While many aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian war—such as the annexation of Crimea, the shootdown of passenger airliner MH17, and the creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church—have been widely discussed by experts, the plight of religious minorities in occupied eastern Ukraine has largely gone ignored.

One of the participants at the US Department of State’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was Oleksandr Zaiets, the board director of Ukraine’s Institute of Religious Freedom (IRF). Following the ministerial at a follow-up event hosted by the US-Ukraine Foundation, Zaiets discussed the findings of IRF’s recent report on the status of religious freedom in occupied eastern Ukraine. The report finds that the pro-Russian proxy regime in eastern Ukraine is enacting coercive policies that severely infringe upon the religious rights of civilians living inside the so-called “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk:

Most churches and faith-based communities in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with the exception of Orthodox parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate, are now forced to cease their religious activities or to significantly restrict them and to act in the underground.

In the aftermath of Russian aggression, nearly all Jews in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk have relocated to safety in Kyiv. While Jews maintain de jure and de facto ownership of their synagogues, there is basically no Jewish religious life for those who remained in occupied eastern Ukraine.

This is a deeply disappointing reversal of religious freedom progress that has been made in the region over the past two decades. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has become a state with strong religious diversity. Since independence from the yoke of communism, Orthodox Christians (Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, and Russian Orthodox Kyiv Patriarchate), Muslims, Jews, Protestant Christians, and other religious minorities (such as Buddhists, neo-pagans, and Hare Krishna) have coexisted in relative peace in Ukraine. 

The report finds that Russia’s sponsorship of separatism in Ukraine has resulted with threats to religious liberty unheard of since the Soviet era. IRF’s report reads:

There is no doubt that the religious factor has been used as one of the tools of the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine, in which deceitful propaganda and the destabilization of society motivated by religious, ethnic and language differences play an essential role. By provoking splits and public anger, the Russian authorities paved the way for further military intervention and occupation… Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Adventists and other Evangelical Christians are experiencing the great oppression by the occupation authorities in eastern Ukraine. In 2014 there were frequent reports of illegal arrests, beatings, tortures and even the killings of Evangelical Christian pastors and clergymen.

After Russian-backed separatists invaded eastern Ukraine, they began commandeering Protestant church property for military applications—actions that echo those of early the Bolsheviks who confiscated church property for the Soviet state in the twentieth century. The report highlights the case of Donetsk Christian University (DCU) as one prominent example of this type of exploitation. DCU is an educational institution that was founded by three Ukrainian unions of Baptists. Its campus, which includes 21 acres of land and a hostel with 75 rooms, has been transformed from a place of learning and worship for students into a military base for Russian proxy forces.

Russian Orthodox Extremism

Regarding the so-called “separatists’” relationship with Orthodox minorities (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Kyiv Patriarchate), the Moscow Patriarchate encouraged their priests and clergy to appropriate the Kyiv Patriarchate’s church buildings and property. While most of the Kyiv Patriarchate’s churches and buildings have not been commandeered like Protestant churches, they have been effectively shut down, and religious services are no longer conducted.

Russian Orthodox extremism remains an important motivation factor for some separatist fighters. One of the Moscow-backed separatist battalions in the region, the Russian Orthodox Army, openly supports building an “orthodox state.” One militant from the Russian Orthodox Army stated on film that he would not allow “either Baptists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Catholics, or Greek Catholics” to return occupied Ukraine. He boldly exclaims, “There is only one faith, Orthodoxy. I am Orthodox. It was left to us by our ancestors, and the Baptists are schismatics. It’s American propaganda. It fills the heads of our people, the Russians, the Slavs… I took up arms so that we could have an Orthodox state.”

Russian Orthodox chauvinism reared its ugly head in the city of Sloviansk in June 2014 when Russian proxy forces, commanded by the infamous war criminal Igor Girkin, killed Alber and Ruvim Pavenko, the elder sons of an evangelical pastor who leads the Transfiguration of the Lord congregation. The pastor’s two sons, along with two of the congregation’s deacons, Viktor Brodarskiy and Volodymyr Velychko, were driven out of Sloviansk city limits and shot. The car used to transport them was torched and the crime scene was doctored to make it appear as if the four were killed by a Ukrainian army mortar strike. 

Registration Laws and Coercion

According to IRF’s report, the occupational authorities have adopted laws on “combating extremism” which “have become instruments for terrorizing religious minorities, combating dissent and any expressions of opposition.” Among these laws include registration laws that require all churches, except churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, to register with the occupational authorities. According to the law, any church that fails to register will lose their building and property. In a discussion at the US-Ukraine Foundation, Zaiets stated that every Protestant church that applied to register in occupied Luhansk had their applications denied. Thus, it appears that the laws’ primary purpose is for identifying religious minorities for harassment and exploitation.

According to the laws, unregistered churches and religious organizations are not allowed to congregate in groups larger than five people. Most Protestant churches do not wish to register with the occupational authorities but cannot openly protest their predicament as they fear for their personal safety. According to the report, Leonid Padun, the senior bishop of the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church, claims that most evangelical Christians in occupied eastern Ukraine have consequently been forced underground:

Since it can still be threatening for the believers’ lives to come together for worship, the local religious communities have to do it secretly, without publicly announcing the place of their meeting. It is all the more dangerous to hold any street activities, to pray and preach the Gospel publicly, or distribute Christian literatures—all these kinds of religious activity have become dangerous for Evangelical Christians in this region. In addition, the seized church buildings are not simply taken away from believers, but completely looted. 

As a result, nearly all Protestant congregations in the region exist in perpetual danger and have been forced underground.

Disinformation Propaganda

According to Zaiets, Christians who are not affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate are targeted by aggressive disinformation propaganda campaigns. Many inhabitants of the occupied territories identify believers who worship in churches affiliated with the Kyiv Patriarchate or Greek Catholic Church with Ukrainian far-right nationalism and neo-Nazism.

Further, several Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, are portrayed as spies and foreign agents. This propagandistic narrative is assisted by Protestants’ supposed American ties and the fact that Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council and the former acting president of Ukraine immediately following the Euromaidan Revolution, is an active Baptist. For pro-Russian separatists, Turchynov’s Baptist faith is evidence of his allegiance to nefarious Westerners and betrayal of proper Slavic Orthodoxy.

Zaiets similarly stated that Protestant believers remaining in occupied eastern Ukraine are sometimes detained in prison for up to 15 days and coerced by local security forces to denounce themselves as foreign agents. Thus, religion has become a dimension of Russia’s larger propaganda information warfare strategy:

The above mentioned dominance of Orthodox parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in eastern Ukraine refutes the thesis of Russian propagandists on the justification of military intervention by the motives for the protection of Orthodox believers, since the Ukrainian government in every way provided religious freedom for any denomination here. Instead, the occupation authorities imitated Russian experience, using a religious factor to strengthen their illegal power.

Unfortunately, demonizing Christians who are not members of the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate has become common tactic for Russian chauvinists, even those who self-identify as Christians. Their false teaching maintains that lack of loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate is tantamount to apostasy.

Religious rights are human rights. There is a clear case for Christians to support international religious liberty. The recent episodes of Russian-sponsored terrorism in eastern Ukraine highlights how the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate is used as a strategic foreign policy arm of the Kremlin. The occupational authorities’ and the Russian Orthodox Army’s persecution of religious minorities and so-called “non-traditional denominations” in Donetsk and Luhansk is evil and deeply un-Christian. While Orthodox extremist militants may be brainwashed to believe they are building heaven on earth, in actuality they are pawns caught in the trappings of Vladimir Putin.

While the situation in eastern Ukraine is grim, Zaiets is confident that persecuted religious minorities will play an important role in the eventual reintegration and spiritual renewal of war-torn eastern Ukraine. It is critically important that supporters of the persecuted church and proponents of international religious liberty raise awareness for persecuted religious minorities in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.