Crossing “swords and syringes”: analysis of the attitude of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the fight against COVID-19

The coronavirus infection became known to public in early 2020 and radically changed the global order. All over the world, people had to adapt to new realities of life, the simplest of which were the requirement to wear masks in public places and the observance of social distance. Alas, this topic has not bypassed Ukraine either, reformatting as much as possible all directions of citizens’ life, including political and religious.

Unfortunately, we will have to approach the coverage of the main issue precisely in the context of the fact that even during a pandemic there are people in the political environment who benefit from attributing their failed activities to the religious factor. In Ukraine, all the blame for undermining the fight against coronavirus is traditionally laid on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. But it is worthwhile to figure out whether the UOC is really to blame for the low level of vaccination of the population and whether the canonical Church has in fact become the nucleus of covid dissidence.

The UOC and COVID-19: fighting infection and fakes

Let’s start with the fact that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has repeatedly expressed its attitude to the new pandemic and the fight against it. At the forefront should be the appeal of the Synod of the UOC “about the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19” dated March 18, 2020, published on the official website of the Church. From the text, we single out, for example, a call to the faithful: “… Do not ignore the generally accepted norms of hygiene and follow the recommendations of doctors. If signs similar to an infectious disease appear, you should stay at home, and in case of deterioration in health, be sure to consult a doctor. Pastoral care of the sick at home should be provided with medical requirements in mind. The abbots of churches and monasteries need to monitor carefully that the revered icons, which the faithful touch, are constantly wiped with a disinfectant solution. After the faithful have taken Holy Communion, the drink should be served in a disposable container. You should also pay special attention to the cleanliness of the temple premises, more often carry out ventilation and wet cleaning.”

That is, already from this paragraph it becomes obvious that the official UOC took the existing threats associated with COVID-19 with understanding and seriousness. At first, when the infection was not studied, any, even the most ridiculous, instructions from the state in the matter of observing restrictive measures were impeccably carried out by the Church. In general, with the exception of individual cases, for example, when 40000 persons at the concert of Max Korzh at the stadium in Odessa this summer was the norm, and the All-Ukrainian religious procession in Kyiv was a violation of quarantine, the UOC continued and continues to comply with restrictive measures.

It should be noted that certain restrictive requirements were completely discredited by the authorities themselves. How can you demand from the Church to let 1 person per 10 square meters into churches for services, while other institutions – from the Verkhovna Rada to any kind of “Ashan” – are simply overcrowded with people. Naturally, believers, outraged by such injustice, began to be critical of such restrictions.

Nevertheless, no one in the UOC has officially denied or denies the threat of coronavirus. Moreover, it is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the regions that occupies a leading position in the issue of help and assistance to medical institutions, providing, as far as possible, any help and support to doctors – material and spiritual one. Examples of such, over the past two years, have accumulated a great many. The last of these include assistance of the Rivne diocese of the UOC to medical institutions in the region with medicines worth 300 thousand hryvnias. Assistance to Ukrainian doctors with the most important equipment for the treatment of COVID-19 was made by the Zaporizhzhya diocese of the UOC. They regularly help doctors with equipment and medicines in the Odessa diocese of the UOC. And these are just three cases that have taken place in the last two weeks.

With these circumstances, it can hardly be said with a clear conscience that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ignores the fight against COVID-19. Nevertheless, there are those who insolently accuse the canonical Church of spreading the virus throughout the country, allegedly by order of the Russian special services. With special cynicism, these fakes began to spread during the period of vaccination of the country’s population.

The vaccination and the UOC: fiction and truth

The first “swallows” of targeted attacks by the media against the UOC arrived after a regular meeting of the NSDC, during which representatives of the latter bluntly accused “some religious organizations” of disrupting the vaccination of the population. After that, as if by some invisible order, a number of officials, politicians and “experts” made unfounded accusations against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, publicly declaring that the NSDC report was specifically about the “UOC-MP”. One of the first was the chief state sanitary doctor of Ukraine Igor Kuzin, who stated that: “…vaccination centers began to be launched in the churches themselves, for example, in the UGCC. That is, other confessions are maximally involved in this campaign, including in remote villages… If we talk about the Moscow Patriarchate, we see problems with them in communication.”

Obviously, Mr. Kuzin did not fully investigate the issue, rushing to draw rash conclusions. Indeed, for example, in Odessa and Zaporizhzhya, vaccination centers are already operating at the churches of the UOC. The opening of such centers was announced in the Holy Archangel-Mikhailovsky Monastery of the South Palmyra and at the Holy Intercession Cathedral in the capital of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

Regrettably, but the lack of awareness of officials of the Ministry of Health is not an isolated case, but is a very systematic phenomenon. For example, the head of the expert group on the provision of emergency medical care of the Directorate of Medical Services of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, Oleksandr Danilyuk, said in an interview: “Going on the air, right next to the Verkhovna Rada, the religious organization of the aggressor country brought people out about the fact that it was impossible to get vaccinated. There is such a network of its pseudo-religious structure throughout the country, but where there is the least amount of vaccinations, they are most effective there. From there are their leaders.”

First, the very manner of Danilyuk’s statements is surprising. The speaker without a twinge of conscience characterized the believers of the UOC, writing them into a kind of “organization of the aggressor country”, not even registered in Ukraine. After all, this is the same as, using value judgments and personal emotions, to call the Ministry of Health, for example, a bunch of charlatans. In addition, Danilyuk did not even bother to find out what exactly the people near the Rada were protesting against that day, not to mention whether there was an official sanction from the leadership of the UOC for any protests on this topic. And in the end, what about democracy and the right of citizens to hold peaceful actions?

In the context of the persecution against the UOC, I would like to bring to the attention of the reader the comment of the authors of Pravblog, in which the following was aptly noted: “In recent days, opponents of the canonical Church in Ukraine are trying to disperse the wave of accusations of the UOC of blocking the vaccination of the population. For this, both little-known political scientists and experts from the orbit of the Ministry of Health are involved as speakers.

The main signal of the campaign is “where the positions of the UOC are strong, there is the lowest level of vaccination”.

As soon as it fits into this logic, for example, the situation in Ivano-Frankivsk region, it is not entirely understandable. There, the presence of the UOC is minimal, and the rates of those vaccinated against covid are among the lowest in Ukraine. It turns out, if we follow the philosophy of those who ordered the attacks on the canonical Church, that the Uniates and the OCU are also blocking the vaccination process in Ukraine.

However, all the accusations mentioned are nothing more than a background. The enemies of the UOC are simply by any means trying to form a “negative image” of the Church in the eyes of the authorities. In order to make the pressure on the UOC more active”.

UOC on vaccination: officially and in essence

Yes, neither the Primate of the UOC, nor any other official of the Church followed the example of their Greek counterparts and made a public show of vaccination. This is not surprising, because the issue of health is a purely individual topic that does not fit into the category of official orders and blessings.  Roughly speaking, church hierarchs have no right to impose requirements on believers – to be vaccinated or not. Yes, it would not be serious, because everyone has their own state of health, their own indications or contraindications for such manipulations, and, most importantly, vaccination in Ukraine is voluntary. After all, this is what the official representatives of the relevant ministries say now?

By the way, the official representatives of the UOC insist on the voluntary nature of vaccination today. The manager of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Anthony of Boryspil and Brovary, spoke on the topic of the vaccination against coronavirus.

According to the bishop, the Church does not prohibit the vaccination, while it must be voluntary. A person independently makes a decision on vaccination, taking into account the state of his health.

There is also a need for access to information on the composition of vaccines, including the use of cell lines obtained from aborted embryos in them, since this issue is significant for the Orthodox. In addition, it is unacceptable to restrict human rights and freedoms due to the lack of vaccination.

It seems that such a position of the church hierarch fully fits into the fundamental articles of the Constitution of Ukraine and the Social Concept of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which we have every right to use in such situations. If this is exactly what the opponents of the UOC saw as a “disruption of vaccination”, then they should rewrite the Laws of Ukraine on human rights and freedoms. Otherwise, what is the essence of the claims?

By the way, purely for comparison of positions, we remember that the head of the same OCU, Epiphany Dumenko, also does not dare to bring the issue of vaccination to the level of a mandatory order. At least he was not vaccinated in public and never stated whether he underwent this medical procedure at all. Meanwhile, the hierarch of the OCU, Ioann Yaremenko, said on his Facebook page: “Personally, I declare that I did not want and will not be vaccinated under any circumstances. There is not a single medical argument that would convince me to do this. And while researching this issue, I personally remained convinced that vaccines are nothing more than a medical experiment. I do not agree to put myself a single medical experiment on my own free will.

For example, the head of the UOC-KP Filaret Denisenko can be attributed to the religious covid-dissidence. Despite the fact that, due to his age and state of health, Denisenko belongs to the risk group, he noted that he had not been vaccinated. “I support vaccination because medicine requires it. Although I myself was not vaccinated, the time had not come. Although I has endured the coronavirus. Now I feel good… But I am not against vaccination, if necessary,” Filaret said.

To summarize this analysis, I would like to draw conclusions from the comments of the chief sanitary doctor Igor Kuzin, which are published on the official website of the UOC.

“Such rash statements by the official can only be explained by ignoring cooperation with the UOC, which has been closely cooperating with medical institutions at all levels for many years. In addition, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as part of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, was repeatedly represented at meetings with government officials, where issues of cooperation between the Church and the state in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic were discussed.

At the same time, both from the chief sanitary doctor and from his department, the Kyiv Metropolis of the UOC did not receive any proposals regarding possible cooperation to overcome the epidemiological crisis. Therefore, the official’s accusations against the religious organization, which represents the largest confession in Ukraine, are not only baseless, but also manipulative.”

Sergey Nazarchuk

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