Religious freedom is under threat in Ukraine. Some question by whom?
A Ukrainian delegation to last week’s International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, had a clear answer: Russia. Led by Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia, it presented “Faith Under Fire,” a December report detailing the crimes of war in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.
“Faith communities are under incredible pressure in occupied territories,” he told CT. “The ideology of the Russian world is to completely monopolize religion.”
International lawyer Robert Amsterdam, however, warned that Ukraine was attempting the same control over one half of its divided Orthodox church.
Initial legislation passed by the Ukrainian parliament in October, he said, threatened to “ban” the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the branch canonically linked to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) patriarchate in Moscow. In response, Amsterdam sent a 25-page dossier to the US, UK, and European Union heads of state on the UOC’s behalf.
“There is now a very serious question mark over whether Ukraine can meet its commitments to human rights and the rule of law,” the dossier stated. “This will have dire ramifications for Ukraine’s entry into the European Union and its place in the Western world.”
The authors of both reports share a common enemy.
Mykhailo Brytsyn, the lead author of the Mission Eurasia report, is a Ukrainian pastor who was previously arrested by the Russians during a worship service in Melitopol, occupied by Russia since March 2022. He was later exiled, and the army seized his church and turned it into a military base. Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer with offices in DC and London, was also previously arrested in Moscow for defending Russian dissidents and subsequently banned from the country.
The United Nations is monitoring both Russia and Ukraine.
At a November meeting of the body’s security council, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights noted the yet-to-be finalized law in Ukraine and chided the country for failing to properly investigate 10 documented cases of violence at houses of worship, instigated by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) against the Moscow-linked UOC.
The OCU was granted autocephaly—national independence—by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in 2019, supported by the United States under the principle of religious freedom. But the move was rejected by the ROC, which continued in ecclesial jurisdiction over the UOC.
The UN official, Ilze Brands Kehris, continued her testimony to state that Russia is violating international norms by applying its own law in occupied territory, detailing restrictions on minority believers.
Rakhuba noted that there are many such restrictions.
“This war is not just territorial, it is ideological,” he said. “Religious freedom is missing from Russian terminology.”
Image: Ukraine Institute for Religious Freedom
Citing a concept called Russki Miir—“Russian World”—Rakhuba, a Ukrainian who previously worked with the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in the Soviet Union, contended that the ROC works hand-in-hand with the Kremlin to marginalize other Christian denominations. Since the invasion, the Russian military authority in the occupied Donbas region has steadily replicated that formula.
Rakhuba described three phases.
In the first, from the January 2022 invasion until April of that year, the Russian army ignored churches in eastern Ukraine as it concentrated on strategic gains. Phase two, which stretched until October, witnessed several “friendly conversations” between officials and the clerics summoned to report. Light threats were made at this time, with inducements offered for cooperation.
Phase three, ongoing since then, has involved the outright seizing of churches.
Protecting the believers still there, the Mission Eurasia report—already outdated in its numbers as the war continues—shielded the names of denominations struggling to maintain their spiritual witness. For one, only 4 of 48 churches were still operational. In a second, only 1 of 20. And a third no longer conducted services in any of its 16 locations.
The report described canceled registrations, personal surveillance, and the kidnapping of religious leaders. It cited another report that counted 12 clerics expelled from the region, another 8 taken prisoner, and 5 killed.
Image: Ukraine Institute for Religious Freedom
But it is not just religious minorities. OCU priests have been forced to join the ROC. And even some in the Moscow-affiliated UOC have been harassed for refusing to pray for Russian victory.
In May 2022, the UOC announced it was cutting ties with Moscow. Hundreds of Ukrainian priests signed an open letter calling for Patriarch Kirill, the head of the ROC, to face a religious tribunal. The leader of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufriy, called Kirill a fellow primate rather than his religious superior, and stopped mentioning Kirill’s name in liturgical prayer. But reporting—and Ukrainian testimony—stated that not all dioceses have followed suit.
“Coming out of the Soviet period, freedom became a value—a right, not permission,” said Rakhuba. “Ukrainians understand this, but it is not yet part of our DNA.”
The OCU recognizes religious liberty, he continued, but many senior priests in the UOC do not. Some have been openly collaborating with Russia, and Onufriy deposed three top bishops, two of whom fled to Russia. Between February 2022 and October 2023, Ukraine opened 68 criminal proceedings against UOC representatives and found alleged evidence of pro-Russia sentiment at the 11th-century Kyiv–Pechersk Lavra complex, known as the Monastery of the Caves.
The long-term UOC lease to the historical site has not been renewed.
Amsterdam stated that many of the charges against UOC priests are spurious. As many monks refuse to vacate the Lavra, he cites the case of Metropolitan Pavel, detained without bail for allegedly “offending the religious feelings of Ukrainians.”
But Rakhuba’s report shows they have much to be offended at. Alongside violations against individuals and denominations, at least 630 church structures have been damaged or destroyed as of December 1, 2023, according to data from the Institute for Religious Freedom in Kyiv. Occupied Donetsk (146) and Luhansk (83) are the cities with the highest number of affected churches, followed by now-liberated Kherson (78) and then Kyiv (73). The UOC—Ukraine’s largest church—has suffered the most with 187 damaged churches, while the OCU counts 59.
Despite their minority status, evangelicals represent about one-third of the total with 206 cases. Pentecostals (94) and Baptists (60) have the most affected churches; Jehovah’s Witnesses have an additional 110. Furthermore, the theological libraries of Tavriski Christian Institute and Mission Eurasia were deliberately destroyed.
Image: Ukraine Institute for Religious Freedom
Such information may be crucial to keeping robust American support for the war, stated Razom, a Ukrainian-American human rights organization. Only 28 percent of US evangelicals supported congressional authorization of additional funding for Ukraine last October, compared to 44 percent of all Americans, according to a Razom survey. But when presented “factual information about Russians persecuting Ukrainian believers,” 55 percent of evangelicals said they would be more likely to approve.
Many Ukrainian Orthodox have made their choice clear: 589 communities have transferred from the UOC to the OCU. But of the remaining 8,193 parishes, the vast majority have not officially indicated their separation from Moscow.
Why might it be required?
The current draft of the law passed by the Ukrainian parliament prohibits the activities of religious organizations that are “affiliated with the centers of influence” in an enemy state. Ukraine stated that it is not a ban and that each local entity will be subject to judicial investigation. Revisions may follow, but, alongside the UN, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed “serious concern” that it might become a ban in practice.
But Rakhuba brought many delegates to DC to say otherwise.
“We see the UOC as the ideological—I won’t even say spiritual—arm of the ROC in Ukraine,” he said. “Putin’s propaganda has been spreading in the West.”
Including the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights and the head of the State Service for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience, delegation representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox bodies of Ukraine are keeping focus on the clear offenses of the Russian Federation.
The UOC, however, was not invited.
Rakhuba does not believe they are sincere in their denunciation of the war and their independence from the ROC. And having a representative from their church in the delegation would disturb his colleagues—as each entity witnesses to the violations committed by the UOC mother church. Kirill, for example, has blessed the war and promised forgiveness of sin to martyred soldiers.
In December, Ukraine placed the Russian patriarch on its wanted list for abetting the conflict.
The next month, the interdenominational Ukrainian Christian Churches (UCC) issued a statement condemning Kirill and ROC Russki Miir ideology. It also expressed support for the position of the interreligious Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) in its worldwide appeal for Christians to pressure their affiliated denominations in Russia against their claims of genocide.
The UOC was not among its 11 signatories.
But it is one of the 16 member bodies of the UCCRO—which only speaks in consensus. Vyacheslav Horpynchuk, bishop of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, is a member in both groups and does not know if the UOC was invited to sign the UCC statement. Yet it would not surprise him if they were not.
“The UOC needs to work hard to regain the confidence of other Christian leaders,” he said. “If they called Russia to repentance, they would be welcome among us.”
Horpynchuk said the UCCRO meets regularly, usually in person, every three months. Formed in 1996 to keep interfaith peace after the fall of the Soviet Union, it also includes representatives of Ukraine’s Muslims and Jews. Usually the group’s statements pertain to social issues or pending religion-related legislation, but since the Russian invasion, all members, he said, were clear in condemning the attack.
But there were differences in terminology. The UOC spoke of “civil conflict” and “misunderstandings,” while the other member denominations called it a war. This has disturbed some, Horpynchuk said. Christians should speak clearly against sin.
Yet as the war continued, the Moscow-linked body has increasingly brought the council pleas against government discrimination against it. Nonetheless, officially the UOC has lent its support for statements against Russki Miir as the ideology of a “terrorist state” while calling for an international tribunal to prosecute leading officials.
But with the reports of arrests of UOC clerics and of collaboration with Russia in the occupied territories, Horpynchuk thinks the Lavra lease cancellation and the Ukrainian parliament legislation to sever Kremlin relations are “fair.” And to a degree, the disfavor against the UOC is ironic; for years, many in UOC churches have called OCU members “schismatics.”
Unfortunately, the UOC’s political struggle to keep faith with both Moscow and Ukraine has soiled relations, even as they keep formal UCCRO unity.
“The Lord calls us to love, even if it is hard with our brothers in fellowship with Russia,” said Horpynchuk. “But I pray that love spreads throughout Ukraine, for with this we will overcome the enemy.”
One cleric, however, is no longer in fellowship.
Originally in the UOC, Ukrainian priest Cyril Hovorun was transferred by then-Metropolitan Kirill to the ROC in 2009. Since the war, he has been a critic of Russia and was formally defrocked in December for celebrating Communion with Constantinople-aligned churches—though he believes the real reason is political.
As for his formative church, he has mixed feelings.
“The UOC was sincere in distancing from Moscow but not in cutting off relations completely,” said Hovorun. “Its decisions regarding Moscow are easily reversible.”
Analysts have noted that the May 2022 decision may not have actually broken ties with the ROC, as the UOC’s Onufriy had previously appealed for independence of administration, granted by the Moscow patriarchate in 1990 prior to Ukraine’s independence. Hovorun emphasized that there was no canonical judgment to separate—which the UOC cannot unilaterally issue anyway.
Meanwhile, he said that certain prominent UOC bishops continue to pray for Kirill, while few are critical about the ROC taking over UOC churches in occupied territory—as they are the same church.
“Speaking theologically, in Ukraine there is one church with two jurisdictions,” Hovorun said. “The UOC is effectively a bunch of dioceses of the Russian church in Ukraine. How it imagines itself is something else.”
The UOC did not reply to a request for comment.
At the same time, Hovorun sees some in the Ukrainian government pushing to merge the UOC into the OCU. As for the religious freedom implications of the law—it is still pending its final version. Observers will have to wait and see.
But according to Ukrainian churches, per the UCCRO, the offenses of Russia are obvious. And in support of his nation, Rakhuba is keen to present his findings.
“People are terrified that if Russia takes over Ukraine,” he said, “the first thing they will do is intimidate people of faith.”