Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has included increased violence against religious leaders and widespread attacks on religious sites, according to a recently issued report.
The Ukrainian-based Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF) reported at least 270 houses of worship, religious educational institutions and sacred sites such as cemeteries were either destroyed or damaged during the first five months after Russia began its assault in late February. The report covers the military aggression ordered by President Vladimir Putin through July 15 and analyzes the state of religious freedom in Crimea since Russia invaded and took over the Ukrainian region in 2014.
Russia’s attacks on religious liberty “have become crueler” since its Feb. 24 invasion that has included the subsequent annexation of eastern regions of Ukraine, the report said.
“If previously priests [in] the occupied territories only received death threats, now religious leaders are tortured and killed – again, but on a scale far worse than in 2014,” according to the report.
“If previously Russian occupational authorities expelled Ukrainian believers from their churches and prayer houses, now Russia is destroying the spiritual heritage of Ukraine with missile attacks, shelling, and looting of religious buildings without justification by military necessity.”
Brent Leatherwood, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “We are well aware of the human toll that Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion has taken on the people of Ukraine. Now we are learning details about the ways Ukrainian churches have suffered from Putin’s invasion — and they are ghastly. From religious leaders being targeted and tortured to churches being shelled and taken over, the cruelty and evil displayed by these invading forces is nothing short of ghoulish.
“America and our allies must make it clear these attacks are unacceptable and that Russia’s retreat from Kherson should be followed up by leaving the nation of Ukraine entirely,” he told Baptist Press in written comments.
Ukraine gained a major military victory Nov. 11 when Russian troops retreated from the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian religious leaders delivered the 36-page report, which was published in September, to members of Congress during the week of Nov. 6-12, veteran journalist Mindy Belz reported on her “Globe Trot” website.
In its list of recommendations, the IRF called for the Senate to pass and President Joe Biden to sign into law the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act. The bill would direct the president to consider conditions in Ukrainian regions occupied by Russia when deciding whether it is a “country of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom. The House of Representatives approved the legislation by a 421-4 vote in April.
Of the 270 or more religious buildings or sites damaged by the Russian military, the IRF reported 108 belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate. The religious groups with the next highest number of damaged locations were the Baptists (43) and Pentecostals (42). The largest number of attacks on buildings occurred in eastern regions and the north central region of Kyiv, where the capital is located.
While Russian media and religious leaders have defended the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to protect Orthodox adherents of the Moscow Patriarchate, the UOC’s congregations have suffered the most from the widespread shelling and missiles, the report said. The armed forces’ artillery and aircraft “are destroying both houses of worship and believers, regardless of language, denomination, and ethnicity.”
This destructive approach resulted in the conclusion “that Russia would rather eliminate whole cities and destroy the Ukrainian historical and spiritual heritage than accept the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and sovereignty,” according to the report.
As in other locations, Russian forces turned the site of a Christian ministry in the Kyiv region into their headquarters, the report said.
“[I]t wasn’t just the building of our religious mission that was destroyed,” said Denis Gorenkov, executive director of Mission Eurasia Field Ministries, in the report. “Russian soldiers purposefully burned Gospels printed in Ukrainian, and a lot of our educational literature aimed at families, public life, and educating church leaders.”
The IRF reported at least 20 cases of illegal incarceration by the Russian military of Ukrainian religious leaders of various faiths. The victims told IRF their imprisonments were accompanied in many cases by torture, real death threats, attempted rape and threats of harm to their family members.
In Melitopol, Russian soldiers raided and closed the city’s three largest Protestant churches, Belz wrote in a report based on information from Release International. They interrupted the worship service of Grace Baptist Church, registered those in attendance and gave Pastor Mikhail Brisyn 48 hours to leave the city, according to the report.
In addition to urging the Senate and President Biden to act, the report’s recommendations also included:
Personal sanctions by the European Union (EU) and others against Russian officials, religious leaders and other individuals “responsible for justifying and (or) implementing repressions” against faith leaders and communities.
Support from the E.U., United States and other United Nations (U.N.) members of Ukraine’s attempts to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian military.
As of Oct. 22, civilian casualties in Ukraine had totaled 6,374 killed and 9,776 injured since Russia’s invasion, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. More than 7.8 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded across Europe, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported Nov. 8.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)