Explainer: Religious liberty in Ukraine in the 20th and 21st centuries

May 9, 2022

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was nearing its official end, the people of Ukraine turned out in record numbers to formally declare their independence from the Union of Soviet Social Republics (U.S.S.R.). After the votes were tallied, over 90% of Ukrainian voters had endorsed independence. Despite political pressure from Moscow, Ukraine elected its first president in December of that year and officially formalized its status as a sovereign state, earning swift recognition by the international community. 

But the history of Ukraine up to that point had been fraught with tumult. And as we well know, under the thumb of a brutal and unjust invasion by Russia and its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin, the future of Ukraine and its sovereignty is once again uncertain. 

Liberty under siege

One of the marks of any free nation is its acknowledgment and preservation of its citizens’ rights; rights such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to “order one’s life in response to” what he or she believes is true, which is how Andrew T. Walker defines religious liberty. The significance of religious liberty and its virtual ubiquity among free nations illuminate for us why, historically, many have called it our “first freedom,” both here in the states and abroad.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Ukraine had a complicated relationship with religious liberty. And now, as with all other expressions of freedom in Ukraine, the country’s religious freedom is under siege. Ukrainian citizens’ ability to order their lives in response to what they believe is true is being thwarted by a savage and inhumane Russian military charade.

Brief history of religious liberty in Ukraine

In Article 35 of Ukraine’s Constitution, religious freedom is explicitly and clearly identified as a right that the state owes to its citizens. A portion of the document reads as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of personal philosophy and religion. This right includes the freedom to profess or not to profess any religion, to perform alone or collectively and without constraint religious rites and ceremonial rituals, and to conduct religious activity.

While the language outlined in Ukraine’s Constitution may seem unremarkable to those of us in the West, when considered against the backdrop of the history of religion in this region, going only as far back as the 20th century, this document and the freedoms it enshrines for its citizens is an achievement of great significance. 

Religion in the 20th century

Under Soviet rule, a period that lasted from the Russian Revolution of 1917 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, atheism was the official, and largely uncontested, worldview advanced by the government. The Russian Revolution launched the Soviet region into decades of state-sponsored atheism, “during which all religion was frowned upon, and atheism was propagated in schools.” As the atheistic ideology embedded itself in the region, through the schools and other government-imposed means, the religious life of its citizenry grew increasingly imperiled.

The promotion of religious persecution by Soviet authorities became normative, both against individual adherents and religious institutions. During these years, in fact, the Soviets unleashed a series of “anti-religious campaigns” that varied in intensity, but included such tactics as seizing, closing, and destroying churches; ridiculing religion, and harassing and imprisoning believers; and even torturing and executing both clergy and religious adherents alike. While most religions weren’t ever officially outlawed, the Marxist-Leninist policy that marked the Soviet Union sought the “control, suppression, and elimination of religious belief” among its citizens. To a large degree, it succeeded — the number of non-religious, non-believing Soviet citizens rose exponentially during the days of the U.S.S.R.

Religion in the 21st century

On June 28th, 1996, Ukraine’s first constitution since declaring their independence from the former Soviet Union took effect, officially spelling out the charters of the nation and its citizens. In that document, as mentioned above, is the explicit articulation that Ukrainian citizens possess “the right to freedom of personal philosophy and religion,” and, by virtue of its inclusion in the Constitution, the implied pledge that that right will be preserved by the state. Undoubtedly, this was a welcomed departure from the communist policy of the Soviet era.

Ukraine’s declaration of independence and the forming of its constitution in the early-to-mid 90s set the stage for a religiously free 21st century. No longer would there be the threat of oppression and persecution imposed upon those who adhered to religious belief of any kind, or no religious belief at all. While there have been challenges (both internal and external) to the building of a tolerant and religiously free society, over the course of the 21st century Ukraine has developed into a pluralistic nation (though overwhelmingly Christian) consisting of Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Protestants, among other faith traditions like Judaism, and even atheism. 

Recent challenges to Ukrainian freedoms

But as Russia has continued to encroach upon Ukrainian territory, dating back to its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, “the religious pluralism and freedom that Ukrainians have enjoyed since [the mid-nineties]” are being devastated. In Crimea, for instance, many adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been “imprisoned for their faith,” and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church itself is “in danger of being driven underground altogether.Reportedly, “the situation in occupied Donbas – the self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DLPR] – is similar.”

With Russia now continuing to bear down on Ukraine militarily, seeking to wrest the country from the constitutional grip of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his cabinet of leaders, one can only imagine the intentions President Putin has for Ukraine and its citizens. Presumably, stealing away Ukrainians’ religious freedom is squarely within his view. 

Contending for Ukraine in prayer

The history of religion and religious liberty in Ukraine is complex. But what’s plain is that all the freedoms its citizenry once enjoyed are now under threat. Once “home to a vibrant Church and a number of missionaries,” the people of Ukraine are now running for their lives — though many Christians have chosen to remain and meet the needs of their imperiled neighbors. For those who have stayed behind, “it is likely that these Christian brothers and sisters, as well as those of other religious minorities, will face intense persecution and human rights abuses.”

So, what can those of us half a world away do? We can do what the church has always instinctively done: pray. As those who enjoy religious freedom ourselves, we can exercise our liberties on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, contending for them in prayer both privately and publicly. We can pray for their protection, for their strength and resolve, and, ultimately, for peace. We can pray that their God-given freedoms, recognized by their government and upheld, with great courage, by soldiers and regular citizens fighting tooth and nail to keep them, would be preserved.

As they contend for the future of their country, may we continually contend for them in prayer.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24