Donbas: Religious Freedom in Proxy-Occupied Areas

2 May 2019, 12:38 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew Sorokowski

In view of the restrictive 2018 Luhansk People’s Republic statute, it is not surprising that some groups declined to apply for registration, while others were refused. The result is that many religious communities find themselves outside the law…. the 48 Baptist Union congregations have had to cease their activity altogether.

On 29 April the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan agency, released its annual report on religious liberty around the world. This report ordinarily lists both states and non-state actors that violate freedom of religion, and makes recommendations. The worst state violators, known as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) are those where violations are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.” Among the sixteen CPCs listed in this year’s report was Russia. 

Russia’s violations of the freedom of religion can be classified into three groups. Some take place in the Russian Federal Republic. Others occur in the Russian-annexed Crimea, where Russian law is applied. Still other violations are committed by the Russian proxies occupying part of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where they have set up a “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and a “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR). These entities, not recognized by the international community, have enacted their own laws.

Recently, the Oslo-based Forum 18 news service reported that officials of the Luhansk People’s Republic have harassed Protestant and Orthodox communities by means of raids and interrogations (Felix Corley, “Donbas: Luhansk: Orthodox cathedral, more Protestant churches raided,” Forum 18, 10 April 2019).

LPR authorities have banned religious activity by communities that were not registered with the Justice Ministry by 15 October 2018. All Protestant community applications were rejected. Some communities did not apply for registration. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, which have been banned in Russia, knew they would be refused. The recently organized Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is not recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, did not attempt to register, nor did the Council of Churches of Baptists, which has never done so. All their communities are therefore regarded as illegal.

LPR officials have told the leaders of the Baptist Union, which has 48 congregations in occupied territory, that they would not tolerate any more open public worship meetings.  These congregations have held their last meetings, deciding that no further meetings would take place from 17 March 2019.

In February, LPR militants raided a worship meeting of the Luhansk Path of Salvation Baptist Church, which does not belong to the Baptist Union. They seized books banned as “extremist,” including publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On 21 March, a court in Luhansk acquitted the 82-year-old Protestant pastor Anatoly Tolstenko of charges of illegal worship and storing “extremist” religious literature. The pastor of a Protestant church that had been raided in February, a pensioner, was summoned to court for leading “illegal” worship, but likewise was not punished.

On 24 March, police officers raided a Protestant Sunday worship meeting in Sverdlovsk (Ukrainian official name: Dovzhanske), but did not stop the service. The pastor, Nikolai Muratov, a pensioner in his 70s, was summoned to the State Security Ministry and questioned. On 27 March, he was called to the Sverdlovsk City and District court for a hearing on charges of leading illegal worship. However, the judge did not punish him.  

Ukrainian Orthodox have also attracted official attention in the LPR. In late March, officers from the police Department for Combating Extremism and Organized Crime (DCEOC) inspected Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The next day, they summoned the secretary of the Luhansk and Starobilsk eparchy, Fr. Anatoly Nazarenko, 72, for questioning. The interrogation ended amicably after about five hours.

On 4 April, the anti-extremism police searched Holy Trinity Cathedral during a baptism. They also searched diocesan offices, as well as the homes of Fr. Nazarenko and Fr. Gennady Kurganov. Bishop Afanasiy (Yavorsky) of Luhansk and Starobilsk, who resides outside the proxy-occupied zone, has stated that the police did not have a warrant. They seized books, computers, correspondence, and copies of land purchase documents. Fr. Nazarenko, Fr. Kurganov, and a parishioner were compelled to write statements. Over the following days, they were repeatedly summoned for questioning.

The OCU has not sought to register its cathedral. Andrei Litsoev, chairman of the Department of Religious Associations and Spirituality in the LPR Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Youth, has said that the OCU “is not registered, therefore it doesn’t exist.” Nevertheless, services have continued in the cathedral. It has also been visited by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, which met with Fr. Nazarenko.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate apparently functions unimpeded.

The LPR Constitution of 18 May 2014 provides that religious associations are equal among themselves and separate from the state (art. 9, sec. 2). It declares freedom of conscience and religion, including the right to profess of any religion or none, individually or together with others; to disseminate religious or other convictions; and to act in accordance with them (art. 21).

The LPR Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (LFCRA) of 2 February 2018 similarly proclaims freedom of conscience, the right to profess any religion, or none, individually or in groups, to conduct religious services, to teach or otherwise disseminate religious beliefs, and to form religious associations (Preamble; art. 3, sec. 1). Religious associations are divided into local and centralized organizations (art. 6, sec. 2). The law lists 16 forbidden activities (art. 6, sec. 4), 9 grounds for refusal of registration (art. 10), and 20 bases for dissolution of a religious organization (art. 12, sec. 2). Religious organizations may not function, however, until and unless they are registered (art. 9). In this, the LFCRA differs from both the Russian and the Ukrainian LFCRA, which permit unregistered “groups.” The registration requirement in effect permits the government to ban groups that it disfavors.

Shortly after the LPR LFCRA was enacted, on 5 February 2018, LPR officials Dmitrii Sidorov (acting Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport) and Andrei Litsoev announced that they had effectively prohibited the activity of religious “groups” – that is, communities unconnected with “traditional” faiths (see website of the LPR Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport). Commenting on the new law, Mykhailo Cherenkov reported that all communities and organizations that were not Russian Orthodox were required to re-register within 6 months. Following Russian law, the new statute imposed strict controls and limits over the activities of registered religious organizations. (Mykhailo Cherenkov, “New Religious Law and Persecution in Eastern Ukraine,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, US Southern Baptist Convention, 2 May 2018).

In view of the restrictive 2018 LPR statute, it is not surprising that some groups declined to apply for registration, while others were refused. The result is that many religious communities find themselves outside the law. Some of these have been harassed by government officials, though not liquidated. But the 48 Baptist Union congregations have had to cease their activity altogether. Religious believers in the Russian proxy-occupied Donbas are thus in a precarious position, subjected to a law that is inconsistent with international standards, and in many cases deprived of religious liberty.

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