KIEV / BUDAPEST: October 24, 2019. (By Stefan J Bos for BosNewsLife) Authorities in a critical part of war-torn eastern Ukraine have banned worship meetings of all Protestants and several other churches and religious communities, activists told BosNewsLife.
Religious rights group Forum 18 said the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic also prevents religious leaders from outside the territory from visiting fellow believers. “The officials denied access to the Greek-Catholic bishop and one Greek-Catholic priest, the bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and many Protestant leaders.”
Those who organize unauthorized worship or other public gatherings face heavy fines, forced community labor and even short prison terms, according to activists familiar with the situation. The influential Russian Orthodox Church is considered the main religion of pro-Russian separatists whose leaders show little tolerance towards other faith groups, activists have suggested.
“Courts continue to punish people who conduct worship meetings in defiance of official prohibitions,” Forum 18 said. “Of the six known cases in 2019 – all from different Baptist denominations – two were fined ‘about a month’s average salary each. One was given an 8 pm community work order and the other three were left without punishment. The last known fine was imposed on Pastor Pyotr Tatarenko on October 7, ”the group explained.
Communities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists in the Council of Churches, who refuse to apply for registration on policy grounds, are also considered “illegal”.
Other congregations, including the Pentecostal Union and the Baptist Union, say they cannot meet for worship. “Our churches are empty,” said a Protestant Christian, adding that “church members meet in houses, but with no more than four people.”
Local Christians say the situation in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine reminds them of when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when staunch Christianity was discouraged by Communist rulers.
Pro-Russian separatists seized parts of the Lugansk region in eastern Ukraine in March 2014 and proclaimed the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Russian-backed rebels also took parts of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 and quickly named it the Donetsk People’s Republic. Heavy fighting ensued between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. The ongoing conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives, according to United Nations sources.
Local authorities have reportedly defended their religious measures by claiming faith communities that have not been registered are illegal after special decrees were approved by regional lawmakers last year. However, Baptist Union congregations, which applied for registration before the deadline, say they were all rejected by authorities.
In addition, it added to the difficulties for those who wanted to visit the faithful. “The only Catholic priest still authorized to enter can stay up to three months at most, the next three months outside the territory. In the months when he is denied access, Mass must be relayed to the congregation on the Internet, ”Forum 18 said.
These measures deprive practitioners “of the possibility of receiving communion.” Receiving communion is an integral part of attending Mass for Catholics, ”the group added in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
Pro-Russian separatist prosecutors have also opened an “extremist” investigation against a Luhansk priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in his 60s, according to sources familiar with the matter. For five months, he was reportedly prohibited from leaving the country.
“Officials have sued at least six local religious leaders” in 2019 for leading worship meetings without permission, Forum 18 said. “Among the known cases, two religious leaders were fined and one was fined. received a community work order,
while the other three avoided punishment. All the known cases of Forum 18 concern Protestants.
Activists cited an incident in February when ten masked and armed fighters allegedly raided a worship meeting at the independent Path of Salvation Baptist Church in the city of Luhansk. “They claim to have found religious literature that church members insist they planted.” In a final hearing in March, a Louhansk court acquitted Pastor Anatoly Tolstenko, 82, on charges of “illegal worship” and storage of religious literature that authorities considered “extremist”.
After a police raid in March at the Sunday worship meeting of a Protestant community in the city of Sverdlovsk or Dovzhansk in Ukrainian, officials indicted Pastor Nikolai Muratov, in his seventies. In the end, he was not punished.
But other pastors were not so lucky. After security forces interrupted the Sunday April 21 meeting of the Baptist congregation of the Council of Churches in the city of Krasnodon or Sorokyne in Ukrainian, Pastor Vladimir Rytikov was sentenced to 8 p.m. community service.
He appealed his conviction, but this week it was rejected by the Supreme Court in Luhansk, which also upheld the sentence. Church members accompanied Pastor Rytikov to court to provide support, praying with him before and after the hearing, and during the recess of proceedings, trial observers said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seeking a peace deal to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“I explained to the court that I consider myself not guilty,” said Pastor Rytikov. He told the court that his congregation has been meeting at the same location since 1961. “Entrance to our services is free to anyone who wishes, and the authorities know it.
After Pastor Rytikov told the Supreme Court that he was being punished for his faith, Judge Tatyana Minskaya reportedly replied: “We are not judging you for your faith but for breaking the law.
Another pastor, Pyotr Nagorny of a Baptist Union congregation in the village of Slavyanoserbsk, was punished for visiting a sick member of his congregation along with several other church members. Neighbors reported them to the police, according to informed sources.
“The Slavyanoserbsk District Court found him guilty under article 20.2, part 2 of the Administrative Code and fined him 5,000 Russian rubles. This represents more than three weeks of average local salary for people working in the formal sector, ”explained Forum 18.
Under pressure from a higher court, the case was ultimately quashed.
Officials also filed a complaint earlier this year against Vladimir Devyanin, head of a Baptist Union congregation in the city of Kirovsk, or Holubivka in Ukrainian.
“The Kirovsk City Court found him guilty under article 20.2 of the Administrative Code, part 2, and fined him 7,000 Russian rubles. This is more than a month’s average local salary for people working in the formal sector, ”Forum 18 noted.
Pastor Devyanin appealed his conviction and fine, but a Supreme Court in Luhansk dismissed his appeal in August, court officials told Forum 18 this week.
Pastor Pyotr Tatarenko, who heads the Baptist congregation of the Krasnodon Council of Churches, has also been charged after a police raid in August at a Sunday worship rally.
This month, a local court fined him 7,000 Russian rubles, “which is more than a month’s average local salary for people working in the formal sector,” Forum 18 said.
Pastor Tatarenko appealed against his conviction and the fine to the Luhansk Supreme Court. No date has yet been set for a hearing.
Amidst the tensions, Christians and church leaders say they feel increasingly isolated.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy faces an uphill battle to sell a peace deal he endorsed with Russia and pro-Moscow separatists to end the conflict. This would see two separatist republics become autonomous, although they are still part of Ukraine.
The historic agreement, which also involves the withdrawal of forces from the front lines, has been hailed by the Kremlin. But Ukrainian nationalists who organize protests oppose the deal.