Wednesday, February 28, 2024

    Religious leaders from Ukraine on U.S. visit tell of repression in Russian-occupied areas

    Repression against all religious minorities, as in Soviet times, returned to the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. Ukrainian evangelical churches, branded by Russian propaganda as “American agents”, “sectarians”, or “extremists”, are particularly suffering from the persecution.

    This was testified by the delegation of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations during meetings in the U.S. capital, reports the organization’s press service.

    The delegation took part in a roundtable discussion at the United States Peace Institute involving American experts and opinion leaders.

    The head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine and current Chairman of the organization, Stanislav Nosov, reported that 27 Adventist prayer houses were damaged as a result of the Russian invasion, of which six were completely destroyed. He also reported cases of religious shrines being vandalized.

    As an example, in occupied Horlivka, Donetsk region, the Russian occupation authorities turned an Adventist house of prayer into a funeral parlor, where coffins were put up for sale in the church hall.

    At the same time, Anatoly Kozachok, Senior Bishop with the Ukrainian Church of the Evangelical Faith, reported that the Russian military had completely destroyed seven prayer houses of Pentecostal Christians. Another 63 prayer houses were damaged as a result of Russian shelling or targeted looting.

    “It is obvious to us that Russia seeks to destroy Ukrainians in general, as a nation, as the people of Ukraine, as well as to destroy any idea of an independent Ukrainian state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy began to flourish in Ukraine, true freedom of religion appeared, and religious pluralism was established. However, now Russia seeks to destroy all this and imposing the ideology of the ‘Russian world’ in the occupied territories of Ukraine, which involves the complete destruction of Ukrainian identity and brutal repression against all those disloyal to the occupiers, as well as all religious minorities,” said the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, Yakov Dov Blaich.

    During a panel discussion at the Peace Institute, Metropolitan of the Philadelphia Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church Borys Gudziak emphasized that every time the Russian state occupies the territory of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church loses its legal status and suffers persecution. This was the case under Queen Catherine, in the 19th century, in the 20th century, when the Church was liquidated, and this is what is happening now. Ukrainian Churches and religious organizations know that the Russian occupation means restrictions or even the destruction of religious freedom, he noted, adding that there are almost no serving Catholic priests left in the occupied territories.

    Ukrainian religious figures took part in a separate meeting on the issue at the U.S. State Department, where they met with Rashad Hussain, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. The delegates testified that a high level of religious freedom remains in place in Ukraine and no church has been shut down. Instead, the Russian authorities weaponize religion as a propaganda tool and force religious communities to cooperate with the FSB (formerly KGB), including in the occupied territories.

    “The situation in Russia is even worse than it was during the Soviet Union. If the communist government was separated from church because of its atheistic ideology, now the Kremlin has total control over all churches and religious organizations in Russia and is using them to promote the war against Ukraine. Therefore, Russian religious figures, who are complicit in the Kremlin crimes, should not be perceived only as spiritual figures. Instead, it is appropriate to impose sanctions on them as propagandists who perform the orders of the Kremlin,” emphasized Metropolitan Yevstratiy (Zorya), a representative of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

    On the same day, Ukrainian religious leaders met with experts from the Heritage Foundation, a strategic research think tank. The discussion touched upon the role of the religious community of Ukraine in protecting the values of democracy, rule of law, freedom of religion, family foundations, and other conservative values.

    A separate meeting was also held with the leadership of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As a result, an agreement was reached on the expansion of partnership with religious communities of Ukraine for the provision of humanitarian aid and the implementation of educational projects in support of the people of Ukraine, who are suffering from Russian aggression.

    The delegation of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations consists of representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Church of the Evangelical Christian Faith, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Evangelical Church, the Union Jewish Religious Organizations, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine and Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Bible Society, as well as the leadership of the Institute of Religious Freedom.

    After a trip to Washington DC, Ukrainian religious figures will visit Houston, Texas, where they will hold a series of meetings with local religious figures, politicians, and opinion leaders. The visit is supported by the American foundation RAZOM.