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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Russia is waging a war against religious freedom in Ukraine

Religious freedom is under attack in Ukraine. Not from Ukrainian lawmakers, as some critics have falsely alleged, but from actual Russian soldiers.

A forgotten element of Russia’s war on Ukraine is its calculated destruction of churches and religious sites, part of Putin's physical and spiritual assault against the Ukrainian people. The U.S. must help Ukraine with both.

Russian aggression has focused on achieving physical and spiritual hegemony over Ukraine. This combination was most recently seen in late March, when the World Russian People’s Council adopted a statement overseen by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. It described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “holy war” and declared that “the entire territory of present-day Ukraine should be included in the area of Russia’s exclusive influence.”

Russia is therefore willing to bomb Ukraine into submission. According to a new report by the Institute for Religious Freedom in Ukraine, at least 630 religious sites have been damaged, looted, or destroyed due to Russian aggression. Russia’s physical and spiritual pincer movement has wrought incredible destruction upon Ukraine’s religious landscape.

Despite Putin’s claims top be a protector of Orthodox Christianity, the Institute found that “Orthodox churches suffered most damage from the Russian aggression — at least 246 in total. Of these, the churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate) suffered the most — at least 187.”

Fifty-nine churches affiliated with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine were destroyed or damaged. Over 200 evangelical and Pentecostal churches have been confiscated or ruined by Russian forces.

Evangelical pastor Ivan Rusyn described this situation when speaking to policymakers in Washington: “This war is not about our land. This war is about the very existence of our freedom, identity, values, and culture.” He shared about the destruction of his seminary and the murder of priests during the Russian occupation of his hometown, Bucha, in the early days of the war. Once it was liberated, hundreds of dead bodies were found across the city. Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Pastor Rusyn said the choice is obvious: “Fight or die.”

Russia’s abysmal domestic record on religious freedom demonstrates what is at stake should Putin prevail in Ukraine. In a rare area of agreement between the Trump and Biden administrations, both have designated Russia as a religious persecutor in every year since 2020

Russian actions are even harsher in the occupied territories. Maksym Vasin from the Institute for Religious Freedom said that “if Russia retains control over the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions throughout 2024 and beyond, Ukrainian churches and religious communities in these regions will face the same fate as believers in the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied since 2014.” 

For their report, the Institute interviewed pastors to obtain their firsthand experiences. Their stories were chilling, highlighting the war crimes involved in Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Proof of Russia’s guilt is made evident by the intentional targeting of churches and other cultural sites. 

Valentyn Syniy, rector of the Tavriski Christian Institute in the occupied Kherson region, spoke of death threats leveled at his employees by Russian officers. He quoted Russian soldiers saying, “Evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed since you are sectarians and American spies. But simply shooting you will be too easy for you. You need to be buried alive.”

After years of atrocities, these are not idle threats.

“The oppression of religious freedom continues to this day," writes Mykhailo Brytsyn, Presbyter of Grace Church of Evangelical Christians in the city of Melitopol. "Russian soldiers have taken away buildings, documents, and keys from almost all Protestant churches in the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions...Remaining church ministers are under constant pressure to obtain Russian passports.”

Policymakers need to understand that Putin opposes religious freedom both at home and abroad. But in Ukraine, various forms of Orthodoxy coexist alongside Catholicism, Protestantism, evangelicalism, Islam, and Judaism.

Reports of Ukraine shutting down Russian Orthodox churches or fostering antisemitism are unfounded. Drawing from my two decades of diplomatic experience, Ukraine stands out as a beacon of religious liberty among the former Soviet republics, while standing head and shoulders above Russia in this regard.

Russian assaults have targeted not only physical structures but also the spiritual and cultural identity of the Ukrainian people. We should take at its word Patriarch Kirill’s World Russian People’s Council, that Russia seeks to undermine the unity and autonomy of Ukraine, further escalating tensions and inciting fear among its citizens.

Russia's actions once again violate international norms and betray a fundamental disregard for the beliefs and rights of individuals and communities. In the face of such aggression, the U.S. must condemn these attacks, support Ukraine with the tools it needs to defend itself, and stand in solidarity with Ukraine to protect its religious heritage and freedom.

Knox Thames formerly served at the U.S. Department of State in a special envoy role focused on religious minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations.

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