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Closure of churches and raids on priests: What happens to religious organisations in the occupied territories

We talked to religious scholar and member of the Religion on Fire project team, Anton Leshchynskyi, about Russian crimes against representatives of various religious organizations in the occupied territory.

Closure of churches and raids on priests: What happens to religious organisations in the occupied territories
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«Religion on Fire» is a project aimed at recording and documenting the damage to religious buildings caused by the Russian army’s military operations in Ukraine, as well as the murders, injuries, and abductions of religious leaders from various denominations. Throughout the war, the project team has been gathering data on war crimes committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine, targeting religious communities of diverse faiths.

Anton Leshchynskyi: Over the past two years, our field team has conducted extensive work across several regions including Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv, identifying over 150 sites—churches, mosques, and prayer houses—that have been either destroyed or damaged due to military operations.

While there have been relatively few cases of murders or abductions of Ukrainian religious leaders, such incidents have occurred. Most recorded cases of abductions or murders of clergy or religious organization staff were concentrated in Kyiv Region. In Kharkiv and Chernihiv, the predominant issue was the occupation of religious sites by Russian military forces, leading to these sites becoming military targets and subsequently being shelled.

In the Kyiv region, many priests sought refuge in evacuation centers during the conflict, returning only after their villages were liberated.

There were instances where we were unable to interview clergy who may have been present at their churches during specific events. This was partly due to the Orthodox community in Ukraine experiencing a significant transition from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2022. This transition sometimes led to closures of churches by departing priests, with new priests from the OCU subsequently taking over. However, not all Orthodox clergy in the Kyiv region accepted these transitions.

One poignant example is the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God of Pochayiv in Bucha, described to us by a local priest. Situated on the city’s outskirts, this church was occupied by Russian forces who took refuge in its basement and church house while attempting to advance from the north of Bucha.

In one incident, a Russian soldier attempted to steal a church icon that had caught his interest. However, believers and evacuees from Donbas who had sought shelter in the same basement defended the icon fearlessly, despite the presence of machine guns and the soldier’s intimidating demeanor.

About the Protestant priesthood

Anton Leshchynskyi: During the initial two weeks of occupation and fighting in Kyiv Region, there was a significant event involving a large group of refugees from Gostomel. They sought refuge in the Ukrainian Humanitarian Institute, which, despite being a secular institution, operates under the patronage of the Adventist Church. Leading this group of over 150 people from February 25 to March 9, 2022, was an Adventist pastor.

Their narrative transcends mere church activities; it revolves around the compassionate care provided to a sizable community of refugees. This included addressing their urgent needs for medicine, food, and water in an environment lacking electricity, water, and heating. The group received additional support from a team of volunteers under the leadership of Volodymyr Koval, a businessman from Gostomel.

Read also: With a bag over my head, I heard the sound of a gun: a journalist’s story after 15 days of Russian captivity

«In Kyiv Region, the occupiers were afraid of Ukrainian resistance»

Anton Leshchynskyi: The persecution in the occupied territories varies significantly from the motives observed during the initial fighting and occupation of Kyiv Region.

In Kyiv Region, cases of abductions and persecution were predominantly driven by the occupiers’ apprehension of Ukrainian resistance. Individuals were directly accused of espionage or sabotage in support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

This was the case of the priest Maksym Kozachyna from Rozvazhiv, a village near Ivankiv in the Kyiv region. Maksym Kozachyna was killed in the first days of the occupation in his native village, presumably because the occupiers discovered he had been a chaplain during the ATO. His car was stopped in the middle of the village, and he was dragged out and shot.

There were two other cases involving direct accusations of aiding the AFU. The first involves Oleh Bondarenko, a minister at the Vosor rehabilitation centre in Motyzhyn, run by the Pentecostal community. He was detained during a raid by Russian soldiers, who stormed the centre under the false belief that Ukrainian defense fighters were hiding there. During the raid, patients and the minister were seized. The soldiers mistook tattoos on the minister’s body for Ukrainian Armed Forces insignia and beat him. Later, he was tied to a quadcopter and taken to their headquarters under threat of execution if he fell.

Oleh Bondarenko was detained alongside Olha Suhenko, the head of the Motyzhyn village council, who was later killed, exposing him to torture. However, after the liberation of Motyzhyn, the occupiers fled so hastily that they forgot about him, and he was eventually released.

Yevhen Guryanov, a car mechanic from Bucha, was less fortunate. He became involved in the incident with the Gostomel refugees mentioned earlier. The pastor leading the group entrusted him with the keys to their premises just before the evacuation from Bucha. Subsequently, Guryanov was visited by occupiers who accused him of adjusting artillery fire for the Ukrainian Armed Forces against Russian positions. He was arrested and transported through Belarus to Russian territory. As of August 25, 2023, when this story reached our group, he remained in Russian captivity with little hope of being included in exchange lists. The Russian side refused, arguing that Guryanov was a civilian and only military personnel could be included in exchanges.

Thus, in the Kyiv region, the occupiers’ fear of Ukrainian resistance was evident.

Is there persecution of UOC (Moscow Patriarchate) priests

Anton Leshchynskyi: However, in the currently occupied territories, the nature and motivation of persecution vary, particularly among different denominations. For instance, the persecution faced by Greek Catholics or clergy of the OCU differs in motive from that experienced by Protestants.

The UOC also faces persecution, which takes the form of a crackdown on dissent. In these occupied areas, UOC parishes and dioceses are being forcibly transferred under direct control of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Not all UOC clergy agree with this transfer, and those who express dissent risk being reported to church authorities and relevant bodies within the occupation administration.

An illustrative case of such persecution is that of Father Konstantin Maksimov, formerly a protopriest of a UOC church in Tokmak. In May of the previous year, the Diocese of Berdiansk, which includes Father Konstantin’s church, was transferred to direct subordination to the ROC. Around the same time, Father Konstantin voiced his opposition to this transfer to Artem Sharlay, head of the occupation administration’s department for ethnic, religious, and Cossack organizations. In May, while traveling to Crimea, he disappeared in the Chongar area.

For a prolonged period, there was no information about Father Konstantin’s whereabouts until the Forum 18 team, a Norwegian human rights group focusing on religious freedom, discovered that he was under investigation at Simferopol Detention Centre No. 2. He has been charged with espionage in favor of Ukraine.

On 6 June of that year, his trial commenced, culminating in a verdict on 31 July by the Zaporizhzhia Occupation Court sentencing Father Konstantin to 12 years in prison. As of 2 February 2024, he remains in SIZO No. 2. However, Forum 18 experts express concern that he may be transferred to serve his sentence in Russia.

Read also: 20 years in prison for speaking Ukrainian on social media: the story of a kidnapped volunteer from Melitopol

About Islamic organisations

Anton Leshchynskyi: Islamic organizations in the occupied territories are facing persecution due to discontent over their communities, formerly under the jurisdiction of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, potentially being transferred to the Russian Spiritual Administration of Muslims or the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea under the occupation authorities.

The case of Rustem Asanov, the imam of Birlik Mosque in the village of Shchaslyvtseve, Kherson region, illustrates this situation. In 2022, Russian servicemen, including representatives from the North Caucasus, visited Rustem Asanov. They conducted a search of the mosque and confiscated books that they deemed incorrect in their interpretation of Islamic doctrine. Approximately one-third of the mosque’s library collection was seized. Rustem Asanov himself was detained and subjected to torture. Currently, the mosque remains closed.

On the persecution of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Anton Leshchynskyi: The OCU and the UGCC, Ukrainian churches in Russia, are considered schismatic and heretical, necessitating the cessation of their activities.

In Melitopol, priests are expelled to Ukrainian territory after Russians close and confiscate their churches. Alternatively, priests face arrest and confinement in labor camps in occupied territories or deportation to Russia, residing in deportation centers.

The situation differs for Protestants, who are not officially persecuted. Artem Sharlai suggested to Forum 18 that law-abiding Protestant organizations need not fear in Russia, implying that persecuted Protestant groups may have compliance issues with Russian laws.

Russian occupation authorities invent administrative pretexts and pressure Protestants with allegations of registration violations or unauthorized missionary activities.

In Melitopol and Krasnodon (Sorokyne in Donetsk region), church properties and worship houses are confiscated without explanation, and community gatherings are banned. When congregants gather privately, police raids ensue.

There have also been numerous cases where, for far-fetched reasons, community pastors have been fined or threatened with prosecution if they do not stop their activities and dissolve the community. This was the situation in Krasnodon. The Baptist community there was subjected to exactly this kind of pressure. And we had a similar situation in Melitopol, where as many as three Protestant churches were closed in 2022. In 2023, this trend continued, as the fourth Baptist church in the city was also closed.

Read also: A year and a half of ignorance: how the Russians kidnapped a grain businessman

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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