The Names of Religious Groups and Security-Related Concerns

Dmytro Vovk is Director of the Centre for the Rule of Law and Religion Studies, Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and co-editor of Talk About: Law and Religion.

Among other things the OSCE/ODIHR Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security Policy Guidance focuses on finding a fair balance between the autonomy of religious groups and the requirements of public safety and national security. The guidance document calls these two values “complementary, interdependent and mutually reinforcing objectives that can and must be advanced together.” The autonomy of a religious groups includes the right to self-name. It presupposes that religions may, at their discretion, choose any name for themselves based on their dogmas, canons, and principles. This name unites believers and expresses their shared religious identification. The name may include the institutional form of a religious group (church, movement, society, etc.), the name of the deity, a leader, sacred places or texts, the mission of the group, and so on.

The names of religious groups are also their message urbi et orbi—a public statement to society about them and their religious beliefs. Their names may express how religions would like to be perceived by outsiders, including believers of other religions, the state, and society at large. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently emphasized the need to use its full name rather a well known name, the Mormon Church, that is rooted in Church’s history and theology but that fails to reflect the Church’s affiliation with Christ. This name change shows how important it may be for a religious group to enjoy the right to choose and freely use its name.

However, states may impose restrictions on the right to self-name. For instance, a reference to religious beliefs will not help to register the church of Hitler in countries, where Nazi symbols are prohibited in public space. In some countries the state requires religious communities to prove their affiliation with the religion mentioned in their name. In Serbia it is forbidden to register a religious organization if its name contains the name or part of the name  of another already-registered church or religious community (Art. 19 of the Serbian Act on Churches and Religious Communities). That limitation, however, could be too restrictive if there are many denominations and sects within one religion that have similar names. Similarly, Russia limits the use of the country’s name within the names of religious organizations.

In 2018 the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law obliging religious organizations ruled from Russia to indicate in their names that they are affiliated with the relevant Russian mother church. According to the authors of the law, religion significantly affects public opinion in Ukraine, and considering the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, religious groups ruled from Russia might be employed for disseminating Russian propaganda in Ukraine. This, the authors of the law suggested, would create a threat “for national interests, territorial integrity and national security of the country.” Political discourse around the law was even broader, and supporters of this legislation argued that it would help believers to identify “pro-Russian,” i.e. “anti-Ukrainian,” religions and leave them. Though this restriction has affected several tiny religious groups, the main target was the largest Ukrainian religious association—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, I will focus on the UOC-MP case.

This legislation provokes two questions: (1) to what extent (if any) can arguments for national security justify limiting the right of religious groups to freely choose their names? And (2) is this limitation proportionate to Ukraine’s aim to counteract Russian propaganda allegedly disseminated by religious groups that have Russian leadership?

Since 2014 the UOC-MP has been avoiding any official statements on the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine. The Church calls for peace and emphasizes that its believers are on both sides of the conflict. Following the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill, some priests and leaders of the UOC-MP define the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as a “fratricidal war” and reproduce other clichés from Russian propaganda. Ukrainian media reported that some UOC-MP priests blessed and supported militants fighting against the Ukrainian government. Further, some UOC-MP priests, both online and during religious meetings, called for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine. At least two of those priests were sentenced for this crime by Ukrainian courts.

Although opinions on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict might be interpreted as an expression of political views, calls for violating territorial integrity and supporting separatism are not in any way protected by the freedom of religion in conjunction with the freedom of expression or freedom of association. With this in mind, one can agree that national-security concerns are relevant in the case of the UOC-MP.

However, the state’s response to national-security concerns limiting the right to self-name could hardly be considered proportionate. The state attempts to mark whole religious groups as weapons in the Kremlin’s hands and as threats to Ukraine, instead of prosecuting individuals who call for the violation of territorial integrity or religious communities which support anti-government militants in Donbas. Rather than fight against the dissemination of fake news and Russian propaganda directly, the state tried to rename entire religions, deeming all of their clergy and laity as the source of propaganda in order to signal to Ukrainian society that these religions are potentially dangerous and politically disloyal. In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the legal requirement to be marked as a “Russian church” portrays religious groups “in an unfavorable light in public opinion, which is sensitive to the official assessment of a religion.” (see ECtHR’s case Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and others v. Hungary, 2004).

Moreover, it is unclear whether this legal measure can thwart Russian propaganda. Quite the contrary—this requirement can strengthen a belief within UOC-MP communities that they are unwelcomed by the Ukrainian state and society, which could lead to their marginalization. Marginalizing these communities creates a fertile soil for disseminating Russian propaganda, where Russia can represent itself as a “defender” of Russian-speaking and Russian-Orthodox people unfairly persecuted in Ukraine. Thus, the law forcing Ukrainian religions with ruling centers in Russia to change their names accelerates the problem of Russian propaganda rather than decelerates it.

The case of the UOC-MP provides a clear example of how justified national-security concerns can result in disproportionate and, in fact, ineffective infringements on religious autonomy. Here, a crucial solution is to recognize both security and religious freedom as “complementary, interdependent and mutually reinforcing objectives,” as is entrenched in the OSCE/ODIHR policy guidance. In its aims to counteract Russian propaganda and to defend territorial integrity, the Ukrainian state took the easy way out when it disadvantaged the whole UOC-MP community rather than the more difficult task of prosecuting individuals involved in illegal activities. The state should thus seek for a different strategy that will allow for both protecting national security and for avoiding interference with internal religious affairs.

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