By Natalia Zinets
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian MPs passed a law on Thursday that could force the Moscow-backed church in Ukraine to add “Russian” to its name, aimed at curbing the influence of priests whom the authorities call a threat to national security.
Ukraine on Saturday created a new Orthodox church independent from Moscow, which leaders have lobbied for since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Kiev says is a vital step to blunt Russian meddling in its affairs.
The move incensed Moscow, and prompted President Vladimir Putin to warn of possible bloodshed in his annual press conference. Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
The Kiev authorities have cracked down on priests in the church known widely as the Moscow Patriarchate, which has been beholden to Russia for centuries, whom they accuse of spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda and aiding separatist fighters. The church strongly denies doing this.
The Moscow Patriarchate typically calls itself the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and sees itself as the only true church in Ukraine.
It opposes the creation of a new church and has labelled those wanting to join the new church as “schismatics”.
Thursday’s legislation obliges a religious organisation, whose governing centre is based abroad in a country waging war against Ukraine or occupying its territory, to change its name to reflect that. The new law could, for example, force the church’s name to be changed to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
“For more than 300 years, generations of Ukrainians have dreamed of a Ukrainian church. This is a broader question than a religious one, this is a question of the security and defence of our country,” Speaker Andriy Parubiy told parliament.
“There is no question that the church that blesses weapons, the killers of Ukrainians, should not bear the name of Ukraine,” he said.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) called on President Petro Poroshenko to veto the bill, which it said was discriminatory and could “lead to unpredictable consequences in society”.
“As we see, this bill does not mention the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but from public statements it is known that the intention is to apply it to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in order to please the newly formed religious association ‘Orthodox Church of Ukraine’, which wants to take its name.”
Other laws are also in the works, including one by which a religious organisation must consult with the authorities on its leaders and on visitors from abroad.
Another law would make it easier for a religious community to switch its affiliation, potentially making it easier for parishes to join Ukraine’s new national church and abandon the once-dominant Moscow Patriarchate.
Some MPs opposed the laws and lawmakers briefly came to blows after the vote. Vadim Novinsky of the Opposition Bloc, the heir to pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, said “these are bills aimed at the destruction of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
The Moscow Patriarchate earlier dominated in Ukraine but has been challenged by a rival known as the Kiev Patriarchate formed after the 1991 break-up of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.
Support for the Kiev Patriarchate swelled after the annexation of Crimea. It supported church independence and Ukraine’s closer integration with the West.
Metropolitan Oleksandr, a high profile defector from the Moscow Patriarchate to the new church, estimates between 40-70 percent of Moscow Patriarchate churches will join.
The Moscow Patriarchate says only a tiny fraction will, and last weekend pointed to that fact that only Oleksandr and one other high-ranking church official had joined the council that met to form the new church, which will include the Kiev Patriarchate.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)