The Atlantic Council, upon the visit to Washington of a delegation of high-level religious leaders from the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) to highlight the impact of Russia’s ongoing invasion on religious communities and Ukraine’s religious freedom. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, reports:
Russia’s full-scale invasion has changed the nature of religious life in Ukraine. Religious communities have been forced to confront the violence of the invasion and adapt as members are impacted by the war, including suffering war crimes and facing religious persecution at the hands of Russian occupation forces.
Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine stated that Ukrainians are “eyewitnesses of Russian atrocities.” This was echoed by Chief Rabbi Bleich, who stressed that Ukraine’s religious leaders “represent millions of people that were displaced, the women and children being killed every single day.” Further emphasizing the impact of the Russian invasion on today’s Ukraine, Bishop Ivan Rusyn of the Ukrainian Evangelical Church said the war “is about the very existence of our freedom, identity, values, and culture.”
The delegation acknowledged the importance of Ukraine’s pluralistic religious landscape and addressed concerns, often spread by those questioning the legitimacy of aid to Ukraine, about the religious climate in the country. Freedom of religion is a critical part of modern Ukrainian society. In stark contrast, the Kremlin authorities in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have suppressed these freedoms along with other basic human rights.
As Bishop Ivan Rusyn explained, those living in temporarily occupied territories are being targeted simply for practicing a faith different to that imposed by Russia. An investigation into Russia’s religious persecution in occupied regions of Ukraine found 43 cases of targeted persecution of clergy and more than 109 acts pressuring churches and religious figures representing Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Expert testimony at the United Nations has highlighted incidents of violence against Ukrainian religious communities included disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and unlawful deportations perpetrated by Russian forces against clergy and members of religious communities.
Beyond Russian-occupied territory and across the whole of Ukraine, religion has been physically targeted. In a February 2023 report, the Institute of Religious Freedom found that nearly 500 religious sites and spaces were damaged, destroyed, or looted during the first year of the Russian invasion.
Bishop Rusyn stated that AUCCRO members do not consider the recent draft legislation to be a threat to religious freedom in Ukraine. Instead, he and fellow panel members emphasized that the protection of religious freedom should not be used as an excuse to permit Russian influence.
In his closing remarks, Ambassador John Herbst drew attention to Russian propaganda narratives surrounding religion in its war on Ukraine. One of the main lines of propaganda employed by the Kremlin and its proxies depicts Ukraine as a nation of Nazis, despite substantial evidence debunking such claims.
Russia’s claims are particularly troubling in light of the Kremlin’s own record of persecution. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the Russian authorities have continued to persecute religious minorities across Russia as part of a wider crackdown on Russian civil society.
Glory to Ukraine!