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Across the Soviet Union As Reforms Take Place in Ukraine, Religious Groups Unsure of New Path

February 28, 2005
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Some religious leaders in Ukraine are questioning President Viktor Yuschenko’s plan to jettison a government body that oversees church-state relations in Ukraine. The criticism over the decision to eliminate the Ukrainian State Committee on Religious Affairs comes amid confusion over how religious groups will operate under Yuschenko, who was elected to office last year on a pro-Western platform aimed at eliminating bureaucracy and corruption.

The reforms are part of Yuschenko’s plan to integrate Ukraine into the European Union and NATO.

Among the leaders opposing the idea is one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, Yakov Dov Bleich, who said the committee helped the Jewish community in several areas.

The committee, which was created during the Soviet era, helps Jews obtain visas for foreign guests, Bleich said.

He added that the committee helped the Jewish community resolve restitution issues, mentioning the return of the Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev.

“It helped us and was a good mediator between the Jewish community of Ukraine and the government,” Bleich said.

A prominent Muslim cleric agreed with Bleich that the agency served a useful purpose.

“We always tried to find good relations with the committee to resolve our problems,” Sheik Ahmed Tamim, the mufti of Ukraine, told JTA.

Representatives of Ukraine’s major faiths all agree that the committee — one of more than 40 committees slated to be shut down as part of Yuschenko’s reform of the bureaucratic apparatus — is no longer focusing on limiting religious freedom, as it did during the Communist era.

“Today nobody interferes with our religious activities,” Bishop Stanislav Shyrokodiuk, General Vicar of the Kiev-Zhitomir Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, told JTA.

Yet he disagreed with Bleich that the new Ukraine needs a special government body on state-church affairs.

“I’m sure there is no place for such a committee in the democratic world,” said the bishop.

But some Jews disagree, calling the committee an outdated institution.

“The State Committee on Religious Affairs was an instrument of the Soviet system,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, an umbrella organization.

The issue of the committee’s liquidation topped the agenda of a conference on church-state relations held in Kiev on Feb. 17-18.

Some experts agree its liquidation would increase religious freedom in Ukraine. Others, however, fear that if the special government body controlling church-state relations is gone, the situation for minorities might grow worse. Those groups might lose direct access to the government. The dominant Orthodox church, on the other hand, is unlikely to lose that access.

A leading expert on religious affairs told JTA that liquidating the committee would not necessarily mean that Ukrainians would get more religious freedom.

“I can’t see anything good in the liquidation” of the committee, said Viktor Yelensky, an expert with the National Academy of Science.

“The committee did not have any controlling functions any more. Religious freedom was probably the only civil liberty which Ukraine really had during Kuchma’s regime,” he said. Leonid Kuchma was Ukraine’s leader for 10 years.

But other experts welcomed the committee’s liquidation.

Such an agency is not needed today, and its functions can be carried out by a department of the Ministry of Justice, said Anatoly Kolodny, the head of the Association of Religious Studies in Ukraine.

Kolodny said in his view Ukraine should develop a full church-state separation and that faith should be depoliticized. He said that some religious leaders and Kuchma’s officials put pressure on religious communities during the 2004 presidential campaign, forcing them to support Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, Kuchma’s handpicked successor.

The elimination of the committee leaves open the question of how church-state relations will operate in the future in Ukraine.

Josef Zissels, the leader of the Va’ad, Ukraine’s oldest Jewish umbrella group, argued that given the country’s lack of experience in building democratic institutions, it is essential to turn to other nations’ experience in dealing with religious affairs.

Rafat Chubarov, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, said any new body on religious affairs — if one is to be created — should have clear rules and instructions that delineate its limits.

Regardless of what fate is awaiting the religions’ committee, most experts and Jewish leaders believe that the new Ukrainian leaders eventually will find a way to assist religious organizations and preserve interfaith peace in Ukraine.

But some are saying that changes in Ukraine are being made too fast, and that many new developments have to be better prepared.

“Before changing dirty water, it is necessary to have some clear water ready,” Bleich said.

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