Date: February 3, 2023
Russian occupation authorities continue to violate freedom of religion and
belief in the Ukrainian territory they currently control. In late 2022 two
Greek Catholic priests and a Protestant pastor were the latest known
religious leaders seized by occupation authorities, and it is unknown where
they are or even if they are still alive. Raids on and seizures of places
of worship continued in January 2023, and a purge of "extremist" books from
educational libraries was ordered in Luhansk.
OCCUPIED UKRAINE: "Disappeared" clergy, seized places of worship, library
By Felix Corley, Forum 18
Russian restrictions on freedom of religion and belief and other human
rights are being illegally imposed on Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory
in a more systematic way since Russia's claimed annexation in October 2022
of further Ukrainian territory. "Since October we are now part of Russia.
The situation is different," Oleg Pomnikov of the Religious and Ethnic
Affairs Department of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) Culture, Sport
and Youth Ministry insisted to Forum 18 on 1 February.
The whereabouts, conditions of captivity, and state of health of three
religious leaders from occupied Berdyansk remain unknown. Russia's National
Guard (Rosgvardiya) seized two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, Fr Ivan
Levytsky and Fr Bohdan Heleta, on 16 November 2022. Armed Russian soldiers
seized Serhiy Karpenko, Pastor of the Vefil (Bethel) Protestant Church, on
12 December 2022. The Russian-controlled Berdyansk District Police did not
answer Forum 18's questions. The duty officer at the Russian Military
Command in Melitopol refused to discuss anything with Forum 18 or give any
number for the Military Command in Berdyansk (see below).
In January, the Russian military broke into a Sunday worship meeting of a
Baptist church in the occupied Ukrainian town of Berdyansk in Zaporizhzhia
Region. The military checked the identity of all those present, searched
the building and sealed it, taking the keys. The following day they seized
another Baptist church in the town. The duty officer at the Russian
Military Command in Melitopol refused to discuss anything with Forum 18,
refused to give any number for the Military Command in Berdyansk and put
the phone down (see below).
In Russian-occupied Kherson Region in January, the Russian Regional Police
conducted at least two raids on Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Halls, even
though they have been empty since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in
early 2020. Russian police seized religious literature which they described
as "extremist", noting that that Jehovah's Witnesses are banned in Russia.
The police stressed that anyone continuing the activity of a religious
community Russia has banned risks long jail terms under Russia's Criminal
Code (see below).
The occupation authorities' Kherson Police described Jehovah's Witnesses as
conducting "destructive" activity and "propagandising anti-Orthodox ideas,
spreading extremist literature and rejecting the entry of the region into
Russia" (see below).
In occupied Luhansk, in January 2023 the Russian military seized a Baptist
church that the community has been banned by occupation authorities from
using since 2017. Oleg Pomnikov, head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs
Department of the LPR Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry, questioned whether
the building is a church. "I looked at the records and there is no
registered Baptist organisation in Luhansk," he told Forum 18 (see below).
Pomnikov claimed that the absence of registered Protestant, non-Moscow
Patriarchate Orthodox, and Jehovah's Witness communities in the LPR
"reflects the local population," he claimed (see below).
Pomnikov of the LPR's of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department
insisted that anyone who wants to meet for worship legally is able to do
so. He said the LPR attitude to religious communities has, since October
2022, been strictly governed by Russian Federation laws, including the
Religion Law (see below).
Pomnikov claimed to sympathise with the Roman Catholic parish in Luhansk,
which has been without a priest since its parish priest Fr Grzegorz Rapa, a
Polish citizen, left temporarily in March 2020 and was then repeatedly
blocked by the LPR from returning. Fr Rapa had served the parish since
1993. "I'm very sad that they can't resolve their problems," Pomnikov
claimed to Forum 18. He insisted that if Fr Rapa wants to return, he must
apply to the Russian Foreign Ministry (see below).
The LPR is following the neighbouring Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) by
purging their libraries of literature they and the Russian occupation
authorities regard as "extremist".
On 20 January, the LPR Education and Science Ministry instructed the heads
of educational establishments to remove "literature of an extremist nature,
expressing the ideology of Ukrainian nationalism" from their libraries by
24 January. Educational establishment heads who failed to do so would bear
personal responsibility, they were warned. Yelena Bakhmut, the official who
prepared the letter, refused to discuss it with Forum 18 (see below).
The books to be removed include two on Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (who
headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church until his death in 1944) and one
on St Petro Mohyla, a 17th century Orthodox Metropolitan of Kyiv known for
his educational and publishing activities (see below).
Russian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief imposed on occupied
Freedom of religion or belief violations in the Ukrainian territories
Russia has occupied since 2014 have not followed one pattern.
In occupied and illegally annexed Crimea
government has forcibly imposed Russian laws and restrictions on exercising
human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the occupied parts of the eastern Ukrainian territories of Luhansk
Russian-created Luhansk People's Republic - LPR) and Donetsk
Donetsk People's Republic - LPR) serious violations of freedom of religion
and belief and other human rights have also taken place since 2014.
Russia's February 2022 renewed invasion of Ukraine saw more Ukrainian
territories brought under Russian occupation. As of early February 2023,
Russia controls about 17 per cent of Ukrainian territory:
- 100 per cent of Crimea (including Sevastopol);
- almost all of Luhansk Region;
- about 60 per cent of Donetsk Region;
- about 70 per cent of Zaporizhzhia Region;
- about 70 per cent of Kherson Region;
and small parts of Mykolaiv and Kharkiv Regions.
On 5 October 2022, following referenda that were widely denounced by the
international community, Russia illegally annexed the DPR and LPR,
retaining these names, along with Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia and Kherson
Regions. "The so-called 'referenda' in Ukraine were conducted in areas
under Russian occupation," United Nations Secretary-General António
Guterres said on Twitter on 29 September 2022. "They can't be called a
genuine expression of the popular will."
In 2023, Russia is now following a more coordinated approach to impose the
full range of Russian restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion
or belief (https://www.forum18.org/archi
Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine
Unlawful application of Russian law to occupied Ukrainian territory
Russian occupation officials in 2023 now insist that Russian law applies to
the occupied territories, and that religious communities must have
registration under Russian law.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has
condemned "the unlawful application of Russian Federation legislation by
the occupation authorities of the Russian Federation in the occupied
territory [Crimea]" in its Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine
for 1 August 2020 to 31 January 2021
Under the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian
Persons in Time of War
(2nd part), occupation authorities must must respect the laws in force
in the country (Ukraine) "unless absolutely prevented".
Article 58 notes: "The Occupying Power shall permit ministers of religion
to give spiritual assistance to the members of their religious
Russia was in December 2022, against international law, passing a law
giving its officials and military impunity from prosecution
for crimes if acting "in the interests of the Russian Federation", also
denying justice to those who have been unlawfully prosecuted by occupation
Occupation officials also say that any exercise of freedom of religion or
belief not permitted is punishable under Russia's Criminal or
Administrative Codes (https://www.forum18.org/archi
Berdyansk: "Disappeared" clergy still "disappeared"
One Protestant pastor and two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests seized in
Berdyansk in late 2022
Russian detention, but it is unknown whether they are still alive.
Russian forces have seized many leaders of a variety of religious
Ukrainian territory they occupy. In most of these cases, however, it
remains unclear if religious leaders were targeted
punish the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief.
On 16 November 2022, troops of Russia's National Guard (Rosgvardiya) seized
the two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, Fr Ivan Levytsky and Fr Bohdan
The Donetsk Exarchate has had no news of them since, it told Forum 18 on 2
On 12 December 2022, armed Russian soldiers seized Serhiy Karpenko
(Bethel) Protestant Church, in Berdyansk.
Forum 18 has not been able to find out where Fr Levytsky, Fr Heleta, or
Pastor Karpenko have been held, what their state of health is, or whether
they have been released at an unknown location.
Officers of Berdyansk District's Russian-imposed police did not answer the
phone each time Forum 18 called on 1 February. Forum 18 asked in writing
that morning where Fr Levytsky, Fr Heleta and Pastor Karpenko are, why they
have not been freed and whether they are still alive. Forum 18 had received
no reply by the end of the working day in Berdyansk of 3 February.
The duty officer at the Russian Military Command for Zaporizhzhia Region in
Melitopol refused to discuss anything with Forum 18 on 1 February, refused
to give any number for the Military Command in Berdyansk and put the phone
Among other religious leaders detained by Russia in occupied territory, on
21 September 2022 masked Russian soldiers took from their home in Mariupol
Leonid Ponomaryov, Pastor of a Baptist Council of Churches congregation in
the city, and his wife Tatyana. They were in Donetsk on 21 October 2022
On 22 November 2022, the Russian military seized businessman and
Pentecostal deacon 52-year-old Anatoly Prokopchuk and his 19-year-old son
Aleksandr Prokopchuk, who lived in Nova Kakhovka in Kherson Region. On 26
November 2022, their shot and mutilated bodies were found in a nearby wood
Berdyansk: Baptist churches closed and sealed
Also in Berdyansk, in January 2023 the Russian military closed two
Ukrainian Baptist Union churches which had been able to continue to
function up till that point.
On 22 January the Russian military burst into the Sunday worship service of
the First Baptist Church in Berdyansk. They inspected the identity
documents of each person present and searched the building. They then
forced everyone outside and sealed the building, taking the keys, Ukraine's
Baptist Union noted the next day. On 23 January, the Russian military
summoned the church's pastor to the military headquarters.
The Baptist Church marked its 115th anniversary in September 2022, the
Baptist Union said.
On 23 January, Russian occupation forces closed the Second Baptist Church
in Berdyansk. "The demands were the same – to renounce Ukrainian
registration and to register with the occupation administration," Ukraine's
Baptist Union noted the same day.
A Baptist familiar with the situation told Forum 18 that a church member
had come to the church that day and found Russian soldiers conducting a
search. They seized documents and computers before sealing the building.
The duty officer at the Russian Military Command in Melitopol refused to
discuss anything with Forum 18 on 1 February, refused to give any number
for the Military Command in Berdyansk and put the phone down.
On 18 October 2022, the Russian military commandant of the town of
Chernihivka in Berdyansk District took the keys of the Baptist Church
now on the building is the property of the "administration". However,
Baptists were allowed to continue meetings for worship.
Luhansk: Russian military seize closed Baptist church
At the end of January 2023, the Russian military seized the building of
Emmanuel Baptist Church in Luhansk, the Ukrainian Baptist Union stated on
31 January. The congregation had not been able to use its church building
since 2017, after the enforced closure of all Protestant churches
Russian-controlled Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) in the years after the
illegal entity's establishment in 2014.
"It's on LPR territory and it does not have registration," Oleg Pomnikov,
the head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department of the LPR Culture,
Sport and Youth Ministry since autumn 2022, told Forum 18 from Luhansk on 1
February. He indicated that he had not heard of the seizure of Emmanuel
Baptist Church, and asked Forum 18 for its address and said he would check.
"The building can't have been seized or confiscated – under Russian law
this can't happen without a court order," Pomnikov insisted to Forum 18. He
then questioned whether the building is a church. "I looked at the records
and there is no registered Baptist organisation in Luhansk."
After the Russian-backed creation of the LPR in 2014, the LPR banned all
exercise of freedom of religion or belief without permission
rulers. It also refused to register any Protestant churches – or
communities of a range of other faiths, including the Orthodox Church of
Ukraine and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Luhansk: "We are now part of Russia. The situation is different"
Oleg Pomnikov of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department of the LPR
Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry insisted that anyone who wants to meet
for worship legally is able to do so. He said the LPR attitude to religious
communities has, since October 2022, been strictly governed by Russian
As of 3 February, 202 religious organisations in occupied Luhansk Region
that had previously been registered by the Russian-backed LPR were
registered with the Russian tax authorities. Almost all of these - 190 -
are Russian Orthodox communities under the Moscow Patriarchate. Only 12 are
from other communities: 8 Muslim; 1 Jewish; 1 Hare Krishna; 1 Old Believer;
and 1 Roman Catholic.
Forum 18 asked Pomnikov why no Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist,
Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Kyiv Patriarchate or Jehovah's Witness
communities have been allowed to register
one registered Buddhist community also." However, no Buddhist community
appears on the Russian tax authorities' list of registered organisations.
Pomnikov of the LPR Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department claimed that
the absence of registered Protestant, non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox and
Jehovah's Witness communities "reflects the local population".
Many religious communities have not been able to, or do not want to seek
the LPR or – since 2022 – under Russian law. When Forum 18 asked what
would happen to communities that meet without registration, Pomnikov
replied: "They would consciously break the law if they are not registered.
This is the law of the Russian Federation."
Pomnikov of the LPR Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department pointed to
Article 9 of Russia's Religion Law, which imposes restrictive conditions
for registration. Under Russian law, all unregistered groups must give the
authorities full information about those who attend, meeting places, and
Since the LPR was created in 2014 after Russia's invasion, LPR police have
raided meetings for worship
registration, and courts subsequently fined many religious leaders for
leading those meetings. Protestants have been among those particularly
targeted by such raids. When Forum 18 asked about this, Pomnikov responded:
"I am not aware that the acts of the police were directed at people's
religious activity. They were tackling violations of the law."
When Forum 18 listed some of the fines on religious leaders
Pomnikov responded: "Since October we are now part of Russia. The situation
Kherson Region: Raids on empty Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Halls
The Russian Kherson Regional Police launched at least one criminal
investigation and conducted at least two raids on Jehovah's Witness Kingdom
Halls, even though they have not functioned since 2020. Jehovah's Witnesses
across Ukraine stopped meeting in Kingdom Halls in early 2020 because of
the coronavirus pandemic. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in
February 2022, Kingdom Halls did not resume their activity in the regions
occupied by Russia.
On 29 November 2022, Kherson Regional Police conducted "operational
investigation measures" in the village of Krasne on the Black Sea coast
which uncovered a group of Jehovah's Witnesses. Officers seized "banned"
religious literature. They claim that the community was led by a
Kherson Regional Police reminded readers of its Telegram channel that
Russia had banned all Jehovah's Witness activity
Russia occupied Kherson. It also noted that under Russian Criminal Code
Article 282.2, individuals can be jailed for up to 10 years for organising
the activity of an "extremist" religious community
for recruiting others to join such a community. The police said an
investigation was underway.
Forum 18 understands that the 65-year-old individual is no longer in
On 23 January 2023, Kherson Police announced that they had raided the
Kingdom Hall in the village of Novosofiivka close to the southern Black Sea
coast. Footage of the raid on the Police's Telegram channel showed officers
searching the empty premises and finding boxes and cupboards of Jehovah's
The police report described Jehovah's Witnesses as conducting "destructive"
activity and "propagandising anti-Orthodox ideas, spreading extremist
literature and rejecting the entry of the region into Russia". The report
added that officers had "established the identity of the leader and
activists of the cell". It reminded readers that Russia had banned all
Jehovah's Witness activity under "anti-extremism" legislation.
On 23 January, Kherson Police also announced that they had that day raided
the Kingdom Hall in the village of Oleshky, close to the Dnipro River. They
claimed the raid was part of "operational investigation measures to halt
the underground activity of extremist organisations". The Police report
said officers had seized 1,700 "extremist" books and magazine, a collection
box and portable display stands.
Luhansk: Will Catholic priest be able to return?
Oleg Pomnikov, the head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department of
the LPR Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry, claimed to sympathise with the
Roman Catholic parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Luhansk
and a smaller parish in Stakhanov [official Ukrainian name Kadiyevka]. The
Luhansk parish had registration under the LPR and in November 2022 it was
among the religious communities in the LPR whose registration the Russian
The parishes have had no priest since March 2020
Rapa left expecting to be able to return. However, LPR officials repeatedly
rejected all his and his bishop's attempts to be allowed to return. Fr
Rapa, a Polish priest, has served in Luhansk since 1993.
"I'm very sad that they can't resolve their problems," Pomnikov told Forum
18. "Maybe there's a political reason why Fr Grzegorz has not been able to
return, I don't know. Maybe he hasn't asked to return. But there is no
Forum 18 pointed out that the LPR authorities had repeatedly rejected
to get permission for Fr Rapa's return. Pomnikov of the LPR Religious and
Ethnic Affairs Department insisted that the situation is now different
since the LPR's annexation by Russia. "If he wants to return he'll have to
apply to the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation in accordance with
Luhansk: Purge of educational establishment libraries
The LPR Education and Science Ministry has ordered a purge of libraries in
educational establishments. On 20 January 2023, in a letter seen by Forum
18, acting minister Yevgeny Miroshnichenko instructed the heads of
educational establishments to remove "literature of an extremist nature,
expressing the ideology of Ukrainian nationalism" from their libraries.
The LPR had earlier banned various texts as "extremist"
edition of the Gospel of John in the widely-used Russian Synodal
translation originally published in 1820.
Miroshnichenko of the LPR Education and Science Ministry supplied a list of
365 books to be removed. He also ordered libraries to remove a wide range
of other literature, including anything about the holodomor (the Ukrainian
famine in the 1930s caused by Stalin's policies), literature
"propagandising European gender 'values'", literature on events in Ukraine
since 2014, and all 90 books from Famous Ukrainians, a biographical series
aimed at teenagers.
The Famous Ukrainians series includes a book on St Petro Mohyla, a 17th
century Orthodox Metropolitan of Kyiv who was known for his educational and
publishing activities, and a book on Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky.
(Metropolitan Sheptytsky headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church until
his death in 1944, and protected Jews from the Holocaust
at a time when such acts were punishable by death.)
The list of "extremist" books to be removed also includes a book on
Metropolitan Sheptytsky by the former Soviet prisoner of conscience
Myroslav Marynovych. "I believe in God and in Ukraine", by the former
Soviet prisoner of conscience and Orthodox Christian Levko Lukyanenko, is
also on the "extremist" book list.
Miroshnichenko of the LPR Education and Science Ministry ordered libraries
to remove all such "extremist" books and put them in sealed boxes, and
report on this to the Ministry by 24 January. Educational establishment
heads who failed to do so would bear personal responsibility, he warned.
Yelena Bakhmut, the official who prepared the letter for Miroshnichenko,
refused to discuss it. "Put your questions in writing," she told Forum 18
from Luhansk on 2 February. When Forum 18 began asking why books on St
Petro Mohyla and Metropolitan Sheptytsky were among those ordered removed
from educational institutions libraries, she put the phone down.
The Russian-imposed LPR Culture Minister Dmitry Sidorov told a meeting
chaired by Russia's Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova on 20 January that
public libraries have already removed "extremist" literature.
Oleg Pomnikov, the head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department of
the LPR Culture, Sport and Youth Ministry, defended the removal from
libraries of "extremist" books. "Sheptytsky was an active supporter of
Nazism and of Ukrainian nationalism," he claimed to Forum 18. "The Greek
Catholic Church supported the Banderists." He made no comment about St
Natalya Rastorguyevka, director of the LPR's Gorky Universal Science
Library, refused to discuss the removal of works the LPR and Russian
government regards as "extremist" from local libraries. "You can argue
about this issue for a long time," she told Forum 18 from Luhansk on 1
February. "But any questions must be submitted through the Culture
Rastorguyevka refused to say if her library has, for example, removed any
religious works on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials
The neighbouring Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) has also conducted such a
book purge. In May 2022 the DPR Culture Ministry began a programme of
removing from public libraries literature that it regards as "extremist"
only books on Ukrainian culture and history and books about Adolf Hitler,
but books on "political and religious figures". (END)
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