War in Ukraine and its impact on religious freedom

Among the many consequences of the war in Ukraine, several recent publications highlight its impact on a variety of religious denominations, including the destruction or seizure of religious buildings. Alongside neutral efforts to assess the facts, these issues are also being used in propaganda wars. The 38th report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the human rights situation in Ukraine (March 26) reports continued intimidation of clergymen and parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) during the reporting period of December 2023 to February 2024. The UOC was formerly associated with the Moscow Patriarchate but became independent after the war broke out. OHCHR recorded six cases across five regions where groups of people forcefully broke into UOC churches, justifying their actions with decisions by local authorities to register new religious communities of the Constantinople-aligned Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) at the same addresses as the existing UOC communities. “UOC buildings and lands have been seized, with parishes coercively transferred into the state’s preferred OCU,” writes journalist Lawrence Uzzell in an article in Canopy Forum (February 18) that attempts to maintain a balanced view on both sides’ actions in the war. The UOC’s future legal status is uncertain.

Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church in the village Bohorodychne, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. The village came under attack by Russian forces in June 2022. Photo: Volodymyr Kutsenko. Source: World Council of Churches, https://www.oikoumene.org/news/500-churches-and-religious-sites-destroyed-in-ukraine-during-thewar.

While the UOC seems to be the only group whose religious freedom is under threat on the Ukrainian side, there are reports about a variety of denominations in Russian-occupied territories that are facing serious consequences of the war. In a recent summary of “the assault on Protestants and other minority faiths in Russian-occupied Ukraine,” Mark R. Elliott (editor emeritus of the East-West Church and Ministry Report) reports that Russian forces have been responsible for damaging or destroying “at least 660 churches and other religious structures, including at least 206 belonging to Protestants.” Elliott, writing in the journal Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (March), notes that, “ironically, the largest number of churches Russian forces have damaged or destroyed have been those of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with its much-debated ties to the Moscow Patriarchate.” While church buildings may well not have been specifically targeted for destruction, “minority faithful, including Protestants, have been subjected to raids during worship services” in Russian-occupied territories. Baptist and Pentecostal pastors are being pressured to transfer affiliation to Russian associations, and refusal of recognition after re-registration has allegedly led to the closing of “hundreds of Protestant churches,” Elliott writes. He adds that that this represents a continuation of what had started in the previous decade, with institutions like the Evangelical Donetsk Christian University being occupied in 2014 by separatist troops of the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, who looted the premises and expelled staff and students.

“Faith communities are under incredible pressure in occupied territories,” according to Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia. “The ideology of the Russian world is to completely monopolize religion,” he told Christianity Today (February 6). An article by Kostyantyn Berezhko, a Ukrainian historian who has conducted research on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, sheds light on the impact of the war for that specific religious group, which counts nearly 110,000 active members and 1,234 congregations in Ukraine (RISU, Feb. 26). Twenty-five Kingdom Halls have been severely damaged and 76 other religious buildings of the movement have sustained minor damage. “Those believers who remained in the occupied territory were immediately put on the list of extremists,” Berezhko reports. Many have fled those areas, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have set up aid committees to assist over 55,000 refugees, including non-Witnesses. A fifth of the members (mainly women and children) are reported to have fled abroad, mostly to Germany.

(Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, https://ukraine.un.org/en/download/156809/264355; Lawrence A. Uzzell, “Ukraine’s Religious Persecution,” https://canopyforum.org/2024/02/16/ukraines-religious-persecution; Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe, https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ree/; Kostyantyn Berezhko, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the War in Ukraine,” https://risu.ua/en/jehovahs-witnesses-and-the-war-in-ukraine_n146457)