The Russian Federation is committing gross violations of freedom of religion in occupied Ukraine, according to a special study released yesterday by the highly respected Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
“Russia’s systematic religious persecution supports a larger Russian campaign of cultural genocide against Ukraine,” the ISW said in releasing its study.
The study found that since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022:
· There have been at least 76 reported incidents of religious persecution by Russian soldiers or occupation authorities in Ukraine;
· The authorities have closed, nationalized, or forcibly converted at least 26 places of worship to the Moscow patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP), which is controlled by the Kremlin;
· At least 29 religious leaders or clergy have been killed or imprisoned, and;
· At least 13 places of worship in occupied Ukraine vandalized, looted, or intentionally destroyed.
“These acts of religious repression are most likely not isolated occurrences, but rather a deliberate effort to systematically eradicate ‘undesirable’ religious organizations in Ukraine while promoting the UOC-MP,” the ISW said.
The ISW states that the UOC-MP is not an independent religious organization, but rather an extension of the Russian state and a tool of Russian hybrid warfare.
“The UOC-MP is a subordinate element of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine that is controlled by the Kremlin. In 2014, the UOC-MP provided support for Russia's initial invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, with Russian soldiers even using UOC-MP churches for military purposes,” the ISW study states.
In the Ukrainian territories Russia currently occupies, the ISW noted that Russia is enforcing its domestic laws, including so-called anti-extremist laws. As a result, it has banned several religious groups such as evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The study reports former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) head Oleksandr Zakharchenko’s declaration in May 2015 that Kyiv-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU-Kyiv) members, Ukrainian Greek Catholics, and evangelical Christians were “sectarians” within the DNR. Zakharchenko announced that occupation authorities would only recognize the UOC-MP, Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism.
“Moscow aims to wipe out the OCU-Kyiv, which it deems schismatic despite the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granting it independence from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2019,” the ISW report writes. “Russian occupation authorities are likely systematically eliminating OCU-Kyiv churches in occupied Ukraine. Reports show that 34 percent of the recorded persecution events were aimed at the OCU-Kyiv, despite it being the most popular confession in Ukraine. Witness reports suggest that Russian authorities are intentionally attacking the OCU for its Ukrainian identity.”
Protestants, especially evangelical Baptists, are the most common targets of Russian religious persecution after Kyiv-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox faithful. According to ISW's observations, 34 percent of reported persecution events targeted Protestants of all denominations, with Baptists making up the largest group of victims at 13 percent.
Protestants were the victims of 35 percent and 48 percent of the reported persecution events in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts respectively. Protestants suffered two-thirds of the reported repression events in occupied Mariupol City.
According to eyewitness reports compiled by ISW, Russian soldiers have been brutal towards Protestants in occupied Ukraine. In one instance, Russian troops took over a Kherson-based Ukrainian evangelical Baptist educational institute and used it as a garrison and crematorium for dead soldiers from March to November 2022.
The Baptists were repeatedly harassed and called names like “American spies,” “sectarians,” and “enemies of the Russian Orthodox people.” Russian soldiers made threatening remarks like “evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed” and “we will bury [Baptist] sectarians like you.”
The ISW study covers only a limited number of reported instances of Russian religious persecution against religious groups in Ukraine. Events where indirect fire may have unintentionally caused harm or destruction of places of worship are not included, as well as the majority of religious repressions in previously occupied areas. Additionally, the study does not cover all reported cases of destruction of religious buildings due to difficulty in assessing intentionality.
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