Those drawn to Vladimir Putin by his assertion that he is a defender of Christian values would do well to remember that, so far as the Russian leader is concerned, some churches are more equal than others, something some inhabitants of the Crimea are now finding out.
Paul Goble, writing in the Interpreter explains:
Like its Soviet predecessor, the government of the Russian Federation has been hostile to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church [a branch of the Catholic church but one that draws on many of the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy], viewing it as an effort by the Vatican to penetrate the “canonical space” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Throughout the Soviet period, the Uniates as this church is known were among the most persecuted religious groups in the USSR.
With the annexation of Crimea, Uniate leaders say, the Russian authorities have begun “the total persecution” of its leaders and parishioners. Three Uniate priests were “kidnapped” by Russians, and although they were subsequently released, one of them has been charged with “extremism”. In addition, several Uniate churches have been vandalized in Russian-controlled areas just north of Crimea and in Crimea itself, Uniate priests have received threatening phone calls and letters. One note said that the recent kidnappings/arrests should serves as “a lesson to all Vatican agents.”
Kyiv has condemned such actions by Russian officials in Crimea. The Ukrainian culture ministry on March 18 said that “Recently, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea cases of persecution of the clerics of various denominations have been documented. There has been an unprecedented violation of rights in the field of freedom of conscience and religion. We demand there be a stop to the practice of terror and for rights and liberties to be respected.”
But instead of pulling back, the Russian authorities in occupied Crimea have continued their repression of this Christian group and more recently of parishes belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate as well. On Sunday, Archbishop Kliment, administrator of that church’s Crimean eparchate, said Russian officials are neither protecting religious facilities nor allowing churchmen to go to them. Kliment noted that he had earlier called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to guarantee equal rights for all religious faiths as Moscow is obligated to do under international conventions it has signed. But so far, the Ukrainian Orthodox hierarch added, the situation has not improved but may even be getting worse.
For Putin, the church that counts is the Russian Orthodox Church, a body that he sees as an expression of a Russianness and of a Russia (and Russian culture) that is very distinct from the West. That’s an intellectually defensible idea (if one that is very convenient for a Russian authoritarian on the make), but it can easily mutate into the notion that different denominations are somehow suspect, a notion that can, in turn, quickly pave the way to persecution. The Uniate Church is particularly objectionable to the Kremlin. Its followers are largely concentrated in the western (formerly Austro-Hungarian) part of Ukraine (Imperial Russia “persuaded” many of the formerly Uniate faithful living under its rule to convert to Orthodoxy in the 19th century), the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism.