High Stakes As Ukrainian Orthodox Must Choose New Leader

Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Volodymyr died on Saturday. The showdown between Kiev and Moscow makes picking his successor more than a religious event.

Who will replace Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan in Kiev?
Who will replace Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan in Kiev?
Pavel Korobov and Yanina Sokolovskaya

KIEV — The death of the long-time leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, who had been gravely ill with cancer and heart disease, did not come as a surprise.

Still, the death Saturday of the 79-year-old religious leader comes at a particularly delicate moment as clashes with Russia continue near Ukraine's eastern border. After Volodymyr was buried on Monday in the historic Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery, experts were busy weighing the meaning of his legacy and the huge political stakes in choosing his successor.

“The authority of the deceased Metropolitan was indisputable: He was able to find common ground with all of Ukraine’s presidents, even with supporters of an independent Ukrainian Church,” explained Anatolii Pchenlintsev, a professor of religious studies at the Russian Humanities Institute. “It was his authority that allowed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to continue as part of the Moscow Patriarchate.”

Metropolitan Volodymyr was selected to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1992, in the midst of another crisis between Russia and Ukraine. In 1991, after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, his predecessor, Metropolitan Filaret, had convened a national sobor of Ukrainian Orthodox clergy, which had unanimously voted to become an independent church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church.

This decision was not recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, which asked Filaret to submit his resignation, and subsequently selected Volodymyr to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Filaret founded a separate, independent Church, which he continues to lead to this day.

Both churches are called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The church led by Volodymyr, part of the Moscow Patriarchate, is considered to be under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church led by Filaret is independent, and is referred to as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarch. Surveys have been inconclusive regarding the exact proportion of adherents that each branch has.

“It’s important to remember now the circumstances under which Volodymyr started his service as the Metropolitan of Kiev in 1992,” explained Igor Yakimchuk, secretary of public relations at the Moscow Patriarchate. “The church’s situation was such that there was no hope that it would withstand the pressure from nationalists.”

According to Yakimchuk, both the then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk and the former Metropolitan wanted to divide the Church. “Metropolitan Volodymyr protested with peace and love,” Yakimchuk said. “He was convinced that the only way to prevent a division was through love.”

That position, Yakimchuk thinks, was ultimately what prevented divisions in the church in Ukraine. “For more than 20 years, Father Volodymyr managed to keep the church together. Under his leadership, the church has grown to around 12,000 parishes, which represents almost half of all the parishes in the Moscow Patriarchate.”

In Kiev, preparations have already started for the meeting of bishops where a new leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be chosen. According to our sources who were close to Metropolitan Volodymyr, there are three potential successors.

Meaning of mourners

The first is 69-year-old Metropolitan Onuphrius, who was born in Chernivtsi Oblast and graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy. Onuphrius, who has been filling in for Volodymyr since February, is considered both the frontrunner and the candidate who would continue in Volodymyr’s footsteps.

Metropolitan Onuphrius — Photo: BO Svoboda

The 46-year-old Metropolitan Antoni is one of the youngest members of the church hierarchy. He also graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy and handles the administration at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. His youth makes his selection relatively unlikely, sources said.

Lastly, 63-year-old Ilarion, who was born in Lviv and currently is stationed in Donetsk, is the third potential candidate for Volodymyr’s post.

According to Vasili Anisomov, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s press office, Onuphrius is the most likely choice, because, “his candidacy works for everyone.” Anisomov thinks that the new Metropolitan should be closer to the older wing of the church than to the young reformers. Many are prepared to vote for Onuphrius, but he doesn’t crave the power himself. He is a monk, and says that Ukraine’s problems can be solved through prayer, not through power. He has indicated that he doesn’t approve of Ukraine’s move towards the European Union, saying that, “they have turned away from Christ, and we need to stand with those who worship Christ.”

The Russian Orthodox Church declined to make predictions about the future Metropolitan, but noted the central role the church plays in current Ukrainian society. “We hope for help from God, so that the Church in Ukraine will remain united,” said Igor Yakimchuk. “Right now the political situation in Ukraine is difficult, but the Church has managed to stay out of the fighting and so I think it will be able to preserve its unity.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was among those who came to bid farewell to Metropolitan Volodymyr. “He was the person who established our church. Now God will hear prayers about Ukraine,” said Poroshenko, who himself is a deacon in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Until the last minute, it wasn’t clear if Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, would attended Volodymyr’s funeral. “Patriarch Kirill was invited to come alone, without his delegation and security, because he is the only member of the upper ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church who is not currently unwelcome in Ukraine. The Patriarch apparently could not agree to that,” explained a source at the Ukrainian Church.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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