsula. Instead, Washington stands accused of provoking religious conflicts in the Middle East, Northern Africa, the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine. USA is depicted as a geopolitical actor which consolidates its geostrategic positions on the global map by means of fueling fictitious religious conflicts. Therefore, instead of providing arguments about the situation in Russia, the message addressing the population of the former Soviet republics in particular revolves around the following narrative: “Unlike the USA, Russia does not interfere with the religious sphere of other states, which is why Washington has no moral right to publish such reports”.
According to the report, “Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention”. The official releases and press articles in Russia don’t even mention these serious allegations against Moscow. The report also states that some religious organizations were banned in Crimea, while others were virtually driven out due to registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. The only church exempted from observing the said procedures was the Russian Orthodox Church, the report writes. In light of this information, which has been completely or partially ignored by the Russian media, the anti-Western narratives outlined above may be considered attempts at exonerating Russia in ex-Soviet countries.
GRAIN OF TRUTH: The creation of the Unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018-2019 occurred in an election context. Former president Poroshenko had a series of meetings with US officials in an attempt to rally support for his plan to separate Orthodox communities from the “Russian world”. The story was highly politicized at the time in Ukraine, and Russia promoted anti-Western narratives that widened inter-confessional gaps. The aforementioned report also states that the new Government of Ukraine tried to strike a balance between the Unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, arguing that the previous authorities failed at effectively implementing such methods.