By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — A new report concludes that Russia is systematically persecuting believers of several faiths in Ukraine as part of a campaign of “cultural genocide.”
“We see that Russia is now exporting (its) policies of state repression with laws in occupied Ukraine, which the Russian government considers to be Russia,” George Barros, geospatial intelligence team lead and Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), told OSV News.
Barros and his fellow analysts at ISW, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization based in Washington, released an April 9 assessment of religious repression in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022, when the Russian Federation launched its full-scale invasion of that nation.
The invasion continues aggression begun by Russia in 2014 with the attempted annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
With some 66,000 war crimes reported since February 2022, Ukraine has filed charges of genocide by Russia with the International Court of Justice. More than 19,300 Ukrainian children have been abducted by Russia over the past year, according to Ukraine’s government. On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, charging the two with the war crimes of “unlawful deportation” and with the “unlawful transfer” of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
ISW has closely monitored Russian aggression against Ukraine for several years, and said in its April 9 update that Russia is also “committing gross violations of religious freedom.”
Affected religious groups include the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Latin Catholic Churches, as well as Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical Protestant, Mennonite, Pentecostal and other Christian communities. Islamic and Jehovah’s Witness congregations also have been targeted.
Among the violations are the capture and killing of clergy; looting, vandalism and destruction of houses of worship; raids, searches and detention of congregants.
Several places of worship have been closed or nationalized, particularly those of the OCU, created in 2018 after breaking with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely aligned with the Kremlin. Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has blessed his country’s invasion of Ukraine, assuring his followers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople formally recognized the OCU as an autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox church in 2019. Between 65% to 80% of Ukrainians self-identify as Orthodox Christians.
In ISW’s report, Barros and his colleagues calculated that since Feb. 24, 2022, “Russian authorities have closed, nationalized, or forcefully converted at least 26 places of worship to the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, killed or seized at least 29 clergy or religious leaders, and looted, desecrated, or deliberately destroyed at least 13 places of worship in occupied Ukraine.”
The ISW report said such cases of religious repression, which represent “only a small subset of all reported Russian religious persecution events” in Ukraine, are “not likely isolated incidents but rather part of a deliberate campaign to systematically eradicate ‘undesirable’ religious organizations in Ukraine and promote the Moscow Patriarchate.”
ISW warned that Russia also “continues to weaponize religion … to discredit Ukraine in the international arena,” while “using information operations about religion to advance military objectives.”
In particular, “Russia may use the upcoming Orthodox Easter holiday on April 16 … to delay Ukrainian counter offensives by calling for a ceasefire out of respect for the Orthodox religion, despite the fact that Russia has shown no such respect for religion in areas its forces occupy,” said the ISW report.
The Kremlin seeks to recast the Ukrainian government’s efforts to prevent Moscow-friendly Orthodox clergy from compromising Ukrainian defenses, said Barros.
“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is not independent. It is an extension of the Russian state,” said Barros. “Ukraine’s government is taking measures to undermine the influence of the ‘fifth column’ that is the Russian Orthodox Church. But to some it looks like (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky is shutting the church, which is a distortion of the reality.”
Russia’s marketing of itself as a pious guardian of civilization, which has appealed to some Western conservatives, is dubious, said Barros.
“The Kremlin tries to put forward a narrative that Russia is this bastion of traditional values and conservatism, and the protector of Christianity in a secularized world,” he said. “But if we look objectively at Russia, it’s actually the opposite.”
Abortion and divorce rates are high, while church attendance is “very low” and “perfunctory,” said Barros.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 46% of all unintended pregnancies in Russia between 2015-2019 ended in abortion. Divorce reached a seven-year high in Russia during 2021, reported The Moscow Times. Attendance at Orthodox churches in Russia is about 1%, according to statistics cited by Massimo Introvigne, founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions.
Russia’s HIV epidemic — affecting some 1.1 million, and “primarily driven by intravenous drug use” — has been “silenced,” said researcher Ulla Pape in a January 2022 article published by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.
Such statistics, along with the ISW’s report on Russian religious persecution, helps to “put the puzzle pieces together,” said Barros.
“Deporting (Ukrainian) children, Russifying territories, organized repression and persecution of Ukrainian religious elements — this really is one (overall) effort to destroy the idea of a distinct Ukrainian people,” he said.