Ukrainian Religious Freedom Threatened by Russian Bombs and Propaganda - Word&Way

Ukrainian Religious Freedom Threatened by Russian Bombs and Propaganda

During the third Republican presidential debate earlier this month, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy borrowed from Russian propaganda to attack Ukraine. An Internet troll cosplaying as a presidential candidate, Ramaswamy claimed the U.S. shouldn’t support Ukraine because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, is “a Nazi.”

Russia tried to justify its invasion last year by claiming it was only seeking a “denazification” of Ukraine — an example of doublespeak rejected by just about everyone except Vladimir Putin apologists. Which is why after Ramaswamy echoed those Orwellian arguments, fellow GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley said about her opponent that Putin is “salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president.”

Yet, Ramaswamy with his characteristic smarminess argued Ukraine “is not democratic” while ignoring the much more significant anti-democratic nature and actions of Russia. Then Ramaswamy even inaccurately claimed Ukraine had implemented a “banning of Christians, that is actually what’s happening.” The religious claim stuck out because I had spoken just the previous day to a Ukrainian religious freedom expert who had mentioned that claim as a new example of Russian propaganda.

“There is a lot of misinformation, a lot of propaganda. Russia is trying to use this topic to break relations between the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government,” Maksym Vasin told me. “But the real situation is the Ukrainian government didn’t ban any church.”

“It is also a big lie from the Russian propaganda when they justify this invasion to allegedly liberate Ukraine from Nazis, from nationalists or fascists or so on. However, on the contrary, it is Russia that is doing like the Nazis by eliminating any Ukrainian identification, Ukrainian heritage, historical sites, religious sites,” he added.

The head of the Institute for Religious Freedom in Ukraine, Vasin has worked with the United Nations and other international groups to promote democracy and human rights. He’s also served as a consultant for the Ukrainian Parliament on legislation regarding freedom of religion or belief. Unlike a politician apparently picking up talking points from bots on social media, Vasin understands the issues of Ukrainian religious freedom from his years of research, analysis, and advocacy.

Vasin is also paying attention to what U.S. politicians are saying. I spoke to him at the conclusion of meetings a delegation of Ukrainian religious leaders held with congressional members, policy experts in the White House, leaders of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and others. They trekked to Washington, D.C., to make sure our nation’s leaders understand the various ways that the Russian government and military continue to violate the religious freedom rights of Ukrainians and Russians.

“All of them spoke like a single voice during this visit to confirm that Ukraine has religious freedom, Ukraine preserves this religious pluralism, and for us it is very important to maintain our democratic development,” Vasin said about the 10-member delegation that included a Pentecostal bishop, a Seventh-day Adventist leader, an evangelical minister, Orthodox and Catholic archbishops, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim mufti.

An Oct. 30, 2023, panel discussion during the visit to Washington, D.C., by a delegation of Ukrainian religious leaders. From left: panel moderator and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Orthodox Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, Mufti Akhmed Tamim, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, and Pentecostal Bishop Ivan Rusyn. (Stephanie Scarbrough/Associated Press)

As we can see from the guy who won’t be president but instead seems to be campaigning for a media pundit job, not everyone was listening. For instance, new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who likes to claim he supports religious freedom, declined to even meet with the delegation from the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations.

But I was happy to talk with one of their leaders. So this issue of A Public Witness offers a crash course lesson from one of the preeminent experts on Ukrainian religious freedom to consider what’s happening in the besieged nation and how religious freedom rights are undermined by Russia.


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