The Russian military has disproportionately attacked evangelical Christians and “destroyed, damaged, or looted” at least 494 religious buildings, theological institutions, and sacred sites in Ukraine since invading the neighboring nation almost a year ago, according to the Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF).
The independent research institute presented its latest report this week during the third international religious freedom summit in Washington.
The IRF aims to catalog evidence of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian religious communities. The destruction of religious sites is often intentional and happening in tandem with attacks on civilian believers and pastors, said executive director Maksym Vasin.
Russian soldiers have repeatedly threatened to destroy evangelical Christians in Ukraine, calling them “American spies,” “sectarians,” and “enemies of the Russian Orthodox people,” said Valentyn Siniy, rector of the Kherson-based Tavriski Christian Institute—one of scores of damaged sites belonging to evangelical groups.
Russian forces seized the seminary’s building as a headquarters, looted it, and then left it destroyed, he said.
“One Russian officer told an employee of our institute that ‘evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed … a simple shooting will be too easy for you. You need to be buried alive,’” said Siniy, according to the IRF report. In a translated video played during the panel, he elaborated, “During a telephone conversation, one of our employees was told, ‘We will bury [Baptist] sectarians like you.’”
The IRF report found that “the scale of destruction of evangelical church prayer houses is immense.” It tallied at least 170 damaged evangelical sites—including 75 Pentecostal churches, 49 Baptist churches, 24 Seventh-day Adventist churches, and 22 “other” evangelical churches—comprising a full third of the total, even though evangelicals comprise less than 5 percent of Ukraine’s population.
Among Orthodox Christians, who comprise about 80 percent, at least 143 damaged buildings belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), long affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), while 34 belong to the newer and smaller independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). (The UOC’s own tally numbers 300 churches damaged by shelling, including 75 “destroyed.”)
The IRF also tallied damage at 94 Jehovah’s Witness, 29 Catholic, 12 Jewish, 8 Muslim, and 4 Mormon religious sites. The institute expects the pace of destruction to soon increase in eastern and southern Ukraine amid ongoing hostilities.
The IRF report documents targeted shelling, missile attacks, vandalism, and looting of religious buildings as well as the torture and killing of religious leaders and believers of many faiths. In many cases, members of destroyed churches also found that Russian forces burned all of their Ukrainian-language Bibles, books, and tracts.
During his speech, Vasin stated that Russian authorities often target clergy and ordinary believers for speaking Ukrainian, exhibiting Ukrainian identity, or belonging to a different denomination than the Moscow Patriarchate. He hopes that the evidence his institute has collected will encourage international bodies such as the International Criminal Court to investigate and charge Russian authorities not just with the war crime of attacking religious sites but also with crimes against humanity and genocide.
“In their entirety, Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine may indicate the existence of a special genocidal intent aimed at destroying the Ukrainian people, which is a distinct crime under international humanitarian law,” Vasin said.
The IRF report concludes that examples of mass destruction in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and Kharkiv show that Russia would rather eliminate whole cities and destroy Ukraine’s historical and spiritual heritage than accept the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and sovereignty. The report recommends that the US and other nations create an international body to independently investigate war crimes committed in Ukraine, as well as demand access to Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea in order to monitor human rights and religious freedom there.
Pastor Dmitry Bodyu of Word of Life Church in Melitopol, in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region occupied by Russia since March 2022, recounted for summit attendees how he survived Russian captivity. He said the Russian military seized his church building, imprisoned him, and told him he would be killed. The IRF report noted that Bodyu escaped from prison yet local evangelicals continue to face deadly threats. In addition, two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests have been imprisoned for three months in Melitopol and routinely tortured, he said.
Russian forces have also abducted Ukrainian pastors and tried to enlist them as Russian spies and propagandists, according to the IRF report. From February 24 to July 15, 2022, the institute recorded 20 cases of illegal imprisonment of Ukrainian religious leaders, accompanied by attempted rape, mock executions, deprivation of water, food, and access to a toilet, and threats of violence against family members.
At the end of last year, Ukraine stepped up efforts to retake Melitopol, a vital Russian link to Crimea. The attempt to expel Russian forces from southern Ukraine is expected to be the next major phase of the war and hinges largely on retaking the southeastern city with a pre-war population of 150,000 residents.
At a summit side event focused on Ukraine, panelists including Vasin, Siniy, Igor Bandura, first vice president of the Baptist Union, and Andriy Dudchenko, OCU archpriest and lecturer at Kyiv Orthodox Theological Academy, urged the continuation of military support to Ukraine. Wherever Russia controls Ukrainian territory, all religious organizations come under the control of counterparts loyal to Moscow or they are disbanded or destroyed, panelists said.
The Ukrainian government has moved to restrict the activities of Orthodox churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate due to the ROC’s support for the Russian invasion and collaboration with the Russian government, said Lauren Homer, president of Law & Liberty International and moderator of the panel.
In December, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky endorsed a draft law calling for members of parliament to “make it impossible for religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine.” If passed, the law could halt the activities of the UOC.
The UOC took steps to distance itself from the Moscow Patriarchate in May, including calling for holy myrrh produced in Ukraine to replace sanctification oil from Moscow in services. Yet this week, Ukrainian officials concluded that the UOC is not autonomous enough (having failed to pursue autocephaly like the OCU) to avoid sanctions.
Zelensky’s draft law followed raids by the Ukrainian security service on 350 UOC buildings including the 11th-century Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a UNESCO site known as the Monastery of the Caves that both Russia and Ukraine claim as their spiritual heritage.
Russia’s deputy chairman of the security council and advisor to President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, reacted to Zelensky’s proposal by calling Ukrainian authorities “enemies of Christ and the Orthodox faith” in a statement posted on Telegram.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian evangelicals hope for peace and religious freedom for minorities as promised in Ukraine’s constitution.
“People are devastated there [in Melitopol],” said Bodyu in recorded testimony from Poland, where he has relocated with his family. “We are waiting for the Ukrainian army to take those territories back so we can have our church buildings and our ministry back, and we are praying about this.”
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