Donbas and Crimea: new challenges for religious freedom in 2014
Maksym VASIN, special for the RISU
From the very beginning to year of 2014 the Ukrainian society faced extraordinary trials that also affected religious freedom. Previously, the international observers mentioned Ukraine mostly as a state with a high level of religious freedom among the other Eastern European countries. But now there are news from the occupied Crimea and Donbas torn by war, dismaying by brutality of religious persecution and complex issues of survival believers of different faiths.
These areas of Ukraine, which have become targets of Russian aggression in the socio-political crisis and a place of hostilities with the involvement of Russian troops and weapons, are an exception to the national context. In addition to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, other fundamental rights and freedoms that are generally accepted in the democratic world have in fact ceased to operate.
Religious persecution in Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russian-backed separatistsIt should be noted that in February 2014 separatism in the Donbas and Crimea was often justified by the Russian media with alleged harassment of Russian language, culture and Moscow Orthodoxy etc. In a joint appeal as of March 1 heads of the largest churches and religious organizations of Ukraine stated: “In our country there is no harassment on the basis of language, nation or religion. Therefore, we testify that all attempts of Russian propaganda to represent the events in Ukraine as a “fascist revolution” and “the victory of extremists” are completely untrue. “
The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) also repeatedly stood up to protect the religious peace: “In no case a conflict on religious grounds may be allowed. Our large Ukrainian family must be unique in diversity .” Later, after the formal approval of Russian President's decision to send troops to Ukraine, the AUCCRO stated that “bringing of foreign military forces to Ukraine is a threat not only for our country but for the peace and tranquility on the European continent as a whole.”
At the same time, on May 16, representatives of the self-proclaimed “People's Republic Donetsk” (DNR) adopted their own “Constitution,” which identified religious intolerance basis for separatists’ policy. Article 9 of this document states: “The initial and predominant faith is te Orthodox faith ... practiced by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Historical experience and the role of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) are recognized and respected, including the core pillars of the “Russian World”. Organization of a battalion of the “Russian Orthodox Army,” was announced in Donetsk, indicating the intention of separatists to impose ‘dominant faith’ with weapons in their hands on the territory of Donbas.
Since then and the end of 2014 in the territories of eastern Ukraine, controlled by militants, the growth of religious intolerance towards all Christian churches, except the communities Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) was recorded. The preferred targets of militants were religious communities of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals, Baptists, Adventists, Charismatics, etc.), which, according to official statistics, represent about 33% of all religious communities of Donetsk region.
Pro-Ukrainian position, to use of Ukrainian language or symbols also became to source of danger to life and health of citizens from xenophobically motivated separatists of Donbas. The situation in the cities of Luhansk region, under the control of local separatists of self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Luhansk" (LNR) and Russian military forces is quite similar.
In the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine motivated kidnapping pastors and priests, their brutal interrogations with beatings and torture, mass seizure of churches and houses of worship and their exploitation for military and other purposes became a standard practice of separatists.
On May 15,the Kyiv Patriarchate issued a special statement that reported the presence of “numerous facts of threats to life and health of clergy and faithful of the UOC-KP, hindering to activities of the Church in the eastern regions of Ukraine by terrorists and separatist forces controlled and encouraged Russia.” The statement indicated that armed individuals broke into the temples of the UOC-KP with the requirement to immediately move to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, the terrorists announced death penalty to the Kyiv Patriarchate priests that under current conditions poses a real threat to the life of the clergy and faithful of the UOC-KP in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
An egregious example of religious intolerance occurred in Slovyansk of Donetsk region, where on June 8, 2014, the two sons of Pastor Olesandr Pavenko and two deacons of the Pentecostal religious community “Transfiguration” were captured hostages and their personal cars were seized by armed militants of DNR during the worship service dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The next day all four believers were shot. In order to hide the traces of the crime, the fighters burned some of the victims in one of the cars, and buried other in a collective grave with the separatists who deceased in fight.
According to local residents and the media, on June 14, a pastor of the Protestant Church “Renovation”, head of the City Council of Churches Serhiy Skorobahach died of artillery shelling.
On May 16 in Slovyansk the militants of DNR seized the Bishop of Evangelical Association “Church of God of Ukraine” Oleksiy Demydovych and interrogated him about 7 hours. On May 23, in Donetsk Serhiy Kosyak, pastor of Pentecostal religious community “Assembly of God” was severely beaten at the headquarters of “DNR” after attempts to negotiate the extension of the street prayer marathons in the city center. On May 27, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland Pavel Vitek was kidnapped by armed separatists in Donetsk during the street prayers and was released after one day of captivity through the efforts of diplomats.
On June 21, armed separatists took hostage Mykola Kalynychenko, pastor of the Evangelical Church “Word of Life” in Shakhtarsk of Donetsk region, who was later released, but his car was seized. On June 26, gunmen burst into the room of evangelical “Church of Winners” in the city of Druzhkivka, Donetsk region and took to their headquarters Pastor Pavlo Liska and his wife, who were released after nearly a week of captivity.
On July 3, the DNR militants in Donetsk took captive a Greek Catholic priest Tikhon (Serhiy) Kulbaka, and held him for 12 days, during which they abused him. On July 8, in Donetsk, the separatists kidnapped a UOC-KP archpriest Yuri Ivanov, and held him hostage for three weeks. On July 15, in Horlivka in Donetsk region the DNR militants seized a Roman Catholic priest Victor Vonsovych and held him for 11 days in captivity.
On August 8, in Donetsk, separatists took prisoners two Protestant pastors. Oleksandr Khomchenko was severely beaten and punished five days of forced labor on charges of espionage against the DNR and pastor Valery Yakubenko was released by militants after days of interrogation. In October the same happened to pastor of the congregation of the Church of Seventh Day Adventists Serhiy Litovchenko who was held captive for 20 days in by the DNR militants in Horlivka.
On October 14, the capture by separatists of assistant pastor of the Church “Good News” Serhiy Saykov and his 14-year-old son Daniel in Krasnodon Luhansk region was reported. They were released after 4 days of brutal interrogation on suspicion of spying for Ukrainian army. After that, the family was forced to leave Luhansk region for western Ukraine.
These facts attest targeted religious persecution in the separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. These unbearable conditions for religious practice endanger the lives and health of many priests and believers.
Religious oppression is exerted in the Crimean peninsula occupied by Russia
According to official statistics of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, in early 2014 in Crimea, there were 2083 religious organizations, which in 1409 had the status of legal entities and 674 enjoyed the right of religious activity without state registration. In the city of Sevastopol there are 137 more registered religious organizations.
Under various pretexts, such as combating extremism, the occupation authorities of Crimea persecute people belonging to the pro-Ukrainian religious organizations. The Russian legislation on the activities of religious organizations and combating extremism was the basis for searching the believers and religious communities to ban religious literature, to requirere-registration of all religious communities. Russian authorities are trying in different ways to subjugate Ukrainian religious communities of Crimea to Russian religious centers.
Perhaps the most egregious case occurred on March 15, 2014, when the Greek Catholic priest Mykola Kvych was illegally arrested by the Crimean authorities directly in the parish of the church of the Assumption in Sevastopol during communication with parishioners. This was accompanied by a deliberate desecration of the temple and shrines, further illegal actions towards the priest, violence, searches of private apartments, interrogation for 8 hours with elements of torture.
Mykola Kvych endured death threats because of his denominational affiliation and communication and in connection with Ukrainian language that he was forbidden to use during the interrogation. The priest faced the prospect of being sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment under the law on false charges of extremism. For these reasons, on March 16, he was forced to leave Crimea.
Because of this kind of threat and the increasingly spreading atmosphere of hatred to pro-Ukrainian religious communities, all priests of the UGCC in March had to take their families to safety outside the Crimea. Similar challenges faced the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate, and others.
Soon Archbishop Klyment of the Crimean Diocese of the Kyiv Patriarchate reported the violation by the authorities of Crimea of prior written guarantees of religious freedom. It was a promise of immunity to the Kyiv Patriarchate parishes in Crimea, granted by notorious terrorist Girkin (Strelkov),who had been in charge of the security sector on to peninsula before to seizure of Slovyansk.
In particular, on April 13,te temple of the Intercession of the Mother of God church in the village of Perevalne was actually withdrawn from the Kyiv Patriarchate. Since April 21, the Russian military, who took guard of the training unit of the Naval Forces of Ukraine in Sevastopol, banned access to the temple of the Holy Martyr Clement of Rome and its rector and parishioners.
In addition, the Crimean authorities adopted a ruling to raise an incredible level of rent for the UOC-KP for the use of the Cathedral of St. Volodymyr and Princess Olga in Simferopol.
Similarly, Muslims in Crimea, most of whom are representatives of the Crimean Tatar people complained about religious oppression. Mustafa Dzemilev reported the violation of the right to privacy of Muslims in the performance of religious rites and visiting mosques, as FSB officers visited the mosque and were unlawfully collecting data, looking for possible extremists. The Muslim religious leaders complained that in the Crimea an information war against the Crimean Tatars began, and the situation in the area of information regarding the Crimean Muslims is being escalated.
As a result, on June 13, in the village of Luhove, Simferopol region of Crimea, unknown persons set on fire the Chukurcha-Jami mosque and drew a Nazi swastika near it.
On June 24, in the village of Kolchuhino, Simferopol region a Russian unit of Berkut special forces broke into the building of madrassas of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea (SDMC), when there were 13 students and two teachers. They seized several computers and arrested deputy director of the madrassas Ayder Osmanov. According to the press secretary of the SDMC, a search was conducted by the Russian Center for combating extremism, and all the previous days a fierce information training for the search of “extremists.”
There are more recent cases of religious intolerance towards Muslims of Crimea. In the evening of November 12, attackers knocked the window and entered the mosque in the village of Sonyachne, Sudak district. They dragged some wood into the room and tried to make fire on the ground floor of the mosque.
The requirement to re-registration of Ukrainian religious communities in Crimea under the laws of Russia FederationA separate problem was the requirement of occupation authorities for mandatory re-registration of all religious organizations in Crimea in accordance with Russian legislation before 1 January 2015. Federal Law № 124-FZ as of 05.05.2014 provides a slightly modified procedure of re-registration of legal entities in Crimea, which contains many restrictive rules.
According to the certificate of the Ministry of Justice (which is not a legislative act), to set up a local religious organization in Crimea it is not required to provide documents confirming the existence of a religious group in a particular area for at least 15 years, as provided by federal law. However, the believers of Crimea are forced to comply with the other provisions of Federal Law№ 125-FZ“On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” dated 26.09.1997, which significantly restricts their freedom of religion unlike the laws of Ukraine.
As an example, religious organizations in Crimea have faced the following problems:
- Re-registration of religious organizations in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation is possible only under two conditions: 1) entry into a centralized religious organization of a relevant religious confession; or 2) state religious examination in the manner prescribed by order № 53 of the Ministry of Justice as of 18.02.2009 "On State Religious Expertise".
- In accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Justice, in reregistration of centralized and local religious organizations the original version of the current Statute of the religious organization registered in accordance with Ukrainian legislation shall be provided along with the a document confirming its registration as a legal entity (for review, followed by a return to the applicant) . Such a requirement is not provided by the legislation of the Russian federation that gives reason to see this hidden risks for believers and religious communities.
- In accordance with Federal Law № 125-FZ as of 09.26.1997,only the Russian citizens may establish a religious organization with legal entity status. Therefore, this requirement makes the believing Crimean residents adopt Russian citizenship, and in case of failure they are effectively being denied the right of association in a religious organization with capacity of a legal person.
Moreover, in contrast to Ukrainian law, which does not impose any conditions for religious communities without a legal entity status, Federal Law № 125-FZ as of 09.26.1997requires the founders to be subject to a full procedure of establishing a religious community, even for the activities without a legal entity. Obviously, this requirement is correlated with the restriction of state registration of independent religious groups that have existed less than 15 years, and makes it prevents the activities of communities not being a part of a Russian religious center.
As a result, re-registration of religious organizations in Crimea mean that they can not continue to refer in their work on Ukrainian law, because under Federal Law№ 124-FZas of 05.05.2014, “their personal law is the right of the Russian Federation.”
Another problem for the Crimean believers is to Russian policy towards foreigners. The Federal Migration Service of Russia has not extended the term of the residency for foreign nationals working in the Crimean religious communities. As an example, the Roman Catholic parish in Simferopol remained without its parson Fr Peter Rosohatsky who is a citizen of Poland and has worked in Crimea for 5 years. The Greek Catholics face similar problems, as they complained of forced rotation of priests due to the limitations in staying on the peninsula for a period not exceeding three months.
Since March 2014, religious persecution in te cities in eastern Ukrainecontrolled by Russian-backed separatists (a lesser art of Donetsk and Luhansk regions) acquired monstrous proportions and shapes - the murder and torture of religious leaders and the faithful, seizure of other religious buildings (churches, houses of worship, monasteries, rehabilitation centers, etc.) and teir use by militants, including as fire-positions. Almost all Christian communities and religious leaders faced threat to their lives and health, with the exception of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and some others.
At the same time, the military aggression of Russia in the Crimean peninsula, followed by annexation has led to complex legal issues related to the inability of the religious organizations registered under the laws of Ukraine to operate on the peninsula. The Russian government officially demanded reregistration of religious communities in Crimea in accordance with the Russian law and their entry into the Russian religious centers and subordination of all entities to the jurisdiction of Russian law.
These challenges to religious freedom that Ukrainian state faces, are beyond the internal political competence as they are related to aggressive military actions of militarist Russian state. Therefore only effective joint efforts of the whole international communitycan help restore religious freedom in the occupied Crimea and Donbas, which sometimes is closely connected with the right to life.
© 2015 The Institute for Religious Freedom, Ukraine