Russia uses the UOC-MP and religion as weapons to incite social tension in Ukraine — ISW report

10.04.2023, 10:02
Russia uses the UOC-MP and religion as weapons to incite social tension in Ukraine — ISW report - фото 1
Russia falsely accuses Ukraine of infringing religious freedoms against the UOC-MP, while it itself has launched real religious purges in the occupied territories of Ukraine as part of a broader campaign of genocide against Ukrainians.

According to NV, this was stated in a new report by the Institute for the Study of War.

The report analyzes in detail the religious repression that Russia has been carrying out throughout the occupied territory of Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

According to analysts, "Russia continues to use religion as a weapon, trying to discredit Ukraine in the international arena, and uses information operations about religion to promote military purposes, despite the fact that it itself commits gross violations of religious freedom in occupied Ukraine." They also warn that Russia may use Orthodox Easter (April 16) to pause and try to delay the Ukrainian counteroffensive, calling for a "cease-fire" because of alleged respect for Orthodox believers. However, Russia has not shown such respect for religion in the areas occupied by its troops. The analysts write that "Russian religious persecution is likely also part of the ongoing Russian campaign of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing aimed at eradicating the idea of an independent Ukrainian nationality or the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU)."

In support of their findings, the analysts cite several observations that are backed by detailed evidence. A brief summary of the facts includes the following: Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russian military or occupation "authorities" have committed no less than 76 acts of religious persecution in Ukraine that have been confirmed and targeted. Occupiers have closed, "nationalized," or forcibly transferred to the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate at least 26 places of worship. Russians have deliberately killed at least 29 clergy or religious leaders, and at least 13 religious buildings have been looted, vandalized, or deliberately destroyed in the occupied territories of Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian Institute for Religious Freedom, as of February 2023, the Russian military completely destroyed, damaged, or looted 494 religious buildings and killed religious leaders through massive fire. ISW acknowledges that these are just a few examples and that they cannot independently verify all these facts.

The Russian authorities systematically suppress religious freedom as a matter of state policy, even within Russia itself (as demonstrated by the Yarovaya law, which was ratified in 2016). This state policy of systematic religious persecution is then exported to the occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.

Since 2014, not just after the 2022 invasion, the Russian occupation authorities have been repressing Ukrainian religious communities in the quasi-"republics" in eastern Ukraine and in the illegally occupied Crimea.

Moscow's current campaign of religious persecution aims to eradicate the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which Moscow considers schismatic. This is despite the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch in 2019 to grant the OCU independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. An ISW study found that 34% of cases of religious persecution by the occupiers were directed against the OCU, making it the most attacked religious group.

Russian occupation forces have also attacked other faiths that are distinctly Ukrainian in culture. For instance, they captured two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests in Berdyansk in November 2022, deported them, and effectively closed the main church of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in Melitopol in December 2022. Additionally, a Protestant pastor was arrested, and his community shut down in Melitopol because of his pro-Ukrainian views.

Russia's campaign is also aimed at repressing the Protestant minority in Ukraine. Baptists accounted for 13% of the victims, the largest single group after the OCU. ISW also reports persecution of Baptists in the occupied areas of Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, Mariupol, Melitopol, and particularly in southern Ukraine. Protestants were victims of 35% and 48% of cases of repression in the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, respectively, and they account for two-thirds of cases of repression in occupied Mariupol.

According to available information, Russian soldiers have been extremely harsh against Protestants in occupied Ukraine, calling them "American spies", "sectarians", and "enemies of the Russian Orthodox people", and threatening them with extermination.

The Kremlin continues its information operation aimed at falsely presenting Russia as a religiously tolerant state, while deliberately suppressing religious freedoms in Ukraine. It presents Russia as an alleged defender of traditional "Christian values" and falsely accuses Ukraine of religious intolerance towards the UOC-MP in an attempt to gain the favor of religious communities around the world and to turn international public opinion against Ukraine.

According to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, the UOC-MP is not an independent religious organization but rather a part of the Russian state and an instrument of Russian hybrid warfare. The UOC-MP is a Kremlin-subordinate element of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which supported Russia's initial invasion of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. Additionally, Russian soldiers used UOC-MP churches as military depots, garrisons, field hospitals, and even combat positions during Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In Lysychansk, one of the priests of the UOC-MP collected information about the clergy of the OCU and gave instructions to Russian soldiers to kill a Ukrainian priest. Russian forces have punished individual priests of the UOC-MP in Ukraine who refused to cooperate with Russian troops. For instance, in February 2023, Russian troops raided the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the UOC-MP in Melitopol to register priests who refused to pray for the success of the Russian military in Ukraine or for the health of Patriarch Kirill. In April 2022, the Russian military abducted a priest of the UOC-MP who distributed humanitarian aid to peaceful Ukrainians in Kherson.

The analysts predict that Russia will continue to use the UOC-MP and religion as weapons to incite social tension in Ukraine and influence the realities of military operations. Russian troops are also likely to step up a campaign of religious repression and attempt to destroy religious organizations independent of Kremlin control, just as Russian forces did to Crimea's Muslim Crimean Tatar population after the peninsula's occupation in 2014. Therefore, international supporters of true religious freedom should support Ukraine's efforts to liberate its territories. The analysts emphasize that religious freedom in Ukraine, especially the freedom of religious minorities, is much better protected in the territories controlled by Ukraine than in Russia or in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.