Ukrainian Епископ Ви́ктор: ‘Orthodox Christians are always optimistic…’ -Exclusive


The shock and horror of the war, still lies in Ukraine. The nightmare started with the invasion of the Russian troops the February of 2022, leaving thousands of dead and wounded people -and, furthermore, forcing millions of people to leave the country.

«An Orthodox Christian always looks to the future with optimism…» points to an exclusive interview to ‘News-Politics’ the Ukranian Episcop Victor (Епископ Ви́ктор –в миру Влади́мир Дми́триевич Коца́ба, укр. Володимир Дмитрович Коцаба) –who describes the situation in Ukrainian Orthodox Church in nowadays. 

He also refers to the relations between the Ukrainian government and the Church -by saying: ‘From the beginning of V. Zelenskyy’s presidential term until the autumn of 2022, there were no clear signs of central authorities’ interference in the affairs of the Church…’

By Peggy Dokou, for News-Politics (exclusive Interview)

Your Grace, we are ready to celebrate the New Year, but Ukraine is still at war with Russia. What was the state of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2022?

Like all the people of Ukraine, our Church has faced war-related problems this year. Our temples, clergy and parishioners have suffered during the hostilities in all the regions where they have been and are still taking place. Our particular pain is the situation in which the Holy Dormition Sviatogorsk Lavra, located in eastern Ukraine, has been in recent months. This shrine has suffered most from fighting. Among the brethren of the monastery, there are victims of shelling, and the territory of the monastery has undergone considerable destruction.

However, even in such difficult conditions of war UOC not only continued its service to God and the people of Ukraine but also became the initiator of many humanitarian projects. In the basements of our churches there were hiding places, where people could shelter from shelling. Our priests and laity helped with the accommodation of internally displaced people and collected humanitarian aid for those wounded and affected by the war.

In short, during the whole year 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has continued to live through all the hardships of wartime, side by side with its flock, trying to the best of its ability, with God’s help, to relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

With this in mind, millions of our faithful, who selflessly work daily on all fronts for victory and the speedy advent of peace in Ukraine, are painfully observing the shameful anti-Church campaign that was actively deployed in November. I mean a series of searches by the Security Service of Ukraine in UOC temples and monasteries and a media campaign to defame our Church. The major media outlets, opinion leaders and politicians have joined it, and on social networks it is accompanied by calls for the persecution of believers and priests and even physical reprisals against them. And the four bills that have already been submitted to the Verkhovna Rada in parallel aim to discriminate, right up to the banning of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the legislative level.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is definitely not an enemy of the Ukrainian state or the people of Ukraine. It is an organic part of Ukrainian society and experiences all the difficulties and problems together with it. The purpose of the Church’s existence remains unchanged – to help save the souls of believers. Throughout its history, the Church has experienced many periods of persecution for political reasons that have tried to invade its midst, but none of them have been successful. The last of these periods came during the years of Soviet rule. Priests and parishioners were imprisoned, repressed, and shot. But the Church survived and revived. This will be the case in any persecution now and in the future.

Episcop Victor with His Eminence Metropolitan of Kyiv, Onufrio

Some politicians and media in Ukraine call your Church, the UOC, the Moscow Church or the Russian Church. Why? What do you think about it and how do you react?

Quite often criminals, in order to do evil to another person and break moral barriers, first try to humiliate the victim, to discredit it in their eyes or before their henchmen to have an excuse for further aggression, be it robbery, hooliganism, raiding or even murder. Even the most violent criminals need an internal justification for their heinous acts. You are probably aware of this psychological phenomenon. We observe something similar in Ukraine in relation to the UOC. Someone has already chosen our Church as a victim, made Her guilty, not because there are reasons for it, but because a crime is being planned to be committed. And excuses are being fitted up for this. In the war with Russia, to call someone “Muscovite” or “Russian” is to label them as an enemy.

For its part, the truth about the UOC is simple: our Church has been independent since 1990, before some of its critics stopped serving the Communist Party. Since 1991 it has officially borne its only legal registered name – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The UOC confirmed its full independence at the Council in May 2022. Our governing body is in Kyiv, and our millions of priests and believers are Ukrainian citizens who live permanently in Ukraine or have left it to flee the war. So, tell me yourself, are we the “Moscow Church”?

The people (and flock) in Ukraine have experienced much suffering in recent years and are now going through even more. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has faced many problems so far. What are your goals for 2023? Do you look to the future with optimism?

An Orthodox Christian always looks to the future with optimism. He/she knows that nothing can happen in the world beyond God’s will. As God is the Almighty, we should fully trust in His will and show Christian humility when faced with any turmoil. Despite what is happening to Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church now, we thank God every day for everything.

As for the goals for 2023, they are the same as for any other calendar year: to preach the Word of God, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, to administer Sacraments, to care spiritually for our flock, and to continue charitable and humanitarian work for the benefit of civilians and military forces of Ukraine. We will continue to do all of the above, regardless of external political or military circumstances, because this is our ministry.

Also, together with the peace-loving Ukrainian people we will pray for the desired peace and wait for the victory, which will be an end to the killing and destruction and the achievement of a just peace on the territory of the sovereign Ukrainian State.

As for the more mundane tasks and all kinds of problems of a political and administrative nature, the UOC will solve them as they arise and, of course, as best it can. Although we are not constantly used to fighting for our rights and freedoms with political opponents, because it is not inherent to the Church, but we have the means to defend our position in the legal and public space. However, the most important thing is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not only more than 12 thousand parishes, it is also millions of believing parishioners who have always been and will be conscious patriotically-minded citizens of Ukraine, and despite all oppression, discrimination and slander, remain faithful to their Church.

The faithful of our Church pray that those in the government who have launched an anti-church campaign, which someone advised or imposed on them, will realize its fallacy. For this cruel operation on the heart of our own people in the name of questionable ideologies and political technologies not only contradicts the Constitution of Ukraine and norms of international law, but goes against the direct national interests of the state, generates deep inner conflict, sows despondency and disappointment in the people, and weakens Ukraine during the most terrible trials.

‘From the beginning of V. Zelenskyy’s presidential term until the autumn of 2022, there were no clear signs of central authorities’ interference in the affairs of the Church…’

Tell us about the relations of the UOC with the authorities of Ukraine. Are there any opportunities for their improvement?

Now these relations are extremely difficult. I have already mentioned the anti-church campaign against the UOC, backed by some representatives of the authorities. It should be noted that in the power circles, there are civil servants and officials who are well aware of all the harmful consequences of the interference of the state authorities in the affairs of the Church, but at present they are in the minority. Judging by the recent events, this campaign has all the signs of a planned political and technological action aimed at public disgrace and further administrative ban of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps, the most shameful manifestation of this anti-Church campaign was the performance of two “comedians” from the “Quarter 95” studio, in which they allowed themselves profane and blasphemous statements not only against our Church but also against God and the Christian faith as such. This video caused a storm of indignation not only among believers but also among those far from the Church. It is one thing to use dirty political technologies against political opponents and quite another thing to stoop to public blasphemy and profanity, trying to disgrace the Church, which has nothing to do with politics but cares only about the salvation of human souls.

So, the situation is very complicated and has all the signs of escalation. In particular, there is already evidence that the UOC may be forced to stop worship in the main temples of our shrine, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the Assumption and Refectory Churches, rebuilt, preserved and prayed-in by our monks, believers and benefactors.

However, there are always opportunities to improve the state-Church relations. In order to do this, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. It is enough to open the Constitution of Ukraine and read Article 35, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of beliefs and religion. This right includes the freedom to profess any religion or profess no religion, to freely practice religious rites and ceremonial rituals, alone or collectively, and to pursue religious activities. It also states that the Church and religious organizations in Ukraine are separated from the state.

From the beginning of V. Zelenskyy’s presidential term until the autumn of 2022, there were no clear signs of central authorities’ interference in the affairs of the Church. The position of the central government reflected neutrality towards the UOC and other denominations and religious organizations of Ukraine, which cannot be said about local governments, which often provoked conflicts in Ukrainian society on religious grounds by their decisions, which is especially harmful during the war.

If the current government seeks to preserve unity and understanding in Ukrainian society, it should return to a more balanced policy in the religious field next year. After all, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the largest religious denomination in Ukraine, although there are regularly commissioned sociologies that try unsuccessfully to disprove this. The results of these studies lose all credibility, given that the temples of our Church are still overcrowded with believers. Our parishioners are amongst different social strata, including those in authority, so we hope that the voices of these people will still be heard.

Name three main problems faced by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2022 that will remain relevant in 2023.

The first problem is war. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, together with all the people of Ukraine, faces it every day. I mentioned above the destruction of the Sviatogorsk Lavra and the deaths of our clergy. A total of 132 UOC temples, which is about 70% of all damaged places of worship in Ukraine, have suffered destruction and damage since the invasion began. All this goes on, we continue to suffer damage. Unfortunately, based on the current situation, the war is likely to continue in 2023. Consequently, all socio-humanitarian problems caused by it will continue. Our Church prays every day for the establishment of peace in Ukraine. We hope that this will happen as soon as possible.

The second problem is the campaign of media, administrative and force pressure launched against the UOC, the rapid course of which gives more and more reason to consider the worst-case scenarios for the Church. Life will show whether the authorities will abandon these ill-considered intentions, which could have irreparable consequences for Ukrainian society. Some hot-headed officials believe that by the administrative hand UOC believers can be dispersed and forcibly sent elsewhere, to any other denomination, also called the Orthodox Church. But reasonable politicians and officials, who are at least superficially know the history of the Church, understand that the faithful people cannot be frightened away even by catacombs. But how will the civilized world of the XXI century in the centre of Europe, for which the notion of religious freedom is too sensitive, look at this?

For its part, the Church is always ready for any scenario. If we have to experience real persecution, it will not be the first time for our Church. There is no doubt that the Orthodox faithful people of Ukraine, who are already suffering the horrors of war, will overcome and pass all the tests for the purity of the faith and will not stray away from the path of Christ.

The third problem is a spread of sinful tendencies and phenomena in the modern world, which in some places has become the policy framework of some states and a part of mass culture. I mean the spread of so called “non-traditional” values, such as the replacement of the natural concept of “sex” by the artificial concept of “gender” which is registered in the Istanbul Convention. A part of the same problem is the “cult of consumerism”, imposed by mass culture, which puts the material goods and satisfaction of human physical needs as the main values. In their essence, these phenomena are deeply anti-Christian. In the long term, they pose an even greater threat to all Christian believers in the world than war or individual problems of church life.

The spread of these pernicious phenomena leads entire peoples away from God, directing their souls to spiritual and moral degradation. The Church is called to expose the sinful nature of these phenomena, trying to keep as many people as possible from spiritual ruin.

And if in some countries state authorities and political groups declare war upon the Church for this, well, then believing Christians all over the world will join the graceful deed for the sake of truth and Christ.

But Orthodox Christians are always optimistic about the future that awaits us not on earth, but in heaven. And there will be no end to this bright future. Blessed peace and all the best for us all!