Who runs the UOC, or an analysis of DESS expertise in terms of common sense

27 September 2023 15:30
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Prof. Em. Thomas Bremer. Photo: website of the WWU Münster Prof. Em. Thomas Bremer. Photo: website of the WWU Münster

The German theologian Thomas Bremer analyzed the result of the DESS examination for connections between the UOC and the ROC. Let's look at what conclusions he came to.

Highly authoritative Catholic theologian and professor at the University of Münster, Thomas Bremer, made an analysis in response to a request from the "Myriany" regarding the expert examination conducted by the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience (DESS) on the alleged connections between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). In his analysis, he referred to the DESS document as "biased," "misrepresenting facts," and asserted that it cannot be considered as a proof of any ties between the UOC and the ROC.

Bremer strongly criticized the examination conducted under the supervision of DESS head V. Yelensky. We suggest delving into the reasons behind his critical stance toward the document, which has led to significant repercussions in Ukraine concerning the UOC.

On December 1, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree instructing the State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience to conduct a religious examination of the UOC's Statute to establish whether it has canonical ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. The possibility of taking legal measures was also mentioned.

In early 2023, DESS carried out this examination, and its specialists concluded that the UOC is not independent and is part of the ROC.

The UOC's Legal Department promptly responded to this examination. Its head, Father Oleksandr Bakhov, pointed out that the examination shifted its focus from establishing "ecclesiastical-canonical ties" to assessing "dependence/independence" and "autocephaly/non-autocephaly." He argued that the entire examination represented a certain interpretation by specialists of their view of ecclesiastical-canonical ties in the UOC's Statute. He also stated that reading the conclusions gave him the impression that the experts were following instructions from Russia, with the subject of the study being the ROC's Statute rather than the UOC's.

Subsequently, Father Nikita Chekman, a lawyer from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, filed a lawsuit with the Kyiv District Administrative Court, challenging the legality of the DESS examination. He cited numerous violations during its conduct. One of these violations, according to Father Nikita, was that the examination was carried out by "biased individuals who had repeatedly expressed a negative attitude towards the UOC."

For this reason, the public organization “Myriany” decided to initiate an analysis of the findings of the DESS “expert commission”. The favorite technique of all opponents of the UOC is to find the “hand of Moscow” in any “inconvenient” materials. However, in this situation it will not be possible to do this even if one wanted to. Bremer cannot be accused of being biased or interested in the results of the study, which can be clearly seen at the very beginning of his answer to the “Myriany”, where he said: “Being a Roman Catholic theologian from Germany, I do not belong to either side of this issue." Therefore, his conclusions should be carefully considered.

Bremer's response is divided into four sections, each including several paragraphs.

The Statute of the UOC

The first section is dedicated to the analysis of the new Statute of the UOC, adopted at the Synod in Feofania on May 27, 2022. Bremer reminded that prior to this moment, the UOC was a "self-administering Church with the rights of broad autonomy" within the Russian Orthodox Church. "Its main connections to the ROC were the ex officio membership of the UOC primate in the Synod of the ROC and the external representation of the UOC through the ROC." Additionally, as noted by the professor, the UOC received its chrism from Moscow.

However, as the theologian points out, "The UOC’s new statute no longer mentioned a relation to the ROC, the membership of the UOC primate in the ROC Synod, the need for the UOC primate to be 'blessed' by the Russian patriarch after his election by the UOC episcopate, or other such references." The Synod in Feofania introduced a new form of commemoration and made decisions regarding the opening of parishes abroad and myrrh-boiling.

Methodological Issues

Bremer highlighted that the report by the DESS expert commission contains "methodological flaws."

Firstly, he writes that the commission's claims about the "awkwardness" of the UOC's status in canon law "can be a criterion only for an evaluation which is confessional, i.e. which is made from a theological or inner-ecclesial standpoint with a normative claim." In other words, explains the professor, the "awkwardness" of the UOC's status is an internal matter of the Church that "cannot in any way affect freedom of religion." He reminded that the UOC is "not the only Orthodox Church in the world which is organized in a way that is not foreseen by the canons."

Moreover, Bremer believes that the DESS commission violated the "logic of reasoning", since its goal was to research the evidence at its disposal of the rupture of ties between the UOC and the ROC, rather than "dealing with possibilities, hypothetical assumptions, potential actions, and non-facts—which it, however, does."

He emphasized that to analyze the current status of the UOC, only the Statute adopted at the Synod in Feofania should be considered, therefore "no ROC document can prove anything in connection with the UOC, especially if any such document originated before May 2022." This means, he continues, that "Russian documents (or any foreign documents) cannot have  validity for a Ukrainian evaluation of any question."

Furthermore, according to the German theologian, "relying on documents, statutes, and other sources from Russia and the ROC" is highly problematic, as "this way a Russian organization can influence Ukrainian political and administrative decisions."

Bremer also pointed out that if the Commission concludes that the UOC is still part of the ROC, "then it has to show that with existing material, and not with speculations about non-existing items."

Assessment of Facts

In addition to methodological flaws, the professor from the University of Münster believes that the Religious Expert Commission "also interprets some facts and document in a way that is not convincing" because it relies on theological premises "that are disputed and therefore questionable."

He reminded that even if the UOC prefers to have a status "that is neither autonomous nor autocephalous but self-reliant and independent", it  is not the task of the REC (Religious Expert Commission – Trans.) to judge whether that is in accordance with canon law, and  to draw any consequences from that."

Bremer particularly emphasized that all demands and instructions from the state regarding what the UOC should have done to become autocephalous are "a direct violation of freedom of religion" because "it cannot be the task of a state institution to prescribe how a religious community must organize itself."

The professor is certain that DESS does not take a neutral position regarding Orthodox ecclesiology, and therefore, its conclusions in this case are not objective. Statements by experts that an "independent church needs a tomos", in Bremer's opinion, is a point in question: "the 'Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate' existed for more than 25 years without any tomos, claimed to be autocephalous, and was in full accordance with Ukrainian law (though inconsistent with Orthodox ecclesiology)."

Pointing out that the UOC changed the commemoration formula after the Synod in Feofania, which was not noted in the experts' report, the German professor stressed that no Local Orthodox Church objected to the UOC's decision to open parishes abroad, "whereas the parishes organized by the UOC-KP were never recognized by the other Orthodox churches." Moreover, UOC priests living and serving in Germany concelebrate with priests and bishops of other Orthodox Churches, "which would not be the case if these parishes and priests would not be regarded as legitimate."

Legal Problem

The WWU Münster professor reminded that according to Ukrainian legislation, the UOC had every right to participate in the religious examination process. Indeed, the state institution offered the Church to send its observer. In fact, the composition of the Commission was challenged by the UOC, "since several of its members had spoken out earlier for a ban of the UOC." However, DESS did not respond to this protest. Furthermore, the Commission accepted two letters from the head of the UOC as the object of examination, which were written "before it was known that a commission would write a report." Thus, Bremer believes that it is not excluded that the findings of the examination were prepared in violation of Ukrainian legislation.

After analyzing the report of the expert commission, Professor Thomas Bremer concluded that this document has significant flaws and shortcomings in both the methodological and the factual respects. He noted that DESS "takes into account facts which speak in favor for the outcome and neglects the others." He also concluded that the expertise "is biased in its evaluation and misrepresents given facts," providing "no positive evidence of any kind that the UOC still belongs to the ROC."

Therefore, according to the distinguished professor from the University of Münster, the conclusion of the expert commission cannot be regarded as a proof of the canonical connection between the UOC and the ROC, "and its results are not convincing."

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