No surprise, the Soviet Union was one of the great religious persecutors. There is nothing more fearsome to totalitarian dictatorships than being challenged by those claiming loyalty to a transcendent realm that lies well beyond the political one.
The collapse of the Bolshevik state freed the Russian people to worship as they felt led by God. Russia, the largest successor state, suffered a huge spiritual and moral vacuum and drew in once-banned evangelizing faiths. Alas, that set up a clash with the Orthodox Church, which acted for many — including, it seems, Russian president Vladimir Putin — in claiming to embody Mother Russia.
That has led to an increasingly repressive campaign against smaller, more-vulnerable sects, which grow through proselytizing. Russia has effectively banned Jehovah’s Witnesses — arresting, imprisoning, and torturing scores of believers and confiscating hundreds of millions of dollars in church property. Mormons as well have recently been arrested (though deported rather than imprisoned).
However, persecution merged with politics even more brutally in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backed local separatists. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom rated Russia a tier-1 persecutor, warranting treatment as a “country of particular concern.” Reported the USCIRF: “Russia represents a unique case,” being “the sole state to have not only continually intensified its repression of religious freedom since the USCIRF commenced monitoring it, but also to have expanded its repressive policies to the territory of a neighboring state, by means of military invasion and occupation. Those policies, ranging from administrative harassment to arbitrary imprisonment to extrajudicial killing, are implemented in a fashion that is systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”
Many have suffered, in Russia generally, in Chechnya and Dagestan, and in Crimea. The USCIRF explained that “the Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political stability, an approach inherited from the Soviet period.” Groups must register; the government can regulate their activities; at the instigation of the Orthodox Church, the state treats blasphemy as a crime; evangelism and worship by disfavored groups are treated as extremism and terrorism; and “religious groups not affiliated with state-controlled organizations are treated with suspicion.” The government, now nationalist rather than Communist, treats the Orthodox Church as a de facto state church.
Moreover, the USCIRF noted, “in Russian-occupied para-states of eastern Ukraine, religious freedom is at the whim of armed militias not beholden to any legal authority.” As war zones, the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk “remain heavily militarized war zones policed by parallel ‘Ministries of State Security.’” Unsurprisingly, “basic human rights, including freedom of religious belief, are under intense pressure in these territories.” Churches must register, but no churches that are non-Orthodox or that belong to the Kiev patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been approved. Members of non-favored denominations “have been subject to arrest, torture, and murder. Churches were seized or destroyed, and parishioners were intimidated.” Whatever Russia’s justification for intervening in Ukraine, the suppression of freedom of conscience cannot be justified.
The crimes promoted by Moscow are detailed in a new report, “Religious Freedom at Gunpoint: Russian Terror in the Occupied Territories of Eastern Ukraine,” from the Institute for Religious Freedom, underwritten by the Institute of Geopolitical Division and Mission Eurasia. The IRF found that abuses began as soon as pro-Russian separatists took control in April 2014. Anti-Semitic pamphlets first appeared. Then came “kidnapping and illegal imprisonment, emotional abuse, physical torture and even murders of unwelcome clergymen and believers of ‘non-traditional denominations.’” The result is “a real nightmare for local religious communities that did not experience such persecution even during the Soviet terror times. This was also accompanied by the seizure of churches and houses of worship, some of which were used as firing positions and barracks for militants, mercenaries and regular Russian troops.”
Ukraine has had a tortured political existence as an independent nation, but it has respected freedom of conscience. In 2014 the Orthodox Church, both the Moscow and the Kiev patriachates, made up more than half of the religious organizations in both Donetsk and Luhansk. But there was an abundance of other faiths and churches. For the first time in decades, people enjoyed liberty in faith.
However, that changed when the separatists took control. They sought to eliminate dissent, any hint of backing for the Kiev government. And they claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church had been oppressed, encouraging creation of an Orthodox state. The end result is that “most churches and faith-based communities in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with the exception of Orthodox parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate, are now forced to cease their religious activities or to significantly restrict them and to act in the underground.”
The persecution could hardly be worse. Houses of worship have been seized. Street gatherings are banned. Identification as a believer leads to additional punishment. Public evangelism is impossible. Literature cannot be distributed. Participation in common public activities, including hospital and prison chaplaincies, is barred.
The separatists make few distinctions among those viewed as foreign and those who are native but non-Orthodox. According to the IRF, “both large and small religious communities in eastern Ukraine, first of all, Evangelical Christians, Orthodox of the [Kiev] Patriarchate, Greek Catholics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are perceived by the separatists as a threat to their undivided and arbitrary power.” They are labeled “sectarians,” accused of “extremism,” and arrested.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, have been arrested and tortured. They have been prohibited from continuing their religious activities and the church is effectively banned. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church “also became an object of targeted attacks by the occupation authorities.” Mormons faced particular animus because they were viewed as an American faith.
Muslims also are persecuted. In Donetsk, authorities “raided the mosque” and “confiscated prayer books and other religious literature, sealed the premises, and then took the imam and parishioners of the mosque to interrogation.” Literature was banned. Muslim organizations were closed. Moreover, “Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Adventists and other Evangelical Christians (Protestants) are experiencing the greatest oppression by the occupation authorities in eastern Ukraine.” Evangelical ministers were subject to frequent “illegal arrests, beatings, tortures,” and even killings.
The IRF interviewed Leonid Padun, senior bishop of the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church. He explained that, “since it can still be threatening for the believers’ lives to come together for worship, the local religious communities have to do it secretly, without publicly announcing the place of their meetings. It is all the more dangerous to hold any street activities, to pray and preach the Gospel publicly, or distribute Christian literature.”
However, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church might be the most victimized. From the IRF report:
From the very beginning of the Russian aggression, the bishops, priests and believers of the UOC of the [Ukrainian] Patriarchate in general, pastoral care of believers in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and humanitarian service to war-affected people were perceived by the separatist leaders as a direct threat to their power in eastern Ukraine. Because of intimidation, arrests, and threats of being shot by the Russian-backed militants, all bishops of the [UkrainIan] Patriarchate gradually left the occupied region.
Obviously, the crimes being committed in eastern Ukraine are many. The separatists have not stopped there, however. Again, from the report: “The religious situation in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine is further aggravated by the fact that the Russian-backed occupation authorities have begun to ‘legalize’ their crimes against believers and religious communities, trying to hide them from the international community under the umbrella of legitimacy.” The new authorities “adopted so-called ‘laws’ on religious activities and on combating extremism, which, like in Russia, have become instruments for terrorizing religious minorities, combating dissent and any expressions of opposition.”
The best that can be said is that persecution has ebbed. Nevertheless, according to the report, “although the worst abuses have declined since 2015, Christian minorities have remained subject to raids, harassment, fines, and official slander. Information about religious freedom violations is difficult to obtain because communities fear reprisals for complaints to human rights and foreign news organizations.”
Religious persecution by Christians is rare. Most religious persecution is perpetrated by Muslim regimes and authoritarian or atheist governments, most notably those that are Communist and formerly Communist. Russia and its Ukrainian dependents, however, are persecuting in the name of the Christian church. That makes their offenses even worse. How can Christians criticize governments of majority-Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist governments for persecuting Christians if regimes claiming to represent Christianity do the same?
As long as the U.S. and Europe are at odds with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists, there is little they can do directly to improve religious liberty in the region. Nonetheless, Washington and Brussels should lose no opportunity to embarrass Moscow publicly for persecuting Christians in the name of Christianity. Although religious liberty cannot drive American foreign policy, U.S. officials should promote fundamental human freedoms when practical. Now is such a time.