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Ukraine rushes through watered-down law on 'robbing church property'

Ukraine rushes through watered-down law on 'robbing church property'
Ukrainian lawmakers have passed a law on church property changing hands after last-minute changes to its most controversial parts, such as the arbitrary seizure of churches which has been made a bit more difficult.

The legislation, passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Thursday, was filed in 2016 and was widely perceived to be part of Kiev's campaign to curb the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the self-governing branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The controversial bill dubbed 'robbing church property' sought to amend Ukraine's law on religious freedoms by establishing a procedure, under which a religious community could formally change its allegiance. It said 'self-identified' members, or a community, could hold a gathering and vote to switch from one religious organization to another by a simple majority. This would result, among other things, in the property belonging to the community, like a church building, changing hands.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church saw the bill as a threat to its rights. It would allow, for example, a malicious actor to use rent-a-crowd tactics to legally snatch property. A group of people bussed to a small town could simply declare themselves members of its Orthodox community and force it to become part of a Kiev-backed religious organization.

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Other religious groups voiced objection to the bill too. Ukrainian Lutherans rejected the very idea that a person may self-identify as one, since they accept people into their community only after teaching him or her how to be one, for example. Some Muslim communities voiced concerns that their mosques could be seized and converted into Christian churches under the proposed law.

Even the Ukrainian Parliament's own judiciary committee recommended rejecting the bill in 2016, saying that this part of public life should not be regulated by the secular national government.

As the voting date for the bill came this week, Speaker Andrey Parubiy unexpectedly announced that it needs to be changed, because, as it was, "the bill does not address all procedural and judicial nuances". The changes would take into account recommendations from the EU, he announced.

An amended version, which rushed through all steps necessary to put it to the final vote, allows religious communities to decide themselves who is and who is not a member. The change of allegiance will also require a two-third majority rather than a simple one. The bill also included wording to ensure that a community conflicted over which organization it should belong to would not suddenly lose its property.

On the other hand, the bill now requires that a religious community answering to a "foreign control center" in any way should reflect this in its charter and register as such with the Ukrainian authorities. The provision is in line with another controversial law, which is meant to force the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to add the word "Russian" to its name.

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But even with the changes, the bill had a hard time in the parliament. The speaker had to put it to the vote several times before it scored enough votes to pass the necessary threshold of 226 votes. It was ultimately passed by a narrow 229 majority.

Ukraine's Orthodox turmoil has been viewed as a key part of the reelection campaign of President Petro Poroshenko, who is currently touring the country with a document signed by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The decree handed over earlier this year gives a newly-created 'Orthodox Church of Ukraine' a degree of autonomy within the Constantinople Patriarchy, although the Ukrainian president claims that it gives the church he supports full independence.

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The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formed in December from the clergy of two schismatic churches, whom Constantinople decided to recognize as its own. The move was denounced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which sees it as an infringement on its canonical territory that had made spiritual communion between the two leading Orthodox Churches no longer possible.

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