RUSSIA: Prosecutions for public evangelism and public meetings for worship

By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18 News Service

Communities who exercise freedom of religion or belief in public without Russian state permission may find their members facing five-figure Rouble fines if they do not inform the local authorities in advance, Forum 18 News Service notes. It is possible that changes to the Religion Law may have a positive effect on cases currently before the courts, such as that of a Sochi Protestant leader fined for holding prayers and a Bible study in a rented café. The FSB security service was behind that case, sending officials to attend the meeting. However, a new Criminal Code Article 212.1 may have a chilling effect on exercising freedom of religion or belief in public. The Sochi Bible study group has ceased to meet fearing prosecution under this Article, their lawyer told Forum 18. However, Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis thinks the authorities may seek to avoid prosecuting religious or belief communities under this article. "Political protesters will go first", he thought.

Communities who exercise freedom of religion or belief in public without state permission may find their members facing five-figure Rouble fines if they do not inform the local authorities in advance, Forum 18 News Service notes. This is despite a Russian Constitutional Court ruling removing the requirement to notify the authorities in many cases. Many activities in many places may draw the attention of law enforcement. In Sochi, for example, a Protestant community leader is challenging a fine imposed for holding prayers in a rented café. A Baptist preacher in Smolensk will soon appeal against his conviction for handing out religious literature in a public park. Another Baptist in Orel has been fined for organising outdoor hymn singing in a children's playground.

Failure to notify the authorities may result in charges under Part 2 of Article 20.2 ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession, or picket") of the Code of Administrative Offences. This may result in fines of 20,000 to 30,000 Roubles (about 2,470 to 3,700 Norwegian Kroner, 290 to 430 Euros, or 320 to 480 US Dollars) for individuals, 20,000 to 40,000 Roubles (about 2,470 to 4,950 Norwegian Kroner, 290 to 575 Euros, or 320 to 640 US Dollars) for an organisation's officials, and 70,000 to 200,000 Roubles (about 8,670 to 24,700 Norwegian Kroner, 1,005 to 2,900 Euros, or 1,125 to 3,200 US Dollars) for organisations themselves.

Legal background

The public exercise of freedom of religion or belief is mainly governed by the 1997 Religion Law and the 2004 Demonstrations Law. The Demonstrations Law lists sites where religious and other events are never permitted, including on railways, in border zones, near gas pipelines and outside the President's residence. Article 16 of the Religion Law outlines those places where "services, rites, and other ceremonies" are allowed without restriction and without any requirement to inform the authorities.

In other cases, organisers may have to notify the authorities of the event. The authorities must then ensure that the event goes ahead peacefully. This does not constitute seeking permission – the authorities can only stop an event proceeding if:

a) the notification comes from a person without the right to provide it;

or b) the event is planned for a prohibited location.

Otherwise, the authorities may only point out organisational shortcomings to be eliminated and warn of the possibility of court proceedings in the case of any legal violations.

However, this has not stopped mainly Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses – who often do not have their own permanent buildings - from being fined or threatened with fines for organising or conducting meetings for worship which has not been specifically approved by the local authorities. Local police and prosecutor's offices have insisted that such permission is required, and bring cases under Administrative Code Article 20.2 ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket"). The legality of these prosecutions under the Constitution and the Religion Law has been challenged, but prosecutions have still been successful (see F18News 28 October 2011

Recent amendments

However, October 2014 changes to Article 16 of the Religion Law have further clarified the types of place in which worship activities are allowed without prior notification. They should make it impossible to bring charges under Article 20.2, Part 2, if a meeting for worship or ceremony is carried out in premises or on land rented by a religious association for this purpose, Inna Zagrebina of Moscow's Guild of Experts on Religion and Law commented to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis on 24 November 2014.

It is possible that this amendment may have a positive effect on cases currently before the courts, such as that of a Sochi Protestant leader fined for holding prayers in a rented café (see below). However, the new Criminal Code Article 212.1 ("Repeated infringement of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession, or picket") may have a chilling effect (see below).

Article 16 has been expanded to state:

"In other cases, public worship services and other religious rites and ceremonies (including prayer and religious assemblies) carried out in public places, in conditions which require the adoption of measures to ensure public order and the security of the participants of religious rites and ceremonies, as well as those of other citizens, are carried out in the manner prescribed for rallies, marches and demonstrations".

This incorporates a 2012 Constitutional Court judgement, which states that prior notification is not required when safety measures are not necessary - the main ostensible purpose of the authorities being notified. The ruling followed prosecution – not for safety reasons - of two Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgorod Region for meeting for worship without state approval (see F18News 3 January 2013

Poorly defined

But the situation remains poorly defined. The Religion Law's Article 16 still refers only to "worship services and other religious rites and ceremonies", and not to other activities such as the distribution of literature. For instance, as Zagrebina of the Guild of Experts on Religion and Law points out, "evangelisation carried out in the courtyards of house, parks, and open squares does not fall under Article 16", and so believers themselves will have to determine whether the conditions of their "event" will require public health or security measures when deciding whether to notify the authorities.

Public space where it is not clear whether the public exercise of freedom of religion or belief is freely permitted and the prohibited remain unspecified. Forum 18 notes – based on Article 20.2 cases brought in 2014 - that these include rented cafés, cinemas, houses of culture, the street, a playground and a public square. In one case a prosecution was brought for a meeting in a private home.

So it is still unclear how far the amendments will enable the public exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Centre, commented that "it's still an issue" for groups such as the Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses "while some things will move more smoothly now". However, "law enforcement still has a wide choice for interpretation" of the law, he noted to Forum 18 on 25 February.

This lack of clear definition feeds into a further problem – that of misapplication of the law by law enforcement officials who interpret the requirement for prior notification as a requirement for permission from the authorities. In two of the cases outlined below, law enforcement officials demanded to see "permission" for the events to be held, despite permission not being a legal requirement.

Related cases have reached the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In 2007 the Court unanimously ruled that it was not lawful for Russia to ban a church from meeting for worship in a public park, and that the authorities should uphold their right to meet in public (see F18News 1 August 2007

New criminal offence

Although no related criminal charges have yet been brought in cases of religious events, Russian believers fear that it is now a possibility. A new Article 212.1 ("Repeated infringement of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession, or picket") was added to the Criminal Code on 21 July 2014. This makes repeated violations of any part of Administrative Code Article 20.2 a criminal offence. Those convicted face:

a fine of 600,000 to 1 million Roubles (about 74,260 to 123,785 Norwegian Kroner, 8,620 to 14,380 Euros, or 9,650 to 16,000 US Dollars) or the equivalent of two to three years' salary;

or compulsory work for up to 480 hours;

or correctional labour for one to two years;

or forced/hard labour for up to five years;

or up to five years' imprisonment.

"Repeated violations" are defined as more than two in a period of 180 days. Three people have so far been prosecuted under this article for political protests.

The Protestant prayer group whose leader was fined for holding a Bible study session in a Sochi café (see below) fears prosecution under the new Criminal Code Article 212.1 if they continue to meet. They have therefore stopped meeting, their lawyer Aleksandr Popkov told Forum 18 on 14 February.

Article 212.1 could be used against the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, Verkhovsky of the SOVA Centre agreed. But he thinks the authorities will seek to avoid this. "Political protesters will go first", he thought.

Forum 18 asked the office of the Ombudsperson for Human Rights on 26 February whether it thought the exercise of freedom of religion or belief would be prosecuted under Article 212.1, and if it thought this would have a negative effect on freedom of religion or belief. No reply to these questions had been received by the end of 2 March, but a reply was promised after 4 March.

23 known cases in 2014

Twenty three cases are known to have been brought against religious communities or individuals under Article 20.2, Part 2 in 2014. Five were related to the same incident in Barnaul. All related to incidents which occurred before the amendments to the Religion Law came into force on 22 October 2014.

Eleven cases ended in acquittals, frequently as the result of the judge applying the Constitutional Court ruling of December 2012. Several cases ended in convictions in very similar circumstances, suggesting that the Constitutional Court ruling is being inconsistently applied across the country.

The 23 cases primarily involved Jehovah's Witnesses (12 cases), but also unregistered Baptists (2 cases), Evangelical Protestants (1 case), and Buddhists (1 case). The affiliation of the rest is unknown, although the language of the verdicts suggests they were Protestants.

The FSB, police and prosecutors go to a Sochi Bible study

On 28 September 2014 a regular Bible study session in a Sochi café was being run by Aleksei Kolyasnikov for his unregistered "Society of Christians", to pray and read the scriptures on Sunday afternoons. That day, however, they were joined by newcomers who later revealed themselves to be FSB security service officers. Prosecutor's office officials and officers from the local police "Anti-Extremism" Department were also present.

A letter of 26 August 2014 shows that the FSB security service initiated the case (see below).

"After the law enforcement officers entered the café, they asked to attend the meeting", Pastor Kolyasnikov told Forum 18 on 18 February 2015. "We allowed them. After the meeting, they introduced themselves and began to take testimony from the people there. Some of them tried to discourage members from going to our meetings. The officials also took a statement from me there and then. They did not say anything about an administrative charge. Later, one of the officers called and invited me to the Prosecutor's Office, and there he explained to me my 'administrative offence'."

Kolyasnikov told the news website on 15 December that "The prosecutor kept asking: 'Did you receive permission or not?' I said: 'Perhaps notification should have been sent?' No, permission. I went specially to the administration to ask – they said notification was not necessary".

"I cannot name any violations in this case"

Tatyana Katanidi of the Sochi mayor's office confirmed to the Caucasian Knot news website that "the café is indoors and notification is not required. I cannot name any violations in this case in the way of notifying the administration".

Kolyasnikov was fined 30,000 Roubles (now about 3,700 Norwegian Kroner, 430 Euros, or 480 US Dollars) by Judge Nikolai Volkov at Magistrates' Court No. 99 on 10 October 2014. On appeal to Khostinsky District Court on 2 December, this decision was overturned by Judge Grigory Leoshik, who ruled that magistrates did not have the authority to deal with such matters and sent the case for re-examination. The same Judge Leoshik reinstated the fine (the largest possible for an individual) on 12 December.

"The consequences are quite serious"

On 28 January 2015, Krasnodar Regional Court upheld the earlier fine. Lawyers Aleksandr Popkov and Vladimir Ryakhovsky tried to have the ruling overturned. "Nobody listened to us there. As usual," Popkov complained to Forum 18 on 14 February.

He continued: "The consequences are quite serious. The pastor and his flock are afraid that persecution will continue. If they repeatedly commit such an 'offence', then Kolyasnikov could face criminal charges and up to five years' imprisonment" under Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code. He also pointed out that the case sets a "dangerous" precedent" for Protestants elsewhere in Russia, as so many of them pray in rented premises.

Pastor Kolyasnikov told Forum 18 that his group is no longer meeting as before, but that they have joined a registered community in Sochi which has its own building for worship.

FSB behind case

A letter of 26 August 2014, seen by Forum 18, shows that the FSB security service initiated the case against Kolyasnikov. General Aleksandr Rodionov, head of the Sochi FSB, wrote to Mark Bolshedvorsky, regional First Deputy Prosecutor/Sochi City Prosecutor, expressing concern over the "evangelism" being carried out among Bel Canto's customers, "the principal focus of which is to bring people to the Christian faith". A spokeswoman refused to explain why the case was instigated when Forum 18 telephoned the city Prosecutor's Office on 26 February, saying that all information requests must be submitted by fax or post.

FSB General Rodionov linked Kolyasnikov to regime change in Ukraine, "based on the ideology of pro-Western Protestant religious movements with financial support from NATO and EU countries, which present the threat of formation in Russia of so-called 'anti-Russian (antirossiyskiy) hotbeds' of social and ideological tension". Pastor Kolyasnikov adamantly denies this allegation.

General Rodionov alleged that Ukrainian evangelical leader Vladimir Muntyan visited Kolyasnikov in May 2014 to discuss a business partnership in construction. Muntyan organises large public services in Ukraine and is active in the media. According to Rodionov, Muntyan could carry out "indoctrination of adepts and new arrivals based on the principles of destructive activity inherent in non-traditional occult structures such as satanism".

Pastor Kolyasnikov denied to Forum 18 on 25 February that he is in any way acquainted with Muntyan: "I've never had any personal connections or business relationship with him".

General Rodionov asked the prosecutor for an inspection of the café as he alleged Kolyasnikov was contravening the Religion Law by preaching there during operating hours without agreement, "violating the interests of visitors, who become unwilling participants". Pastor Kolyasnikov notes that the café was closed for the meeting, with a notice posted on the door and a group member on guard outside, and nobody else was present. He allowed the plain-clothes officers to enter because "our group does nothing unlawful and is open to all".

Appeals being prepared to Constitutional Court and ECtHR

Pastor Kolyasnikov remains positive: "We think these are temporary difficulties we're experiencing. We hope it will all soon change for the better". He told Forum 18 on 25 February that appeals are being prepared both to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and that they "hope for a just resolution". The Pastor's lawyer Popkov notes that proceedings at the ECtHR could take four to six years.

First telephone calls, then prosecution

At Orel's Soviet District Court on 11 August 2014, Baptist presbyter Pavel Pilipchuk was found guilty by Judge Tatyana Mikheyeva of organising an open-air worship service without notification, and fined 20,000 Roubles (now about 2,470 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros, or 320 US Dollars). His appeal to Orel Regional Court was rejected on 29 September. Because he did not pay the fine, it was doubled to 40,000 Roubles by Judge Inna Maltseva at Magistrates' Court No. 2, Northern District, on 22 December. A Baptist spokeswoman told Forum 18 from Orel on 24 February 2015 that Pilipchuk has still not paid.

Pilipchuk was charged as responsible for a group of Baptists who marked Palm Sunday (23 March) 2014 by gathering outdoors to sing hymns and hand out literature to passers-by, an event which passed off without incident. "The evangelism went well, people listened attentively, nobody interfered, and the police were not present", a Baptist statement of 31 December 2014 noted.

In June 2014, the community received several telephone calls from people apparently "seeking God and wishing to attend services", but principally interested in who led the congregation.

Pilipchuk was later charged with organising the event while failing to inform the authorities. Baptists state he was not present and not responsible. In court, however, congregation members were deemed "interested parties" and their testimony disregarded.

Police officers testified that members of the public had called and expressed their "negative reaction" to the event and their intention to prevent it, "including by active intervention", the original district court verdict, seen by Forum 18, states.

"The possibility of danger"?

According to the appeal court verdict, seen by Forum 18, the outdoor service presented "the possibility of danger to public order, morality and health, both to the participants of the religious event themselves, and to third parties, which requires public authorities to take measures to ensure public order and the security and peace of citizens".

Appeal judge Lyubov Safronova continued: "The demonstration of religious beliefs is capable of inducing negative emotions in people who follow another religion or none, and of creating obstacles to the normal operation of transport and public or non-governmental organizations". She ruled that the location of the event (in a playground between residential buildings, near a school and a kindergarten) and the alleged disapproval of citizens meant public safety measures were necessary.

Pilipchuk argued in his appeal that the conviction contravened the Constitutional Court's ruling of 5 December 2012 (see F18News 3 January 2013 Judge Safronova dismissed this, claiming that the location of the outdoor service and the possibility of public objection meant that notification should have taken place.

A spokeswoman for Orel Regional Prosecutor's Office directed Forum 18 to the Prosecutor's Office Chancellery, who did not answer their telephone whenever Forum 18 called on 19 and 20 February.

Fine overturned

However, another Baptist leader has had his fine of 20,000 Roubles (now about 2,470 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros, or 320 US Dollars) overturned at Smolensk Regional Court. Viktor Pechkurov was convicted on 22 January of distributing literature in the street without notification, an activity interpreted by Judge Konstantin Kiselyov of Smolensk's Lenin District Court as "picketing".

But Pechkurov was acquitted by Judge Olga Ivanova on 24 February. No written verdict has yet been released.

The Baptist community of Smolensk regularly distributes literature as part of a "mobile Christian library service" in the city's Blonye Garden every Saturday, according to a 28 January Baptist statement. On 25 October 2014, Pechkurov and three other church members – Valentina Brezgunova, Irina Matveyeva, and Valentina Lysenko – set up their table of books, "in such a way as not to interfere with traffic or pedestrians".

The Baptists were asked to show their "permission" by police who had received a call telling them to check on the "sectarians" in the park. On being unable to provide it, all four were detained and interrogated for three hours.

According to the Lenin District Court verdict, seen by Forum 18, Judge Kiselyov deemed Pechkurov's actions to constitute a "picket". Pickets by only one person do not require prior notification but Pechkurov's actions involved a group, for which Judge Kiselyov claimed notice must be given no later than three days before the event. The Judge dismissed Pechkurov's argument in court that the handing out of religious literature could not be interpreted as a "public event".

A spokeswoman for Lenin District Prosecutor's Office, which handled the case, told Forum 18 on 19 February that all requests for information must be submitted in writing. Forum 18 sent an email at noon on 19 February asking why the Baptists' activities were considered dangerous or problematic. No reply has been received. 


Christians on both sides kill each other


By Sofia Kochmar
Catholic News Agency

.- Conflict in eastern Ukraine which began in April 2014 has pitted the country's government against separatists widely believed to be backed by Russia, and some are attributing the chaos to a failed evangelization in the country.

Fr. Wojciech Surówka, a Dominican priest who directs the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Sciences in Kyiv, urged that “a dialogue of reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians should begin from the Church. If we do not start it, politicians will never do it. It would be nice if the formula of 'forgive and ask forgiveness' were delivered simultaneously by the Ukrainian and Russian bishops.”

“This war is the failure of our evangelization. If Christians on both sides kill each other, then we did not teach them well who Christ is. They absolutely do not understand the essence of Christianity. It's our fault. In the conflict in Rwanda last century, the bishops recognized it – I expect this step from the confessions in Ukraine,” Fr. Surówka told CNA.

According to the estimates of the United Nations, the conflict has led to more than 1 million displaced persons in Ukraine, and nearly 6,000 dead.

Some of the victims are civilians, uninvolved in military conflict, killed when pro-Russian militants fired on residential areas in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, hitting a bus stop, and a hospital. It is difficult to check the number of prisoners on both sides. On Sunday, during a memorial service for the victims of the Maidan protests, explosives fell in Kharkov, in central Ukraine, far from the conflict zone, killing two and wounding 10.

The fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists – widely believed to be supported by Russian troops and arms – and the Ukrainian government last April. The month before, Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
In areas controlled by the separatists, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church allied with the Russian Orthodox Church is favored, to the exclusion of other Christian groups.

Mykhailo Cherenkov grew up in Donetsk, and was born into a family of Baptists: his father is Russian, and his mother Ukrainian. After his education at a local university, he served as rector of Donetsk Christian University, a Protestant institution. Now his university is a pro-Russian military base, home to around 400 militants.

Mykhailo lives in Kyiv now.

"In December I went to Donetsk. I couldn’t get into my university. There is too much military security. The place has become hostile,” he said.

In the territories controlled by separatists, the only “legitimate” Christian body is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Other Churches and ecclesial communities do not have the possibility of holding services.

"Protestant pastors should either go underground or leave Donbas. Churches and schools, all infrastructure are confiscated. They can continue to pray - but not participate in public life,” the former rector of Donetsk Christian University explained to CNA.

Roman Catholic priests of Polish citizenship were forced to leave Donbas; the Polish government evacuated them, along with its other civilians there. Now parishioners in Luhansk watch their priest say Mass via Skype: he is in Poland, and they are in the conflict zone. In Donetsk one Roman Catholic priest has remained, as he has local residency. The rest of the priests are serving in the territories controlled by Ukrainian authorities. In Donetsk, a Grad rocket system damaged the chapel of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Vladimir the Great of Paris told CNA that “since July, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop has been forced out of his seat. He is still in his diocese, in an unoccupied area, but his residence, chancery, and all documents are under the control of terrorists. Most of the clergy have been forced out of the occupied territories. A number of Roman and Greek Catholic priests were abducted. Those that remain are under constant, direct and indirect threat.”

Last summer, the Greek Catholic priest Fr. Tikhon Kulbacka was held for 10 days by the “Russian Orthodox Army” – a radical militant group active in Donbas, and which uses “Orthodox ideology.”

Cherenkov – the Baptist from Donetsk – commented that “the Russian Orthodox Army can be as  dangerous as the Islamic State, because they are using tools of terror in the name of Orthodoxy!”

But in the central office of Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), they denied any relation to this group.
"If a person takes up weapons and goes to kill in the name of Jesus Christ, it is schizophrenia, but not Christianity. These groups have nothing to do with the Orthodox Church,” Fr. Mykola Danylevych, assistant director of the UOC's external relations office, told CNA.

“They use these pseudo-Orthodox slogans to create an ideology for their quasi-states. But in reality they just use the Church, not having anything in common with it.”

Bishop Gudziak, who is head of external relations for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said that “in the short term, the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an apologist for the Russian annexation of Crimea and Putin’s invasion in Eastern Ukraine does not go well for ecumenism.”

“What is more serious for Moscow Patriarchate,” he continued, “is the fact that its leadership, which has not only failed to speak out critically against government policy, has acted as apologist and ideologue for the rise of aggressive Russian nationalism. This leadership has been losing credibility in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church is heavily subsidized by the Russian government. The price of these subsidies is silence before their president’s warmongering and aggressive ideology. Today the population of Russia is being hypnotized into a trance of aggression. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t speak out against propaganda, and often acts as an agent of it.”

In addition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), there are two other Orthodox Churches which have claimed autocephaly, but are not recognized by other Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Fr. Danylevych, of the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), said: "If we will try to proclaim autocephaly today, it will lead us to new division. Unfortunately, the conflict in the Donbas has only increased among men those dividing lines that already existed. We, as a Church, feel very much these identities of Ukraine: Ukrainian and Russian, eastern and western. We try to keep a balance between these two. Ideologies separate us, but in Christ we are united.”

“Therefore, if a person recognizes his God and Savior Jesus Christ, and the Orthodox Church as the Church - this is our man. We need to learn to live in a Church, despite the personal ideological differences,” Fr. Danylevych said, describing his Church.

Cherenkov stated that “the Church should keep unity, without sacrificing morality: those who came with weapons onto the territory of their brother, became enemies. It is useless to forgive someone who has not passed through repentance. Our unity is not broken when we do not communicate, but when we lie to each other. The issue of Christian unity is not to pretend that between us nothing happened, but to look for reasons why it happened, and honestly recognize them. To recognize aggression - it's not politics; it is elementary Christian ethics, because in this way we get up in defense against inhumane acts, fratricidal war, and the seizure of foreign territories, which undermine peace in the world.”

Fr. Surówka, who studied ecumenical theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, reflected that “without prejudice to the dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Vatican could more frankly say what Church thinks about it. The Catholic Church has to say: 'Yes, we would like to conduct ecumenical dialogue with you; but that you support terrorists is unacceptable for us.' It could move us back in ecumenical cooperation, but it would become an expression of our humanity.”

During the Ukrainian bishop's ad limina visit to Rome last week, Pope Francis reminded them of their duties to justice and truth amid their country's crisis.

Cherenkov commented that in the crisis, “church diplomacy should give its authoritative word.  The World Council of Churches is the only place where the heads of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches can meet. Patriarch Kirill could influence the politics of Putin.”


Protecting the Russian World

Christians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are suffering religious persecution at the hands of the Russian government and pro-Russian separatists, respectively. Based on numerous reported cases*, it appears that this persecution is largely due to Russia’s escalating anti-Western sentiments, as well as its desire to assert the dominance of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine are attempts to purge the nation of Western influence, which includes all religions other than Russian Orthodoxy. Russia has also isolated itself from the international sphere, and the government is using anti-Western propaganda to fuel support for its escalating aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s actions in Crimea and its support of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have already significantly impacted the religious diversity in these regions, and have resulted in hundreds of cases of severe religious persecution. The following groups are the most responsible for this religious persecution:

  • Pro-Russian separatists (separatist groups, such as the Donetsk People’s Republic)
  • Religious leaders of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate
  • Fanatical movements, such as the Russian Orthodox Army
  • Cossacks - paramilitary groups

Religious Persecution in Crimea

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Russian government ordered all religious organizations in the region to re-register in accordance with Russian legislation. As of January 1, 2015, there were 2,220 registered religious organizations in Crimea, with only 1,546 operating as legal entities. Religious organizations belonging to the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and the Crimean Tatars have experienced the greatest difficulty with the registration process.

In addition to re-registration requirements, Russia has been using the fight against Western “terrorism” and “extremism” as an excuse to persecute members of pro-Ukrainian religious organizations in Crimea. Searches have been conducted in locations where religious organizations hold services, religious literature has been confiscated and banned, and interrogations have been conducted. Many Christian pastors and Catholic priests have been forced to flee Crimea due to death threats, property confiscation, and immigration issues. A number of buildings belonging to the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate have also been transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Overall, Russia is attempting to bring all religious organizations in Crimea under its own religious policy so that it can establish the supremacy of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in the region. This will subsequently allow the Russian government to expand its power in the region.

Religious Persecution in Eastern Ukraine

In 2014, hundreds of Christians in eastern Ukraine suffered religious persecution by pro-Russian separatists. On May 16, 2014, the Donetsk People’s Republic, the prominent pro-Russian separatist group in the Donetsk region, adopted a “constitution,” which asserted the supremacy of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Russia’s anti-Western propaganda further motivated the separatists to assert the dominance of Russian Orthodoxy in eastern Ukraine, which has led to severe religious persecution of Christians in the region.

Numerous Christians suffered abduction, torture, arson, property confiscation, death threats, physical violence, expatriation, and even murder at the hands of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. These Christians were persecuted solely because they did not belong to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Those who were tortured suffered various injuries, including beatings, stab wounds, broken bones, dislocated joints, or burns from electric shocks.

In addition to violent persecutory actions against Christians, pro-Russian separatists also seized numerous churches and other Christian facilities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014. While some churches were burned to the ground, most of them are now used as barracks, warehouses, or weapon storage, while others have been transferred to the control of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Good News Church in Slavyansk is one notable example of a church that was seized by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region. In April 2014, several separatists entered the church and forced the congregation to lie on the ground while they searched for pro-Western materials. Some days later, they confiscated the church, its rehabilitation center, and its orphanage to convert them to military facilities. While the church was reopened after the Ukrainian Army regained control of Slavyansk, the majority of the churches seized in eastern Ukraine remain under separatist control.

Overall, the pro-Russian separatists are persecuting Christians in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions who do not belong to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, or who they suspect of being pro-Western. By persecuting these Christians, the separatists are allowing greater Russian dominance in eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, hundreds of Christians suffered religious persecution at the hands of the Russian government in Crimea and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, more than 100 churches, Christian missions, orphanages, rehabilitation centers, educational institutions, research centers, and charities were confiscated or closed in these regions. Today, tens of thousands of Christians, as well as other religious minorities, in Crimea and eastern Ukraine live in fear of being kidnapped, tortured, or killed.

Political and religious leaders from Russia and Ukraine have been holding meetings targeted at achieving peace in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and while the Russian government continues to pursue its own objectives in Ukraine, it is essential that these meetings continue. The February 15, 2015 ceasefire is an opportunity for peace and increased religious freedom in Ukraine, so long as Russia adheres to the agreement.

*Mission Eurasia’s full report on reported cases of religious persecution is available here for your review:


Special Roundtable in Washington DC

This week Mission Eurasia hosted a roundtable/consultation on religious persecution in occupied territories of Ukraine in partnership with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable (USA). The roundtable took place in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast.
The goal of the roundtable was to raise awareness about increasing religious persecution in Eastern Ukraine, and to mobilize Congressmen and the global Christian community to support and advocate on behalf of those who are suffering for their faith in Eastern Ukraine.

Special reports were presented by evangelical leaders from Kiev and eastern Ukraine as well as other experts. Attendees included U.S. government departments and committees such as the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations, the Helsinki Committee, the Senate Human Rights Caucus, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the USCIRF, the U.S. Department of State, and the International Religious Freedom Caucus and numerous NGOs. Office of Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) sponsored this event.

"In the broader context of discussions, the talk is not so much about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia but also about conflict between Eurasia and Europe, Russia and the West, the orthodox "Russian world" and "secularized Protestant-Catholic civilization," universal human rights and "orthodox" values, between freedom and "traditional order." - stated Dr. Michael Cherenkov, the VP of Association of the Spiritual Renewal, Kiev.

"Separatists began to pick out church buildings and intimidate believers in Slavyansk, while it was under their control. One day they forced their way into our building, had everyone lie on the floor, including women and children, and searched the whole facility attempting to find some damaging information. After some time, our church building, rehabilitation center and the building housing the orphans were confiscated and turned into military facilities. In the same way, the premises of other religious communities in the city were confiscated. Bishop Alexey Demidovich was arrested as well as employees and ministers at the Church of the Transfiguration. They released the employees after torturing them, but four ministers were executed. Evangelicals, faced with threat of persecution, began to flee the city. Many churches began to hold underground services." - shared pastor of the Good News Church from Slavyansk, Peter Dudnik.

At the end of the discussion it was decided to create a coalition of NGOs and a working group that would continue gathering information about persecution and mobilize governments and people of good will all over the world to practically help those who suffering for their faith. The first meeting of the working group will take place at the end of February. 


Father Gleb Yakunin obituary

Priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who campaigned on human rights issues.

The article is written by Dr. Michael Bourdeaux who is the founder of Keston Institute in the UK, which played a key role in defending religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Dr. Michael Bourdeaux is a patron of Mission Eurasia. 

Incredible as it may seem, there were three times as many churches open in the Soviet Union on the day that Stalin died in 1953 as when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The reason for this was simple: Stalin allowed churches to reopen during the second world war; Nikita Khrushchev systematically closed them between 1959 and 1964. The man who first exposed the enormity of this persecution was Father Gleb Yakunin, who has died aged 80.

In 1965, with a colleague, Father Nikolai Eshliman, he wrote two lengthy and detailed open letters, one to the Soviet government, the other to Patriarch Alexy I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, setting out the nature of the anti-religious campaign in precise detail and furnished with hundreds of examples. They wrote: “The mass closure of churches, a campaign instigated from above, has created an atmosphere of anti-religious fanaticism which has led to the barbaric destruction of a large number of superb and unique works of art.”

These words resounded around the world and undoubtedly persuaded Khrushchev’s successors to discontinue the church closures. Yakunin, however, became an isolated figure. The punishment meted out to him came not from the KGB, but from Patriarch Alexy (doubtless at the state’s instigation): he was commanded to keep silence and not to exercise his priesthood for the next 10 years. The young priest obeyed the injunction to the letter.

Yakunin was born into a Christian family in Moscow. His father was a musician who played the clarinet in a symphony orchestra; his mother worked at the post office. Gleb lost his faith aged 15, but while studying for a degree in biology in Irkutsk, Siberia, he found it again under the influence of Alexander Men, who was to become the foremost theologian of his generation. Their subsequent careers were divergent, yet equally influential. Barred from entry to one of the few functioning seminaries, they took correspondence courses in theology and studied privately. Men served discreetly in a parish and always deflected attention from his teaching ministry, becoming a national figure only during the Gorbachev era and until his murder in 1990; Yakunin early adopted a stance of open defiance to Soviet atheism.


His decade of silence only persuaded Yakunin to speak out more bravely when it ended in 1976. He had noted the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975, which put human rights and religious liberty firmly on the international agenda. The Soviet authorities began systematically to imprison democratic activists, to which Yakunin responded by establishing a Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights. He sent an appeal to the Fifth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met in Nairobi, begging the worldwide ecumenical fellowship to act on behalf of the persecuted church. The African editors of the assembly’s daily newspaper evaded the censorship which the Russian delegates exercised and caused a furore by printing the text of Yakunin’s appeal, only for the organisers to turn their face away from the issue under pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Wrongly thinking that he now had world Christian opinion behind him, Yakunin increased his efforts. His energy was prodigious. He collected more than 400 appeals from almost all Christian denominations in the Soviet Union and even included support for Jews and Muslims in his wide-ranging activities. This time the Soviet authorities themselves acted, and arrested Yakunin on 1 November 1979. At his subsequent trial, he received a sentence of 10 years, the first half to be served in a camp, the second in exile. Eight years into this, with Gorbachev at the height of his perestroika policy, Yakunin was released.

The next year, 1988, saw celebrations marking the millennium of the conversion of the Eastern Slavs. During these June weeks Yakunin and his wife, Iraida, whom he had married in 1961, held open house for religious dissidents, inviting foreign Christian leaders in Moscow for the events to visit his flat and learn the real truth about the persecution of the past 60 years, not the sanitised version as presented by the Moscow Patriarchate. The atmosphere in the flat was electric as a succession of victims of persecution told their stories.

Yakunin at this point might have expected a triumphal reinstatement into the senior ranks of the Russian church, or an award of the Nobel peace prize, but neither was forthcoming. Soon he began to follow a more overtly political line and was elected to the Duma, the parliament, representing the Democratic Russia party. In this role he had brief and restricted access to the state archives. Here he found in the records of the Council for Religious Affairs, the body that controlled the life of the church, incontrovertible evidence that exposed the collaboration of church leaders with the KGB, including that of Patriarch Alexy II, who was in office at the time.

He was not permitted to take photocopies, but made handwritten notes, which he subsequently copied and passed to Jane Ellis, a researcher at Keston College, Kent, who published them in its journal Religion in Communist Lands. This was a bridge too far for the Moscow Patriarchate, which wrought vengeance on Yakunin by defrocking him, on the grounds that clergy were not permitted to stand for election to political office.

As the Moscow Patriarchate regained its leading position in Russian society, Yakunin’s influence declined. He became a priest in the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, later transferring to the True Orthodox Church (which had its origin in the Catacomb Church of the 1930s). He continued to speak out on human rights issues.

Mental toughness predominated in his personal relationships, but he relaxed with friends and, when able to travel in 1989, enjoyed playing truant from a conference in Manila to go white-water rafting.

He is survived by Iraida, and their three children, Maria, Alexander and Anna.

 Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin, priest, born 4 March 1934; died 25 December 2014

Source: The Guardian