Ukraine has become a household word during the House majority efforts to impeach President Donald Trump. But most Americans are not aware of how religious freedom has once again been impacted in that nation. The pro-Russian rebels that seized part of Ukraine in 2014 are showing what steps the Russians are taking to ensure that their views on religion are restored to their past glory. And so far, those steps are strangely similar to those of the hardliners in the Soviet Union who attempted to eliminate religion.
In March of 2014, the pro-Russian rebels seized part of Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, near the border of western Russia, has had a larger population of people of Russian ethnicity than most of the country. The tension between the Russian-identifying citizens of Luhansk and the Ukrainian-identifying citizens was exploited by the Kremlin. This was done to provide an opportunity for Russia to exert its power in the region. The rebels took over one-third of the region and renamed it the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). They declared independence for the LPR in April of the same year. And this unrecognized nation is under martial law, which has given the authorities cover to conduct violations of religious freedom and other human rights violations.
According to Forum 18 New Service, the Luhansk People’s Republic’s leaders are following in the footsteps of Moscow in prohibiting religious freedom. Writing on October 23, 2019, Felix Corley said:
Worship is banned in all Protestant churches and Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls, as the unrecognised Luhansk People’s Republic bans exercising freedom of religion or belief without permission. Courts punish those leading unapproved worship. Prosecutors are investigating an Orthodox priest on “extremism” criminal charges. With no permanent resident priest, Catholics hold Mass by Skype. With bans on clergy visiting, many communities suffer isolation.
Regretfully this is not the only way in which religious freedom has been snuffed out. The authorities in this rebel-controlled area have also taken action to prevent any form of missionary activity in the region. That means whether missionaries or other Christian leaders are from overseas or from Ukraine itself, a concerted effort to limit outside influence is standard practice. Some of those who have been barred from entering the region include the Orthodox bishop of Ukraine, a Greek Catholic bishop and priest, and several Protestant leaders. Those attending worship at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Kiev Patriarchy are harassed as well if they attempt to worship there.
Currently the rebel-led so-called government of the region has set up its own judiciary system. They are enforcing a May 2015 edict from the Ministry of Justice by Igor Plotnitsky, the then head of the unrecognized entity, banning mass events while the area was under martial law. They also use a February 2018 local religion law approved by the LPR People’s Council stating that all religious communities have to register with the Ministry. Corley reports that “the rebel Luhansk authorities insist that religious communities that have not undergone local registration are illegal.”
Pastors and other religious leaders complain that in some cases they were given no paperwork to fill out. All of the requests for approval were handled verbally. In other cases, the paperwork was completed, approval was requested, but the applications were denied verbally by the authorities. Once again, there was no paper trail.
When pressed for details to provide the number and names of groups that were approved and allowed permission to function, neither the Religious Department at the Justice Ministry nor the head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department at the Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry were forthcoming in providing Data to Forum 18. But the Ukrainian Baptist Union stated that all of its congregations filed for approval before the deadline. And all of their applications were rejected.
Corley reveals that Forum 18 attempted to interview Inna Sheryayeva, the recently appointed head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry in Luhansk. When asked why “police raid religious communities, courts punish individuals for exercising freedom of religion or belief, why Protestant churches are all closed, and why clergy cannot live permanently or visit the region,” Sheryayeva responded in good Soviet style, “We don’t have closed communities. Everything here is good. We have received no complaints.”
Many of these actions suggest strong ties and possibly orders from Moscow. Could it be that the Kremlin is seeking to reestablish the old Russian Empire? These actions suggest some influence by the Patriarchy of Moscow as it seeks to resume its influence over Ukraine as part of the area that was formerly known as the Soviet Union. With this perspective, the Russian Orthodox Church views other sects as interlopers on their territory.
The dilemma of Father Mykhailo, a Greek Catholic priest, and Father Grzegorz Rapa, a Polish Roman Catholic priest, seem to bear out this idea. Mykhailo has been prohibited from living in the area to minister to the parishioners of Christ the King Greek Catholic Church in Luhansk. Bishop Jan Sobilo told Forum 18 that the Greek priest had not been able to visit the church since the spring of this year.
Father Rapa, the priest of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish since 1993, is no longer allowed to live permanently in the region of his own church. Bishop Sobilo explained that, “He can stay there for three months, then has to be out for three months.”
During the months when Rapa is not permitted to enter the LPR, Mass has to be broadcast over the internet via Skype to the congregation in the church. “They have to set up a screen on the altar and a projector,” Bishop Sobilo told Forum 18.
Looking at the bright side, one could say that it is very fortunate that we have made such advances in social media and technology to allow this substitute for a priest. But ironically, to the bishop, the situation “is like in Soviet times.” The bishop refers to the Soviet years when a simple radio was often put on the altar of a church with no priest to broadcast Mass to the congregation. And the dilemma is that a live priest is necessary for receiving Holy Communion. So for three months, the parishioners are deprived of the Eucharist.
In the Luhansk People’s Republic, technological improvements cannot compensate for the deterioration of religious freedom.
(Source: Forum 18 News Service)
(Faith McDonnell contributed to this article.)