On Thursday, Ukrainian lawmakers delayed voting on two bills which would impose severe restrictions on the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a major religious organization accounting for half of Ukraine's total Eastern Orthodox parishes, churches and communities, with over 11,500 parishes and monasteries and representation in every region of the country.
The proposed bills see the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches under the Moscow Patriarchate as a possible threat to the country's 'national interests, sovereignty, and territorial integrity', and thus requiring special control by the government, including the power to approve church appointees, confiscate property, or even ban churches outright.
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, appealed to foreign political and religious leaders, including Pope Francis, to convince Kiev not to go forward with the bills, which he said would be an unheard-of level of religious discrimination for modern-day Europe. Kirill warned that if the bills were approved, they would "threaten the constitutional rights of millions of Ukrainian believers" and "escalate intercommunal conflict in Ukraine."
The Vatican responded to Kirill's plea. Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich, Cleric of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, confirmed that the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Vatican had been summoned in connection with the draft legislation.
"The Vatican is concerned about the possibility of adopting bills 4,128 and 4,511 [the bills proposing restrictions against the work of the Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church]. Our Ambassador to the Vatican has been summoned. The Vatican fully agrees with the position expressed by Roman Catholic Bishop Stanislav Shirokoradyuk on this subject," Danilevich explained in a post his Facebook page.
In addition to the Pope, Patriarch Kirill appealed to the United Nations, the president of the World Council of Churches, and the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France (the members of the so-called Normandy Four group on peace in eastern Ukraine).
In addition to being a sign of its defense of Christianity, regardless of denomination, the Vatican's response to the controversial bills appears as another sign of the warming relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, which began last year in a historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba. That meeting was the first of its kind since Christianity was split into western and eastern branches in 1054.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian authorities have made repeated attempts to build up support for a local Ukrainian Orthodox Church disconnected from the Moscow Patriarchate. Church leaders and worshippers alike have resisted these efforts, even amid the sharp deterioration in relations between Moscow and Kiev over the last several years.