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Ukraine debates whether to conscript clergy as Russia war rages

KYIV — Just weeks after manpower shortages forced Ukraine’s leaders to allow prison convicts to join the military, officials face a fraught political debate about whether to mobilize clergy, as well.

“There [are] discussions over how not to mobilize these people — how to provide them with an exemption from conscription,” Viktor Yelensky, who leads the Ukrainian state agency for Ethno-Politics and Freedom of Conscience, told the Washington Examiner during an interview at his office. “It’s a serious issue. I’m in the process of discussion with different government officials.”

That conversation is unfolding largely behind the scenes, as high casualties in the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion put a strain on military commanders and families across Ukraine. The question of whether the clergy’s service should extend beyond military chaplaincy and humanitarian work is charged with significance for Ukrainian civil society. Some policymakers perceive the clergy want to shirk their military duty, while the religious leaders and their advocates maintain that their mobilization would lead to the shuttering of parishes across the country.

Fr. Sergiy Berezhnoy in military garb at the Church of the Kyivan Saints, a small wooden chapel near the waters traditionally identified with the baptism of Prince Vladimir 1 and the tenth-century conversion of the Kyivan Rus to Christianity. Photo credit: (Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner)

“We will accept that as persecution because if there is no priest in the church, then the question arises, how will religious rites be done?” said Oleksandr Zaiets, board chairman of the Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom. “In many of the denominations, [there is] a ban on clergy using weapons. If he were mobilized as a combatant, that will be a problem for him as clergy and for his conscience.”

For some Ukrainian leaders, these considerations smack of draft-dodging, the indulgence of which would threaten the wider mobilization effort.

“To me, you know, it will send a very back demoralizing signal for the society if we make such exemptions,” Oleksandr Merezhko, who chairs the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Washington Examiner. “It looks ugly, when people are trying … to be exempt from going to the battle. It looks ugly … especially when it comes to people who claim to have a high moral ground, like churches, like religions.”

The prospect of a rupture between the Ukraine’s religious communities and the central government carries potential strategic risk for Kyiv in a region where religious tensions carry geopolitical significance.  The full-scale phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine was presaged by a division of the Orthodox parishes of Ukraine; the premier patriarch of the global Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, authorized the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. He took that decision to the objections of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the traditional leader of the Orthodox parishes in Ukrainian territory, who has declared the invasion of Ukraine a “holy war” and asserted Moscow’s hegemony over “the Russian World,” or Russkiy Mir.

A flag of Ukraine inside the chapel
A flag of Ukraine inside the chapel, augmented by the signatures of Ukrainian military personnel and a pin that Berezhnoy said he received from Ukrainian pilots training to fly U.S.-made F-16s. (Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner)

The Ukrainian government’s subsequent interest in requiring Ukrainian parishes to sever their ties with the Moscow Patriarchate has fueled accusations of religious persecution by influential hard-right commentators such as former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Zaiets and his allies, for their part, described “the most brutal persecution of all religious communities that try to preserve their Ukrainian identity and refuse to come under the control of Russian religious centers” in their bid to persuade Republican lawmakers to vote for continued U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.

“We need a wise approach,” Fr. Sergiy Berezhnoy, a military chaplain and prominent priest of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, told the Washington Examiner. “And this wise approach must subsist [in] special rules for different people from different spheres of lives.”

The clergy’s pursuit of draft exemptions has garnered sympathy in at least some influential quarters of the government.

“Some people say that it’s an obligation for people to defend their country, and they shouldn’t have any exemption from conscription,” said Yelensky. “But if we [can] try to preserve critical infrastructure, we should preserve these social and spiritual hubs, also.”

Still, the clergy aren’t taking the outcome for granted. The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, an ecumenical body that “represents more than 90 percent of all religious organizations in Ukraine,” met Tuesday with the G7 ambassadors to Ukraine — the top diplomats from the world’s seven largest industrialized democracies. In that meeting, they described “the role of Ukrainian churches and religious organizations in countering Russian aggression and the activities of religious communities in spiritual, humanitarian, and social realms,” and sought to enlist the G7 as advocates for their exemption.

“[The ambassadors gave] a diplomatic, positive answer,” Zaiets said.

The debate arises in no small part from the fact that the clergy and at least some state authorities do not have a common vocabulary of religious work.

“To me, it’s not an argument that the church will be closed — no, the church will not be closed. it’s easy to find … people who are over 60 who can be a clergyman, priests and so on,” said Merezhko. “So, it’s not an argument. To me, it sounds just morally wrong, especially when it comes from those who claim to be morally high.”

Berezhnoy countered that it takes years of training to prepare a good priest. He argued that current war arose in no small part from religious choices made following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when long-oppressed church leaders faced a manpower shortage of their own. They addressed that problem, according to Berezhnoy, through the hasty ordination of unqualified people.

“And what happens? Now, here in Ukraine, we go to war, because these priests without education started to preach [to] people that [they] need to believe in Moscow, not in Christ,” he said. “They started to preach [that] Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia is like [the] Holy Trinity – [that just as it’s] impossible to divide Holy Trinity means it’s impossible to divide [the] three countries. And they started to preach about this [to] many people. See? Because they were not educated.”


Berezhnoy suggested that government authorities implement the mobilization orders in a way that allows them to divide their time between service to their regular congregations and social or humanitarian work that has direct or indirect benefits to the military. Yelensky, the head of the Ethno-Politics and Freedom of Conscience, offered a broadly similar forecast.

“We need to preserve religious communities as a center of social and spiritual life,” he said. “That is why we try to provide pastors and priests with this exemption, in different way[s]. I don’t know how to do this, but we will do it in the very near future.”

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