war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Nothing is sacred

16.02.2024    available: Українською
Andriy Didenko
The Russian occupiers destroyed hundreds of religious buildings and kidnapped, tortured, killed, and wounded dozens of priests... This was discussed at a press conference on the Russian occupier’s war crimes against Ukrainian religious communities and clergy.

© Андрій Діденко © Andriy Didenko

© Andriy Didenko

The event, which took place on January 24 at the UKRINFORM news agency, was attended by Viktor Yelensky, head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience; Yevhen Zakharov, Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group; Vyacheslav Likhachev, member of the expert council of the Center for Civil Liberties; Ruslan Khalikov, religious scholar, head of the Religion on Fire project.

"In the foreign policy arena, Russia is trying to create an image of an old-style traditional empire that cares about conservative values. Religious and conservative circles in the world listen to this propaganda. This is not logical or natural. In reality, crimes due to religious affiliation, crimes against clergy, crimes against religious buildings are a systematic and well-established practice of the Russian Federation,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev, a member of the expert council of the Center for Civil Liberties. “This can be clearly seen during the last two years of full-scale aggression. But even before that, we saw it in the previously occupied territory for ten years."

Russia has been destroying religious freedom in the occupied territories for ten years

"Today’s Russia is an inherent enemy of freedom of conscience. It is an enemy of any manifestation of free will, free thought, and free religious organizations in particular,” said Viktor Yelensky, head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience. “Religious freedom ended in the occupied territories immediately after the outbreak of war in February 2014. As soon as Russia came to Crimea, the first victims were Pentecostals and Evangelical Baptists. Some left the peninsula by whole communities, such as the Pentecostal community in Balaklava. Jehovah’s Witnesses were immediately banned, and priests of the Kyiv Patriarchate were persecuted. There were several demonstrative executions of priests and Protestant leaders during the first days and months of the invasion of Donbas by Strelkov’s militants."

In June 2014, in the captured Sloviansk, Russian militants of the so-called DPR tortured and then shot deacons of the Pentecostal church Volodymyr Velychko and Viktor Bradarsky, and two sons of the senior pastor, 30-year-old Ruvim and 24-year-old Albert Pavenko.

On the morning of June 14, 2014, Pastor Serhiy Skorobahach, who was the chairman of the Mariupol Council of Churches, was killed in a terrorist attack.

The occupation authorities of the ORDLO forced all religious organizations to “re-register.” They announced that without it, any religious activity would be “prohibited.” However, after the deadline for “re-registration” expired on October 16, 2014, it turned out that all evangelical churches in the region were denied “registration” and deprived of their prayer buildings. The occupation authorities also banned religious gatherings in private homes.

“Evangelical Christians were banned in the so-called ORDLO. They were declared either Ukrainian or American spies,” says Viktor Yelensky. “The terror against the clergy, believers, and religious centers intensified significantly with the outbreak of the big war. Already in March, a martyrology of executed priests began to be compiled.”

“He went to the occupiers with a cross”

According to the Tribunal for Putin (T4P) initiative, the occupiers deliberately killed at least two priests, five were killed by bombing and shelling, and eight more were wounded in such attacks.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) priest Maksym Kozachina was killed by the Russian military in the very first days of the big war near the village of Ivankiv in the Kyiv region. At the time of the murder, he was wearing a clergyman’s cassock.

Максим Козачина, фото:

Maksym Kozachyna. Photo: Ukrinform

“Kozachina, who was a military chaplain during the ATO, was in Donbas in the first years of hostilities and looked death in the face. But he did not think that he would meet death in Kyiv Polissia. In his cassock, with a cross on his chest and Bible, always with him, on February 26, 2022, after the service in Ivankiv, he drove his old fourth-model Zhiguli to Rozvazhiv to his family. He hoped that the Russian soldiers would not touch the priest. But at the checkpoint at the intersection of Rozvazhivska Street and the ring road, Russians stopped him with machine gun fire...,” described Maksym Kozachyna’s death Pavlo Smovzh, editor-in-chief of the Ivankiv district newspaper.

On March 5, 2022, the Russian invaders shot dead the rector of the OCU church, Rostyslav Dudarenko. It happened at a checkpoint in his native village of Yasnohorodka, Byshiv community, Fastiv district, Kyiv region. Father Rostislav was walking toward the Russian military with a cross in his hands, and he was shot.

Besides the clergy, some employees of religious organizations and theologians were also killed, Viktor Yelensky recalls.

According to him, “An expert in ancient languages, Ivan Kyslyuk, was killed in Bucha. The rector of the Evangelical Seminary in Irpin was also killed. These are crimes against religion and freedom of conscience as well. Kyslyuk was a unique person. He taught at theological academies and seminaries regardless of their confessional affiliation. He had a school, and whole generations learned from him how to translate from Church Slavonic.”

Abducted and tortured

According to information gathered by the T4P human rights initiative, the occupiers have abducted at least two dozen religious figures.

“It is largely unknown where they are now,” said Yevhen Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. “Five more priests were abducted but later released. After returning to the government-controlled territory of Ukraine or after de-occupation, all of them said that they had been subjected to severe torture. One priest was deported and expelled from his hometown under the pretext that he was a Ukrainian propagandist. His fate is unknown.”

You can read about how Russians torture Ukrainian priests in the section Voices of War on the KHPG website: ’There were 53 of us in a cell for six’. A chaplain says about 268 days of captivity. “Night, frost -22 ºC, snow, we were forced to kneel, and all of us were beaten very badly...” (in Ukrainian).

Among the abductees are mainly priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, as well as various Protestant churches and the UGCC, the human rights activist noted.

Thus, in Berdiansk, on November 16, 2022, Russians took away two priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. They were accused of allegedly setting up a weapons depot for local partisans. Even Pope Francis appealed to the Russian authorities regarding the fate of these priests, but his appeal was ignored.

“Today, one of them, Father Bohdan Geleta, is kept in Sevastopol. The other, Father Ivan Levitsky, is held in a penal institution near Rostov. They were not provided with a lawyer during the so-called investigation,” said Yevhen Zakharov.

The human rights activists do not know where the other abducted priests are held.

“We have set ourselves the task of finding out where these people are, in what places, and what their fate behind bars is,” emphasizes the KHPG director.

Valentin Zhuravlev, pastor of the Source of Life Protestant Church, was abducted in the temporarily occupied Melitopol on June 18, 2022: armed Russian soldiers took him away right during a joint Saturday prayer of believers of different churches in the city center. Pastor Valentyn Zhuravlev is a member of the Interfaith Committee of Christian Churches of Melitopol. In his secular life, he runs a veterinary practice and owns the Aibolit veterinary clinic. Since the occupation, clergy of Protestant religious organizations have already been abducted in Melitopol.

Shot up churches

The Russian military has damaged more than 530 Ukrainian churches of various denominations since the beginning of the big war. Religious scholar Ruslan Khalikov, head of the Religion on Fire project, provided these data. A quarter of the damaged churches were significantly harmed. The damaged religious buildings are mostly located in the Donetsk region — more than 100. More than 80 religious buildings were damaged in the Kyiv region, more than 60 — in the Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, more than 55 — in the Kherson region, and more than 30 — in the Zaporizhzhia region. Some churches were shelled several times.

Russians often use indiscriminate shelling, but sometimes, religious buildings are specifically targeted by the enemy. “They strike deliberately, first survey with a drone, and then hit with a targeted attack. And religious buildings are mainly not located near military facilities; they are usually located in residential areas of the city, in parks,” the expert notes.

Пошкоджений обстрілами Храм Преображення Господнього на Салтівці, фото:

The Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Saltovka district, Kharkiv, damaged by shelling. Source:

About half of the damaged buildings are churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. “Russians claim that they allegedly ’protect traditional values and Orthodox Church,’ but they are hitting Orthodox churches first and foremost,” Ruslan Khalikov wonders.

Protestant churches account for about a third of the destroyed religious buildings. Jewish and Muslim religious buildings are also under fire. In Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling of Hindu centers was recorded.

But shelling of religious objects is not the only violation of International Humanitarian Law by the Russian military, Ruslan Khalikov explains. Russian troops often militarize religious sites. This is a systemic phenomenon recorded throughout the occupied territories — in Bucha, Melitopol, the Kharkiv and Chernihiv regions. Russians use churches either as military depots or headquarters. A sniper station was set up on the bell tower of an Orthodox church. In Yakymivka, Zaporizhzhia region, the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses was turned into a club for military and patriotic education of young people.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court qualifies the following acts as a war crime: “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives.” The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is making appropriate efforts to ensure that these crimes are adequately documented and referred to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

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