“Orthodox extremism”. Russia's religious wars in Ukraine

04.03.2015, 13:00

Ukrainian Christians, Muslims and Jewish people in Crimea and Donbass have met with 'orthodox extremism'. Fueled by FSB and the leadership of Russian orthodox church, patriarch Kirill in particular, it forces many believers to face experience similar to that of early Christians in pagan Rome.

“Russian Orthodox Army” and orthodox 'kazachestvo' is fighting against Ukrainian citizens in the East of Ukraine, pseudo-republic DNP has adopted orthodoxy as its official religion and is forcing out the others. The attempts to instigate hatred between representatives of different religions or confessions led to the opposite effect. Muslims are inviting Christians to their mosques, parishioners of Moscow and Kiev patriarchates are uniting.

Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine, apart from military, information and sabotage campaigns, recently added attempts to provoke religious conflicts to its 'arsenal'.

In August the Head of Orthodox Church patriarch Kirill wrote a letter to the Head of Orthodox Churches, patriarch Varfolomey, in which he accused 'uniates' (derogatory term, used by Kremlin propaganda to describe Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and 'schismatics' (Ukraine's Kiev Patriarchate Orthodox Church) in instigating religious conflict in Donbass and resorting to violence against followers of 'canonical orthodoxy' to violence. Similar appeal was sent to UN, Council of Europe and OSCE. In October representative of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev repeated these accusation in Vatican, in the presence of Pope Francis I.

Russian orthodox army

In the meantime, “Russian Orthodox Army”, as well as “Almighty Don Host”, which has official confessor from Russian Orthodox Church, are fighting against Ukrainian army and peaceful population. Representatives of self-proclaimed “DPR” have adopted a text of their own “constitution”, according to which the “most original and dominating religious belief is Orthodoxy..., as preached by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow patriarchate)”. All other confessions and religious groups in Donbass during the months of conflict have been forced to their leave, or go 'underground'.

Religious persecutions in Donbas

“More than ten priests were forced to leave with their families due to the danger to their lives. More than 40 out of 58 religious communities in Donets'k oblast' and 19 communities in Luhans'k oblast' were forced to gather at private homes or fully stop practicing their religion. There is a real threat to their lives and lives of their families”, says senior bishop of the “Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith”, Mykhailo Panochko. He added that protestants in Donbas, just like in Soviet times, are called “agents of USA”. In June, Russian militants tortured to death two pastors and two parishioners in Slovians'k – sons of the pastor of CEF “Transfiguration of Christ” Church.

Two deacons and two sons of the priest killed in Sloviansk

Militants have also murdered one of the leading representatives of Jewish community in Donets'k, and robbed his house. “Rabbis of Donets'k and Luhans'k were forced to leave, at the same time Jewish communities continue their work. There's a very delicate nuance here, let's remember that religious institutions and communities during the time of most horrible fascist occupation were trying to work for the people in places where they lived”, says executive director of Kiev city Jewish community Anatoly Sheihant during the press-conference “New extremism: religions under pressure in Crimea and Donbas”.

The hunt opened for bishops of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kiev Patriarchate (UOCKP) in Donets'k and Luhans'k, due to which they had to flee along with many other priests. Facts have been registered of Roman Catholic priests being captured.

The monastery of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in Donets'k has been seized by the separatists, bishop's residence was robbed. The head of External relations department of UGCC in Ukraine, father Oleksa Petriv condemned neighbors' attempts to incite inter-religious hatred: “Unfortunately, when someone is trying to turn religion into ideology and force everybody to follow such doctrines, extremism appears. It is very disappointing to see that the leadership of the neighboring country's church is attempting to present inter-state conflict as inter-religious one. These attempts, which have been undertaken even at international level, are profoundly immoral”.

Persecutions in annexed Crimea

In Crimea, occupied by Russia with 'little blood', there are open religious conflicts, as well. Deputy head of Crimean human rights field mission (about the only organization that is trying to follow the state of human rights on peninsula) Olga Skrypnyk claims, that “unfortunately the actions of Crimean authorities, supported by Russian Federation, are aimed at limiting as much as possible the presence of religious groups other than Moscow Patriarchate Orthodoxy (MPO)”. Almost all churches of UOCKP in Crimea have been seized, priests of this church, as well as UGCC, are being persecuted by FSB.

Video of Crimean Tatar Reshat Ametov kidnapping. When discovered, Ametov's body showed signs of a violent death

Until recently 18 young and middle aged male Crimean tartars were kidnapped because of their nationality and religion, they were Muslims. Some of them were found dead, with evidence of tortures, some of them haven't been found yet. In other words we can see a certain tendency, when people of Crimean tartar nationality, are being kidnapped and tortured”, said during the conference the Mufti of the Spiritual department of Muslims UMMA Said Ismahilov.

In Crimea Russian authorities are trying to divide spiritual movement of Crimean tartars by setting up two parallel spiritual departments, so called Tavria mufiat. Frequent searches in mosques, madrases and private homes are being carried out. Confiscated literature is considered to be extremist, despite the fact that it has never been banned in Ukraine. Representatives of civil and religious organizations constantly have to deal with various obstacles. In accordance with Russian legislation, 'missionary' activities, which religious activists from Turkey were involved in freely, now are effectively banned, as communities are forced to re-register under Russian laws. “The proof of such pressure is what current Crimean authorities and Aksyonov, who believes himself to be the head of Crimea, are doing. On 15th of October, he submitted the draft law “On the freedom of religion, religious organizations and prevention of religious extremism”. This draft in effect is aimed at maximum formalization of all religious organizations that exist in Crimea. Under such pretext they are being harassed, as this draft law demands from any religious community, any group of people, practicing their religion, to get a legal status. Obviously, form the freedom of religion perspective, the point of 'freedom' is that religion doesn't have to be connected to legal status of any sort”.

From 1st of January, 2015 parishioners may lose the last UOCKP church in Crimea: “While until now the amount of rent for the premises which our Cathedral church is occupying was 1 UAH annually, and the rent agreement was signed for 49 years, starting with the spring we received a letter from the Council of ministers of republic of Crimea, according to which the rent was raised to 600,000 UAH”, said the head of information department of Kiev Patriarch's office.

Protestant Priest Sergiy Kosiak who conducted prayer services for peace in Donetsk was apprehended and beaten by terrorists

In turn, UOCMP claims that it is their church that suffers the most from the conflict in the East of Ukraine. “Three priests were killed, more than ten were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, many were forced out of the country. Nearly fifty of our churches were either completely destroyed, or badly damaged”, quotes the statement on ROC web site. Deputy head of the Department of religions and nationalities of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, Mr Yurash has called this statement a gross over exaggeration and an attempt to offer one-sided account of the situation. He also pointed out that Russian terrorists were receiving their blessings from the representatives of Moscow Patriarchate.

Agreement despite provocations

The first victim among clergymen in Donbas was the priest from Moscow Patriarchate. Serhiy Harmash, the editor of “Ostrov [Island]” publication wrote, that on the 9th of May, in the town of Kostiantynivka, Chechen mercenaries murdered father Pavel, who served as a prior in the town of Oleksiyevo-Druzhkivka. Press secretary of the UOCMP Georgiy Kovalenko confirmed the fact of priest's death. Several churches of UOCMP, along with the hospitals, schools and residential houses were damaged by artillery shells.

When in the city of Antracyt separatist seized the premises of the church of Christians-Baptists and declared that from now the 'orthodox center' will be placed here, UOCMP has officially dissociated itself from such actions. It stated that it disapproves it, and will never accept such 'gifts'. Similar situation occurred with a seizure of the cathedral church and diocesan offices of UOCKP in Luhans'k, when the Metropolitan of Luhans'k and Alchevs'k Mytrofan (UOCMP) was offered to take over control over these premises. However, as representative of UOCMP confirmed during the meeting with Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, Metropolitan Mytrofan firmly turned down this proposition.

Parishioners and clergy of Moscow Patriarchate were hostages to Kremlin technologies for a long time. In Feb 2004, speaking to participants of VIII World Russian people council, the head of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Russian Federation gave offered following evaluation of the cooperation between the state and the church in dealing with international affairs: “...gathering of “Russian world” is the common cause for Russian state and Russian Orthodox Church”.

For the Kremlin ROC is the strategic instrument in keeping Ukraine within the sphere of its geopolitical influence, since UOCMP is subordinated to Moscow Patriarchate. This has been evident during the regular visits to Ukraine of patriarch Kirill, who repeatedly insisted that Ukraine is inseparable part of eastern-orthodox civilization, forged on the historical landscape of Holy Rus'. Pro-Russian President Yanukovich has effectively replaced the leader of UOCMP, who was defending the independence of Ukrainian church. Russian Orthodox Church is doing everything to prevent unification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of both Patriarchates.

Signing the unification act between the churches in Rivne

The attempts to incite inter-religious hatred and conflicts failed. UOCMP continues its work all over Ukraine without any hindrance. Some 20 UOCMP parishes, i.e. thousands of parishioners, have voluntarily decided to move under the protectorate of Kiev patriarchate. Recently in the city of Rivne, unification act between the churches of two local patriarchates has been signed.

In the meantime, in Crimea, as a response to persecution of the priests of Kiev patriarchate, Crimean tartars offered them to hold their services in local mosques.

ATO and Crimea