Protecting Religious Freedom in Ukraine

As the war in Ukraine wages on and reports of war crimes continue, the international community continues to flag religious freedom violations as a tactic of war.

Concerns about religious freedoms were spurred in part by a late-December ruling of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine regarding the nation’s laws, which could restrict the freedom of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formerly of the Moscow Patriarchate. Others are concerned that Russia’s laws restricting religious freedom are being applied in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, despite Ukraine’s model of religious pluralism.

Oleksandra Kovalenko is a researcher of religious studies from Kyiv and former chief specialist at the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience.

Ms. Kovalenko underlined the “huge struggles with religious freedom” in Ukrainian territories under the control of Russian troops, where religious organizations, parishes and monasteries must re-register under Russian law.

Ms. Kovalenko said Ukrainians have experienced religious persecution and restrictions in religious practice in Crimea since Russia occupied the region in 2014. As the front line of the war moves further into Ukraine, Russia “starts the same process in other territories. It is what’s happening,” she said.

Ms. Kovalenko said she learned in 2021 that some Protestant churches were outlawed in occupied areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region, and members of these churches had resorted to gathering in people’s houses, varying locations and days of the week to avoid detection.

“It reminds me of Soviet times and how religion survived under the communist regime,” said Ms. Kovalenko.

Non-Christian groups also are being targeted. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses are outlawed in Russia and members are being imprisoned in Crimea, although the religion is legal in Ukraine.

A report released April 9 by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War corroborates Ms. Kovalenko’s statements. According to the report, Russia has been “committing gross violations of religious freedom” affecting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Mennonite, Pentecostal and Muslim communities.

The violations include the kidnapping and assassination of at least 29 clergy, the destruction and looting of at least 13 places of worship, and the detention of members of these faith communities.

The report states that “Russian authorities have closed, nationalized or forcefully converted at least 26 places of worship” to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The institute claims these actions “are not likely isolated incidents but rather part of a deliberate campaign to systematically eradicate ‘undesirable’ religious organizations in Ukraine and promote the Moscow Patriarchate.”

The report also substantiates earlier findings. As early as spring 2022, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that “Crimean Tatar Muslims opposed to the Russian occupation of their Ukrainian homeland continue to receive lengthy prison sentences for unsubstantiated charges of terrorism based on their Muslim identity and alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahir, a nonviolent Islamist group that is legal in Ukraine in most Western countries.”

Last September, Ukraine’s Institute for Religious Freedom, with the support of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kyiv, issued a report that documented targeted shelling, vandalism and looting of religious sites and attacks on religious leaders — including torture — committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, from the 24 February invasion until 15 July.

“If previously priests on the occupied territories only received death threats, now religious leaders are tortured and killed — again, but on a scale far worse than in 2014,” reads the report.

Other concerns focus on the Ukrainian government’s treatment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formerly of the Moscow Patriarchate. Distinct from the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was established in 2019 with the blessing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church maintained ties with the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate until May 2022, when its leaders condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and declared their “full autonomy and independence.”

The amendment to Ukraine’s religious freedom law — originally introduced in 2018 — has been seen as targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The December constitutional court ruling on a challenge to that law said Ukraine legitimately could force organizations linked to an “aggressor state” to be renamed to reflect their association. The court said amending the religious freedom law was “justified, since it contributes to ensuring the defense capability of the state and the combat capability of Armed Forces’ units under the conditions of armed aggression.”

This issue was raised at a virtual seminar earlier this year, organized by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, on the theme, “Is Religious Freedom Under Threat in Ukraine?” During the seminar, panel member Nadieszda Kizenko, professor of Russian and East European history at the State University of New York at Albany, questioned whether it is the role of government to require a change in the name of a church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church insists it is no longer affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leaders should be taken at their word, she argued.

At the same seminar, José Casanova, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, pointed out that, during the American Revolution, many members of the Church of England in the United States began referring to themselves as Episcopalians.

Concern has also been expressed from United Nations officials. In mid-January, Ilze Brands Kehris, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, expressed concern about Ukrainian Security Service searches of several Ukrainian Orthodox Church buildings, noting that three of the church’s clergy faced criminal charges, including treason. She urged Ukraine to ensure that any trials were fair and “that any criminal sanctions are compatible with the rights of freedom of opinion, expression and religion.”

Barb Fraze is a freelance journalist specializing in international affairs and religion. For more than 35 years, she served as the international editor of Catholic News Service.

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