Sunday, January 27, 2008

New Chapel in Ukrainian Government Headquarters Raises Questions

A multi-confessional chapel or better, "prayer room" on the premises of the Parliament and Supreme Council (Verkhovna Rada) of Ukraine could only be a good thing, right? From a point of view of human rights and democracy, this should mean a big step for a country that is still heavily dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church and can be suspicious of citizens' freedom to choose other faith venues. But is it?

The announcement of the new "prayer space" seemed innocuous enough. RISU reported the news on Jan. 22:

"According to, the opening of the chapel was initiated by National Deputies Volodymyr Malyshev and Ihor Rybakov.

«Having become a national deputy and spent some time at the Ukrainian Parliament, I had an idea, rather a need, to open a prayer room,» said Malyshev and added that spirituality is the most important need for each person."

However, Malyshev's colleague Rybakov went on to make comments of an exclusive nature, which signal caution for defenders of freedom: «A lot has been done to revive Orthodox Churches and spiritual education; still, there is much more that each of us should do in this respect.» (end RISU extract)

Subsequent actions surrounding the opening of the chapel add to the need for precaution. RISU also reported that on Jan. 19 (Julian calendar feast of the Epiphany), the chapel was "blessed" by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (UOC-MP), Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan. If the chapel is intended to be used by people of various confessions, then the proper way to dedicate it would have been with the participation of the leaders of all Ukraine's faith traditions.

The chapel is constructed according to the Orthodox rubrics, which is historically and culturally comfortable for most Ukrainians. However, to truly employ democracy and a separation of church and state, it should not be a church "per se" but rather a place where all can fell welcome, quietly and humbly offering their prayers and meditation.

Why is an Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan complaining about the erection of an Orthodox church in the nation's parliament? It is precisely because (1) I am Ukrainian Orthodox and appreciate the fact the the government of our ancestral Motherland allows for the freedom of religion and the right of all people to express their faith as they so choose; and (2) In today's Ukraine, the church no longer directs and influences the actions of the state as it once did, with a sense of divine entitlement.

If either of the above points, 1 and 2, were not true, then we would all be subjects of a dominating church, embracing an erroneous concept of a "Mother Russia" that would be all to happy to see another annihilation of a unique Ukrainian history and self-awareness.

On Jan. 25, RISU reported that, "The People’s Movement of Ukraine (PMU) is demanding that the leadership of Parliament and the Supreme Council provide information on who initiated the opening of the St. Volodymyr Chapel and inform the public as to which confession it belongs."

The PMU, a political party which promotes democracy and a leaning towards relationship with the West, believes that if the "prayer room" is to exist, it should be sensitive to and inclusive of all confessions. The party enjoys popularity, especially in Western Ukraine, with its strongest center being in the region of Ternopil.

«We are sure that a prayer room should be used by the believers of all the confessions and help increase the level of spirituality of the believers in the Supreme Council instead of being a factor which can cause misunderstanding and tension among representatives of different confessions,» says the statement signed by PMU head Borys Tarasiuk.

Certainly faith and spirituality are to be valued in a free-society. I know this from the important duty I had as guest chaplain, to offer the prayer at the opening of a session of the United States House of Representatives, some years ago. I also am aware that intolerance or feelings of superiority of one belief system over another can lead to deadly consequences. I know this from my experience as a "first-responder" chaplain at the World Trade Center Site following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

We should welcome the movement to bring the values of faith into the daily life of decision makers in Ukraine. Surely the former "overseers" of our people (including the Soviet regime and the saintly Czar) did not give them much thought. While welcoming opportunities to freely express faith, I caution that it be inclusive and not to the benefit of one circle over another. Rather, let us pray that faith in our Motherland lead to justice and an advancement in "all good things."

No comments: