War continues to ravage eastern Ukraine, where conflict erupted in April 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the violent actions of pro-Russian separatists.
Along with forcing at least 1.6 million people from their homes, the ongoing conflict has also resulted in the persecution of Protestant pastors and churches throughout the territories that are occupied by pro-Russian separatist groups. One such group is the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), which is located in Ukraine’s Luhansk region and declared independence in May 2014.
While the international community does not recognize the LNR as a legitimate state, this group’s totalitarian power is growing. During the last four years, the LNR has committed numerous acts of religious persecution against Protestant pastors and churches (as well as other pro-Ukrainian Churches) in the Luhansk region, including abduction, torture, and property confiscation. In fact, on March 27, 2018, the LNR raided the House of Prayer, a church in Stahanov, taking everything and leaving the church completely empty.
The following is a brief summary and analysis to create awareness about the LNR’s new religion law and appeal to the international community to create pressure on the LNR and support our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who are losing their freedom to worship and living in constant fear as they suffer for their faith.
For the last four years, Mission Eurasia has drawn the attention of the international community to the systematic religious freedom violations committed by the LNR in eastern Ukraine. And now these violations are considered a central part of the LNR’s legal framework.
According to a new law passed on Feb. 2, 2018 (#211-II “About Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”), the LNR is permitted to discriminate against any and all non-Orthodox religious communities. This law violates universal human rights, severely limits religious freedom, and threatens eastern Ukraine’s existing network of religious communities and organizations.
While the law itself is a new development, the LNR has been violating religious freedom rights in Ukraine’s Luhansk region since the spring of 2014. Rather than protecting the rights of pre- existing religious communities, the LNR follows Russia’s religion laws. Therefore, in line with Russia’s strict religious freedom legislation, all religious communities and organizations in Luhansk, other than those associated with the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (the Russian Orthodox Church has preferential status), must now prove their loyalty and re-register with the LNR.
The following points laid out in the LNR’s new religion law are particularly concerning for churches in Luhansk:
‚Ä¢ All religious communities and organizations must re-register with the LNR within six months of the law’s inception in order to continue operating;
‚Ä¢ The LNR will play an increasingly significant role in regulating religious communities and organizations, and in protecting the societal role of the Russian Orthodox Church;
‚Ä¢ All registered religious communities and organizations are required to provide detailed reports on all of their activities on a regular basis;
‚Ä¢ Religious communities and organizations must have juridical person status to be considered legitimate;
‚Ä¢ Religious communities and organizations must have at least 30 members to register;
‚Ä¢ Religious communities and organizations are prohibited from leading activities in private residences, which is particularly dangerous for the many home churches in Luhansk;
‚Ä¢ There are many grounds on which the LNR can suspend the activities of religious communities and organizations, such as suspected espionage, extremism, and terrorism;
‚Ä¢ Religious communities and organizations are required to coordinate the distribution of all religious materials, even among their own members, with the LNR;
‚Ä¢ There are very strict regulations placed on all religious communities and organizations that receive financial support from foreign sources.
The Baptist Union of Ukraine asserts that, even if churches in Luhansk try to re-register with the LNR, they will not be able to meet all of the requirements laid out in the new religion law.
In response, Mission Eurasia and our partner churches in Luhansk urge the global Christian community prayerfully to support our brothers and sisters who are suffering in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine. We also implore international government leaders and human rights organizations to pressure the LNR to repeal the new law and restore religious freedom so that all religious communities in Luhansk and throughout Ukraine can worship freely.
At present, the pastors of many churches in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine are refusing to participate in the re-registration process required by the LNR’s new religion law. These courageous leaders need our support as they stand firm in the face of escalating religious persecution.
Dr. Mykhailo Cherenkov is executive field director of Mission Eurasia and an associate professor of philosophy at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. This piece was first published at Dr. Cherenkov's blog April 19, 2018. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of Catholic News Agency.