Russia targets Ukraine's believers
New report highlights hundreds of attacks on churches, synagogues, mosques, and faith leaders
An investigation into Russian attacks on religious sites in Ukraine found that more than 270 houses of worship and religious institutions have been damaged or destroyed since the February invasion. Russian soldiers continue to seize church property in occupied areas, turning churches and seminaries into military bases. They have detained and abused clergy, in some cases torturing them.
The report published by Ukraine’s Institute for Religious Freedom provides the first compiled documentation of the toll of Russian attacks on religious institutions. It comes as gains by Republicans in the U.S. House could curtail future U.S. support for the war effort. Congress also has before it the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act, which passed the House in April, to combat violations taking place since Russia’s 2014 capture of Crimea.
A delegation of church leaders from Ukraine delivered the report this week to lawmakers in Washington, along with firsthand videotaped accounts of abuse against religious communities. They meet today in Nashville for a consultation with U.S.-based Ukrainian support organizations and faith-based groups.
“We are talking to U.S. officials about fundamental principles violated in the Russian invasion, with specific stories of particular people and religious leaders detained by Russia, tortured, kidnapped, and faced with atrocities,” said Oleksandr Zaiets, president of the Institute for Religious Freedom. He spoke to me by phone in Washington. “We also want to emphasize the role of Russian religious leaders in spreading hatred against Ukraine and supporting the invasion.”
Far from protecting the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine, as Russian propaganda claims in its justification for the eight-month war, the targeted attacks on civilians and their churches are war crimes, the report charges. Such crimes “may indicate the existence of special genocidal intent aimed at destroying the Ukrainian people,” it said.
Civilian infrastructure everywhere has been the target of Russian attacks, but clergy and local residents testify to deliberate shelling of churches, shooting at shrines and tearing down crosses. In some cases, soldiers removed Ukrainian-language Bible literature and burned it in the streets.
While such attacks occurred nationwide, most took place in the Kyiv region and eastern Donetsk. They target all denominations, along with Jewish and Muslim centers, but predominantly churches affiliated with the Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s Orthodox community since 2018 has been divided between churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate and those under a Kyiv-based hierarchy. At least one church, located in Irpin outside Kyiv, switched its affiliation from Moscow to Kyiv after it came under targeted shelling, Russian soldiers stormed the building and set up a sniper post from its bell tower.
Why target Orthodox churches while claiming to support them?
“Russia just used the idea of protecting the Orthodox Church,” said Zaietes. “In reality their desire is to ruin Ukrainian statehood, to destroy Ukrainian people and their self-determination, and the religious and cultural diversity of Ukraine.”
The destruction highlights an important distinction between Russia-based and Ukraine’s Orthodox churches, said Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria, the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
“Ukrainian Orthodox is the same as Russian Orthodox, followers of the same branch of Christianity, yet the difference between [the] Ukrainian approach to Orthodoxy and Russian is huge. The Russian Orthodox Church as an institution is totally dependent on government. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is dependent on ordinary people, not controlled by the government or political leaders. Therefore inside Ukraine the church enjoys a high level of trust from society. The general design of this invasion by Russia is to destroy those institutions and break the trust Ukrainians have for them.”
“Inside Ukraine the church enjoys a high level of trust from society. The general design of this invasion by Russia is to destroy those institutions and break the trust Ukrainians have for them.” —Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria
As Russian soldiers seize church property, including Christian schools and seminaries, and turn their buildings into military bases, Zoria fears the church will be seen as an organ of the state.
Attacks on property continue in Russian-occupied areas. In Melitopol, a city in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian troops in recent months have raided and shut down the city’s three largest Protestant congregations. They stormed Grace Baptist Church while a worship service was underway, halting congregants singing a hymn, registering their names, and detaining clergy. They gave Pastor Mikhail Brisyn 48 hours to leave the city.
Zaiets confirmed that the churches in Melitopol remain closed and under Russian control. His investigation also documents at least 20 cases of illegal detentions and abuse of clergy.
Sergiy Chudinovich, a priest in Kherson, described how Russian soldiers held him in a cold dark basement room, beat him with a baton, and attempted to rape him.
“Eventually, I signed a document stating that I would voluntarily cooperate with the troops of the Russian Federation,” he said. “I am very ashamed that I showed weakness and could not overcome it somehow. I was scared.”
Russian military commanders this week ordered a retreat from Kherson, a strategic port city in southern Ukraine. The withdrawal is a major setback for President Vladimir Putin, but even as it begins today Ukrainians are wary it could set a trap for further attacks.
Zaiets said his organization continues to monitor attacks on religious institutions, and plans to issue another report early next year. The current report is being translated into other languages, and distributed to diplomats and the UN mission in Kyiv.
Archbishop Zoria said,
“All types of support [are] needed, and we ask for the churches in America to keep Ukrainians in their prayers. We face what may be the most hard and dangerous winter in Ukrainian history. No one knows how we will get through this winter with drones and missiles shelling us. We pray for the spread of trust and truth that saves lives.”
According to Daniel 2, the church cannot be destroyed. It is a kingdom that cannot be destroyed and does not end. It grows and fills the whole earth. And on a personal level, the kingdom of God is within you, says Jesus to his disciples.