Pressure is mounting on Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky as international lawyers, acting on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), warn that attempts to ban the church may jeopardize the country's hopes of EU membership.
The UOC, the oldest and largest Christian church in Ukraine, faces potential legislation that could outlaw it due to its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
Despite claiming to have severed ties with Russia and supporting Ukraine's independence, critics argue the UOC has not declared full autocephaly from Moscow.
International lawyer Robert Amsterdam, representing the UOC, has written to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US President Joe Biden, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, urging them to intervene and advise President Zelensky to suspend efforts to ban the historic institution.
The UOC, with 12,000 parishes, is facing accusations from Ukrainian authorities of collaboration with the Russian Federation, leading to harassment, intimidation, sanctions, and imprisonment of its clergy.
The Ukrainian parliament is expected to vote on legislation targeting the UOC, a move that could effectively shut down the church.
International lawyers argue that this proposed ban is an overly punitive attack that could cause serious harm to Orthodox Ukrainians.
They emphasize concerns about the Ukrainian government's commitment to human rights and the rule of law, raising doubts about Ukraine's ability to meet its EU entry requirements.
Robert Amsterdam, from Amsterdam & Partners LLP, has presented a dossier detailing the persecution of the UOC and its clerics, highlighting arrests on spurious charges and signs of evidence planting.
According to his letter: “Regardless of these efforts, the authorities in Ukraine have falsely accused the Church of collaborating with the Russian regime. Of particular concern are the arrests of clerics on spurious charges.
“These have been carried out in an arbitrary way that call into question Ukraine’s commitment to the rule of law. There are even highly concerning signs of evidence planting in some of these cases.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has already expressed concerns about the Ukrainian government's crackdown on the UOC, calling it a violation of religious freedom.
The lawyers contend that the potential ban on the UOC would set a "dangerous precedent", undermining religious freedoms protected by international human rights law and the Ukrainian Constitution.
They stress the need for Western leaders to address this situation, emphasizing its potential impact on Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union.