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Religious persecution in eastern Ukraine

There is a stereotype that the conflict in Ukraine is about most things, but not religion.

But since the outbreak of conflict last year, reports of religious persecution in the Donbas region have continued to emerge. Cross the border into Russia, where calls ring out to protect the Orthodox faith from the advances of decadent Europe, or dig a little deeper into the zone of the Anti-Terrorist Operation, and you find another strand to this conflict—inter-confessional strife.

A deepening divide

Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches of the Kiev and the Moscow Patriarchates have been the country’s largest confessions. Other Christian confessions include the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholic Church, as well as Protestants, Catholics and various evangelists.

The Moscow Patriarchate is formally affiliated to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has transformed itself into a ‘soft power’ ally of President Vladimir Putin in recent years. It is widely known to be sympathetic to ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

Greek Catholic church, Kramatorsk. (c) Roberto Bianconi.

These days, while the Kiev Patriarchate, Catholic Church, Protestants and other confessions gather humanitarian aid and donations for the Ukrainian army and soldiers’ families, the official position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine remains pro-Russian.

A recent incident in parliament is revealing. Back in May 2015, when President Petro Poroshenko asked the Ukrainian parliament to join him in honouring fallen soldiers, everyone stood up save for three invited guests: priests of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The official position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine remains pro-Russian.

Explaining the reasons why the priests refused to honour the fallen soldiers, Mitropolit Onufry said this was a sign of protest against the war. This incident in parliament became another sign of a deepening divide between confessions—one based on political choice rather than minor differences in religious dogma. 

In Crimea, according to witnesses and human rights observers, members of every confession (except for the Russian Orthodox Church) have suffered harassment. Some have been forced to leave the peninsula, their property confiscated. Crimean Tatar Muslims and the Jewish community have also suffered in this regard.

Eastern Ukraine

A similar situation can be seen in the east of Ukraine, which is controlled by Russia-backed forces. Last year, the news about the murder of four prominent Protestants in the breakaway territories, shook the Christian world. There is also numerous evidence of harassment (including abductions and tortures) suffered by other religious minorities in Russia-controlled republics.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate in Kostyantynivka, Donetsk. (c) Roberto Bianconi.

Indeed, the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) defines the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) as the leading religion in its ‘constitution’, potentially empowering the Russia-backed insurgents to persecute other religions.

A report on religious persecution, prepared by the Center for Civil Liberties and International Partnership for Human Rights in April 2015, concludes that Christian believers who don’t belong to the Moscow Patriarchate are being subjected to ‘widespread and systematic attack by the rebel groups’. The report suggests that the scale of the attacks is sufficient to qualify them as crimes against humanity.

‘We went to church through the fields, trying to avoid the checkpoints’

In June 2015, we travelled to Kramatorsk, a town occupied by separatist forces for several months in 2014, to discuss religious persecution in the east, with believers and priests of different confessions.

When asked about the situation, Father Ihor, Orthodox Archpriest of the Kyiv Patriarchate in Kramatorsk, said: ‘During the occupation, my colleague, Father Oleksandr, was blackmailed. Many bishops of the Kiev Patriarchate were forced to leave town.’

Father Ihor, Kramatorsk. (c) Roberto Bianconi.

‘Here in the east, officials recognised only one confession and that was Russian Orthodox,’ Father Ihor explained.

A woman in the yard of the church where Father Ihor serves said she used to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate community, but left after the armed conflict began. ‘I heard the Moscow Patriarchate priests refused to perform funerals of the fallen soldiers…’.

Father Vasyl, who belongs to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the third largest religious community in Ukraine, told us that other confessions do not maintain relations with the Moscow Patriarchate community in Ukraine’s east.

‘Here in the east, officials recognised only one confession and that was Russian Orthodox,’ Father Ihor explained. 

Father Vasyl works in seven towns in Donetsk region. He is also one of the heads of Kramatorsk’s Church Council, a group that unites all the confessions of the town (apart from the Moscow Patriarchate). The council was set up to deal with social and humanitarian issues in the region.

‘You need two sides for a conflict,’ Father Vasyl said. ‘I always try to avoid being an extra one.’ His son serves in the Ukrainian army, and Father Vasyl himself often goes to the frontline as a chaplain. ‘I never wear body armour. Nor do I have a gun. My protection is my faith.’

Father Vasyl, Kramatorsk. (c) Roberto Bianconi.

Father Vasyl came to eastern Ukraine from the west of the country almost 20 years ago, and now works to reconcile society in times of war and destruction. ‘I’m an optimist,’ he smiled, ‘and I am doing my job. I don’t expect to see the results of my work in my lifetime though.’

Nadia Khomenko, also from Kramatorsk, is a protestant, the most oppressed community in the occupied territories as the Evangelist Church is often associated with the United States and the West in general. Together with her husband, a protestant deacon, Nadia works as a volunteer: evacuating the disabled from the frontline, providing first aid and delivering medicines.

‘The occupation was like a film,’ Nadia tells me. ‘To go to Sunday service, my husband went to church through the fields, trying to avoid checkpoints. When we approached separatist checkpoints, we deleted messages from our cell phones and logged out from Facebook. They checked us as if we were terrorists.’

According to Nadia, DPR forces are now in control of 23 Protestant churches in the Donetsk region. The churches don’t function; some of them are used for military needs. ‘In Slovyansk, they [the occupying forces] made the Dobraya Vest [Good News] Church into an armoury,’ Nadia says. ‘Now the church is open again.’

What next?

Though Russia, officially at least, observes a distinction between church and state, the Orthodox Church has become a political player closely related to United Russia, the governing party, and personally to Vladimir Putin. The discriminatory laws it supports in Russia are also enforced in annexed Crimea and the occupied Ukrainian East.

In the light of recent trends in Russian foreign policy aimed at expanding the ‘Russkiy Mir’ (Russian World), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate continues to be a tool of political influence.

Greek Catholic church in Kramatorsk. (c) Roberto Bianconi.

Even though the community belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate does not necessarily wish to reunite with Russia, the official position of the confession is clearly pro-Russian.

Since the start of the conflict, the Moscow Patriarchate has slowly lost its influence across Ukraine. Fortunately, there has been no violence against the ‘Russian church’.

Given the continuing transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church into a tool of political propaganda, Ukraine and the international community must keep an eye on violations of religious rights on the occupied territories.

The author is grateful to Maria Varenikova for assistance in researching this article.

All photographs by Roberto Bianconi.

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