RCC on the Statements made by Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador (article by Mike Blanchfield of the Canadian Press, October 6th, 2014) has made a number of deeply misleading, inaccurate, and contentious statements that have caused serious concern and outrage among Canada’s Orthodox Community.

In that article, he is reported to have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of having a “calculated plan” to “systematically target” and “orchestrate the persecution of Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslim Tartars”. He also accused “Russian forces” of “kidnapping priests detaining nuns, firebombing churches, and intimidating worshipers”, and of “targeting churches of the Kyivan Patriarchate”.

The following facts need to be pointed out:

  • The Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant Churches, as well as the Muslim and Jewish denominations, have legal protection and respect within the Russian Federation. Mr. Bennett’s allegations in that respect are serious, yet unsupported. Reliable evidence needs to be presented before such allegations are allowed.
  • It is the Ukrainian armed forces that bombed churches in the Donbass Region of the Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army has systematically and indiscriminately shelled civilian areas of Lugansk and Donyetsk. Thousands have been killed, and there has been widespread destruction of hospitals, schools, and churches. Twenty two churches in Donyetsk and Lugansk have been destroyed by Ukrainian shelling. This is a matter of public record.
  • The evidence also shows that it is local Ukrainian militias which are beating up priests, intimidating parishioners, and confiscating churches of the legitimate, canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, before handing over the buildings to the illegal, self-proclaimed “Kyivan Patriarchate.” Three priests from the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been killed, and up to six clerics have faced abuse from Ukrainian forces. More have been detained and held illegally by the ultranationalist Right Sector Group. Ten churches of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been seized, and handed over to the Kyivan Patriarchate. Once again, this is a matter of public record.

Mr. Bennett seems to misunderstand the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. There is only one canonical, legitimate Orthodox church in Ukraine, and that is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has its seat in the famous Dormition Monastery of the Kiev Caves, and has as its head the Metropolitan Bishop Onuphrius. This body is the historic Orthodox church in the Ukraine. It retains the loyalty of the majority of Orthodox Ukrainians (in spite of persecution and intimidation by the government in Kiev), and is the body recognized by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (the senior Patriarch of the Orthodox Church) and all international canonical Orthodox Churches throughout the world. The “Kyivan Patriarchate” is an entirely separate body which has taken advantage of the current situation in Ukraine to pose as the legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It is not: it is a new body, dating from the 1990’s. It is not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, nor by any canonical Orthodox church anywhere in the world. Its assumption of the honorific title “Patriarchate” is illegal under church rules. It is essential for Mr. Bennett to realize that it the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Onuphrius which is being persecuted, right now, in Ukraine, rather than the Kyivan Patriarchate. Once again, this is simply a matter of public record.

Divisions within the Orthodox church are an internal church affair: Mr. Bennett’s interference and apparent bias in a matter of which he seems to have little understanding can only be seen as the Canadian Government intervening in Orthodox Church affairs. This will send alarm signals to all Orthodox Churches in Canada, and should also cause concern among all Christian churches and religious communities here. Such bias in church affairs is unprecedented in Canada, and represents an intolerable and alarming intrusion of the state into religious matters.

More astonishingly, Mr Bennett seems to misunderstand which church body is actually suffering discrimination and abuse in Ukraine today. As mentioned above, it is the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, not the self-styled Kyivan Patriarchate, which is under threat in Ukraine. The official website of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church lists ten parishes which have been, within the past few months, forcibly – and illegally – taken over by nationalist supporters of the Kyivan Patriarchate in the provinces of Lvov, Rovno, Volhynia, and Ternopol. Gangs of thugs driving around in trucks bearing flags of the right wing militia groups such as the Right Sector have been beating up priests and intimidating parishioners, while local police and legal authorities stand idly by and watch. There is now a pervasive climate of fear among clergy, monks, and nuns of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church that their churches and properties will be seized. Many clergy fear for their lives and the safety of their families. Once again, this is simply a matter of public record.

Mr. Bennett needs to understand the outrage that his comments have caused. They seem politically motivated, and are untrue. Our specific Orthodox community embraces members whose ancestors came to Canada as part of an initial wave of refugees fleeing the Russian Revolution, then a second group fleeing the aftermath of the Second World War, as well as more recent immigrants who came to Canada following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It embraces all generations, and all backgrounds: academics, intellectuals, doctors, students. Many are from Ukraine. We also have converts from non-Slavic backgrounds. They do not always see history through the same lens. Yet all are united in outrage by these comments, and feel the need to speak out strongly.
Mr. Bennett stressed the need for dialogue. “We all need to speak out” he said. But no dialogue with our community has been forthcoming. At his request, Paul Grod, President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, met Archpriest Vladimir Malchenko in Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, Toronto, earlier this year. They held an open discussions on the situation in Ukraine and decided to continue the dialogue and to work together towards supporting the humanitarian cause in eastern Ukraine. Since that time, Mr Grod has not returned telephone calls, e-mails, or faxes from Fr. Malchenko.

In May, 2014, Archpriest Malchenko requested a meeting between representatives of the Russian Orthodox community in Canada and Mark Adler, MP for York Centre and official Russian liaison for the Parliament of Canada. While Mr. Adler indicated he would meet privately with Fr. Malchenko, he rejected out of hand any meeting with representatives from our wider community. One of our concerns is that Mr. Bennett and the Canadian Government do not understand that the Mr. Grod and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress do not speak for all Ukrainians. Our community would welcome any opportunity for further discussion and dialogue, but so far, we have experienced only rejection, exclusion, and silence.