The Ukrainian Parliament this month advanced legislation widely seen as an attempt to ban an Orthodox church from the country over allegations that it is linked to Russia.

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral legislative body, passed the bill through its first reading on Thursday with 267 lawmakers in favor of the proposal and only 15 voting against it. 

Legislation in the Rada generally must pass through three readings and then be signed by the country’s president to become law. 

The law would forbid activities of religious organizations “that are affiliated with the centers of influence of a religious organization, the management center of which is located outside of Ukraine in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine.” It is widely seen as targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC).

Member of Parliament Iryna Herashchenko, who belongs to the center-right European Solidarity Party, referred to the vote as “historic” in a video message, according to The Kyiv Independent. She claimed that the vote was about Russian influence rather than religion.

“The Verkhovna Rada took the first step to expel Moscow priests from Ukrainian land,” Herashchenko said, according to the Independent. 

“[The legislation] is not about religion or church but about protecting the national security of Ukraine,” she claimed. “It’s about the fact that the church, which has a metropolis in Moscow, is not really a church but a branch of the [Russian Federal Security Service] and it can be banned in court.”

Last week Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church condemned the vote, saying that it “puts the Ukrainian state on a par with the most sinister atheistic regimes of the past.”

“The initiators and supporters of the adoption of this bill in Ukraine — top-level government officials, deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, radical politicians and public figures — do not hide that the bill is directed against the largest religious community in Ukraine,” Kirill said. 

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He claimed the measure “aims to eliminate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a centralized structure as well as all its dioceses, parishes, and monasteries separately.”

Some Ukrainian lawmakers have accused the UOC of promoting the interests of the Russian government since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many churches have seen a backlash in the wake of the invasion, including churches being expelled from their properties, priests being arrested on allegations of supporting the invasion, and vandalism directed toward churches.

The 2023 Religious Freedom in the World report, published by Aid to the Church in Need, added both Ukraine and Russia to the list of countries that it is closely monitoring for religious freedom violations.