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Nothing is Sacred: persecutions and crimes against religious leaders in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine

Dome lies next to the ruined Church of the Holy Mother of God ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’
in Bohorodychne village, the Donetsk region.
Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and occupation of parts of the Ukrainian territories, Russia has been systematically committing mass war crimes, the essence of which is set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The main ideological concept behind the Russian aggressor and all those crimes is the doctrine of a “Russkiy Mir” or a “Russian world”. 

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), through its participation in the dissemination of the concept of the “Russian world”, is, in fact, advocating aggression against Ukraine, while hiding behind “pseudo-values” based on the aggressive defense of Russian culture, language, and traditional Russian Orthodoxy in close association with the Russian state. The ROC spreads the same narrative among other churches in its sphere of influence (especially the Serbian and Polish Orthodox Churches). 

In particular, its leader, Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev), in his church sermons calls the aggressive war against Ukraine  “sacred”, justifies Russian war criminals, and does not object to the involvement of Russian clergy in different positions in Russian military units that carry out armed aggression against Ukraine. 

Such policy and behaviour of the Russian Orthodox Church is unacceptable from the point of view of the tenets and traditions of Christianity. It is a deliberately subversive ideology that contradicts the Christian faith and contains signs of the heresy of “ethnophyletism” (used when certain national interests are placed above religious doctrine. In the case of the Russian Orthodox Church – it is justifying the aggressive policy of expansion of the Russian state power in the war against Ukraine with pseudo-religious arguments, – author).

From this ideology of the Russian Orthodox Church, it becomes quite clear that Moscow, which is trying to justify itself by “protecting traditional values”, but in fact persecutes believers, forcibly deports and illegally kidnaps children, rapes and pillages the population under temporarily Russian occupation. In its current policy, the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to systematically deceive the international community and spread disinformation, as analysed and discussed by experts from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on 29 February 2024. 

History of cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government

The close cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian leaders goes back to the times of the Russian Empire. During the reign of the Russian Emperor Peter I, the Holy Synod was established and the Russian Orthodox Church in fact became another institution of the state apparatus, losing its patriarchate as one of the attributes of church autonomy. During the Soviet times, especially after the end of World War II, this cooperation became even closer. 

The majority of episcopalians of the Russian Orthodox Church have cooperated to some extent with the KGB and GRU (soviet intelligence agencies) — including European diocesan bishops, some of whom continue to work with the country’s intelligence agencies. Today, the ROC functions more like a formal Russian Federation governmental office than it does an independent religious organization. This has been especially true since Putin first became Russian president in 2000.

The alliance between the churchʼs hierarchy and the state government is among the ways Putin spreads pro-Russian narratives and the concept of a “Russian world” in the United States and Western Europe. In Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s interpretation, Russian-dominated civilization encompassing territories far beyond Russian or former Soviet borders. Both leaders have weaponized this philosophy, using it as justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The prerequisites of this ideology have been used to justify Russiaʼs other armed conflicts, namely its involvement in the Transnistrian conflict and the invasion of Georgia in 2008. After that, this worldview supported Russiaʼs 2014 occupation of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk region, and then – the full-scale war against Ukraine. 

Position of the international Christian community about the concept “Russian World”

After the full-scale invasion in 2022, Russia goes further still by denying Ukraineʼs right to exist as a sovereign, democratic state. At the same time, the denial of the independence of the Ukrainian Church, which has been systematically carried out by the Russian authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church throughout history, is being promoted even more intensively. In this regard, the international community of Christian religious leaders, scholars, and public figures (Orthodox, Catholic, as well as a number of Protestant churches) published a declaration condemning the doctrine of the “Russian world”, which states that this pseudo-teaching is one of the foundations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and also emphasises the fact that the Russian church leadership has not responded in any way to the obviously criminal aggression of the Russian authorities against the Ukrainian people. 

At the same time, the Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with a written request to condemn the doctrine of the “Russian world” as a heretical doctrine from the point of view of Orthodoxy. On December 9, 2022, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spoke about the deep religious and cultural ties between Kyiv and Constantinople and the tradition of Greek Orthodoxy. At the same event, he strongly condemned the doctrine of the “Russian world” and emphasised the countless victims in Ukraine, the destruction of church monuments, cultural heritage, and infrastructure that is taking place as a result of Russian aggression, with the “Russian world” as its cornerstone.

“Patriarch Kirillʼs ambiguous stance on the war and his support for President Putinʼs policies have drawn sharp criticism in the Orthodox world and beyond. Meanwhile, the Russian Church is using state means to consolidate its influence on the canonical territory of other Churches, contrary to the most elementary rules of the church organisation of Orthodoxy. Its intervention in Africa is presented as punitive actions against the Patriarchate of Alexandria for recognising the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Obviously, in these circumstances, the peacekeeping role of the Church is very difficult.” – Patriarch Bartholomew.

Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, damaged by Russia’s missile attack on July 23, 2023.
Photo: Valentyn Kuzan

This is exactly what the Holy Bible says: “By their fruits you will know them. Does one pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? … [Bible: Matthew 7:16-17].”

As Patriarch Bartholomew already noted in his speech, the Russian authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church under its auspices carry out punitive actions against those churches that disagree with their policies and ideological beliefs. Such repressive methods concern not only the Patriarchate of Alexandria on the African continent but are also widely used against Ukrainian religious leaders who remained in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. 

The Russian governmentʼs policy of collaboration with the ROC is characterized by a systematic and aggressive approach towards other Christian churches, as well as Muslims and representatives of other religious denominations who do not align with the aforementioned policy of Russian aggression and the seizure of other identities.

Persecution of the Christians in the temporarily occupied Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions from 2014 to 2022

After the occupation of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, Evangelical Christians, Orthodox communities of the Kyiv Patriarchate (after the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly to the Orthodox Church on January 6, 2019 – a part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, – author), Greek Catholics, Jehovahʼs Witnesses, and Muslims became the main targets of religious persecution by the Russian occupation authorities. 

In particular, the media reported an incident in the temporarily occupied city of Horlivka, the Donetsk region, when armed Russian occupation forces forced the Seventh Day Adventist house of worship to stop the service, forced people to disperse, and abducted and held pastor Serhii Lytovchenko in captivity. 

In August-September 2014, the Russian occupation forces in the Luhansk region closed all the houses of worship of Evangelical Christians in the town of Rovenky. 

On March 27, 2018, in the temporarily occupied city of Stakhanov, the Luhansk region, Russian occupation forces looted a church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and in July of the same year, they declared the churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists “extremist” and their activities “destructive”.

In addition to the outright ban on these churches, the occupation forces actively spread disinformation about Protestant churches, calling them “sectarians” and “American spies”. In 2015, Taras Sen, pastor of the “Christ is the Answer” christian protestant church, carried out a church service in the temporarily occupied city of Sverdlovsk, the Luhansk region. He was arrested in September 2015, declared a “spy”, kidnapped, and severely beaten. One of the representatives of the security forces told him that they would shoot people like him, the pastor recalls. 

Persecution of the Muslim population of Crimean Tatars in the temporarily occupied Crimea

According to the report on Russian attacks on religious freedom in Ukraine, Russians are persecuting the Islamic population who disagree with the aggressive occupation of the peninsula, as well as the obsessive policy of subjugating the Muslim communities of the Crimean Tatars to imam who supports the occupation of Crimea. 

The Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Crimea, Ayder Rustemov, notes that absolutely far-fetched charges are being brought against Crimean Tatars: people are arrested for their point of view, disagreement with Russia’s invasion in Crimea, for talking about religion in the kitchen, in a mosque, etc. 

At the same time, Russia does not hesitate to use local organizations if they act in alliance with their occupational policy. The Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol may be an example of the latter. The head of the organization, Emirali Ablaev, has been repeatedly mentioned in connection with the persecution of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula by Russian special services and supporting the Russian army. Representatives of this religious community feel quite free under the Russian authorities, as they are quite loyal to both Russian officials and their collaborators, as evidenced by the relevant testimonies.

Crimes against religious leaders after the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022

Not long after the full-scale invasion in 2022, there were more and more cases of persecution and torture of priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in the Russian-occupied territories. One of the most terrible stories was the torture of an Orthodox priest, Father Stepan Podolchak, in the village of Kalanchak in the temporarily occupied Kherson region. The Russian invaders broke down the door, then put a bag over the priestʼs head and took him in an unknown direction. Two days later, they called his wife to come identify the body. According to Bishop Borys (Kharko), Father Stepan was shot by the Russian military for refusing to work with the occupation authorities.

  Archpriest Stepan Podolchak.
Photo source:

In addition to the physical destruction of the clergy, the Russians also use repressive measures of forced deportation, as is known from the case of Father Sviatoslav Petersky, an OCU priest from the city of Melitopol, the Zaporizhzhia region. The 74-year-old priest was forcibly evicted from the city by Russians because he did not recognise the results of the “pseudo-referendum” on the accession of the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

There is another story of two priests from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ivan Levytskyi and Bohdan Geleta. In November 2022, they were abducted by the Russian military in temporarily occupied Berdiansk, the Zaporizhzhia region. They remain in detention, but it is still unknown what their condition is and where they are being held. An additional aggravating fact is that Father Bohdan Geleta has diabetes, which further complicates the conditions of his detention and poses a direct threat to his life.

Update: Ivan Levytskyi and Bohdan Geleta were released from Russian captivity in prisoner of war exchange on June 28, 2024.

Fr. Ivan Levytskyi and Fr. Bohdan Geleta. 
Photo source: Media Initiative for Human Rights

The numerous cases of religious persecution, kidnapping, and deportation of Ukrainian religious leaders, destruction of churches and houses of worship, and the dissemination of false information about the alleged “goal of protecting” Christianity and values its in Ukraine, indicate that the Russian invaders are engaged in a systematic campaign with the aim of destroying Ukrainian religious communities and identity. 

In reality, their actions demonstrate a cynical disregard for religious freedom and community cohesion, as evidenced by their use of totalitarian and violent methods to subjugate other peoples and destroy religious identity and traditions. In this crime, they are direct “students” of the totalitarian communist regime. In fact, they abuse, rob, and oppress religious communities in the same way as the Soviet secret services did approximately one hundred years ago. According to the Religion on Fire project report, in the first year of the full-scale invasion, at least 415 religious buildings were damaged as a result of the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine.

Before and after photo of the St. George monastic chapel hit by a Russian rocket on May 9, 2022.
Photos: Sviatohirsk Lavra website, Yurii Kochevenko

As for Russian war crimes, the Holy Bible say: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A person will reap only what he sows.” [Bible: Galatians 6:7-8]. There will be appropriate consequences for all these criminal and inhumane actions.

Autor: Vladyslav Havrylov, a researcher with the “Where Are Our People?” advocacy campaign by PR Army, and a research fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University