A new report claims that Russia is ‘weaponizing religion’ in its conflict with Ukraine and is persecuting churches in the occupied areas.
The report, by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), supports claims made by partners of UK-based Release International that Russian forces are persecuting and repressing the church in areas under their control.
The report states: ‘Russia continues to weaponize religion… Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian soldiers or occupation authorities, have reportedly committed at least 76 acts of religious persecution in Ukraine.’
According to the report, Russian forces have closed or taken over 76 places of worship, looted, desecrated or destroyed 13, and have killed or seized 29 religious leaders in occupied Ukraine.
Researchers describe the religious repression as ‘part of a deliberate campaign to systematically eradicate “undesirable” religious organisations in Ukraine and promote the Moscow Patriarchate.’
They regard the repression in Ukraine as an extension of Russia’s policy towards its own citizens in Russia itself. They argue: ‘Russian authorities systematically repress religious liberty in Russia as a matter of state policy.’
In 2016, Vladimir Putin ratified the “Yarovaya law”, requiring all religious organisations and churches in Russia to register with the government. That law, according to the ISW, effectively outlawed foreign missionary work and persecuted Baptists, along with many other Protestant sects.
The counter-terrorism measure outlaws missionary activities, broadly defined as preaching, praying, disseminating religious materials, and even answering questions about religion outside of officially state-approved sites. The justification given is to prevent “extremism” and “terrorism”.
The measure has been used to prosecute American Baptist and Pentecostal missionaries operating in Russia and to burn foreign-distributed Bibles that have not been properly registered with the state.
The ISW argue that ‘Russia is exporting its state policies of systematic religious persecution to Russian-occupied Ukraine.’
Release International, which serves the persecuted church around the world, has previously reported that occupation forces have closed churches, abducted and killed pastors.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russia’s primary target is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which continues to assert its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. Thirty-four per cent of the reported acts of persecution are against the UOC.
Other denominations are also targeted, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and Protestant churches, particularly Evangelical Baptists. The ISW states: ‘Baptists made up 13% of victims – the largest single group after Ukrainian Orthodox.’
The ISW has monitored reports of persecution against Baptists near the occupied cities of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Mariupol, and Melitopol. They say Russian forces’ persecution of Protestants is most intense in southern Ukraine.
According to reports, Russian soldiers are harassing Baptists, calling them ‘American spies’ and ‘enemies of the Russian Orthodox people’.
It’s alleged one Russian officer told Christians in Ukraine: ‘Evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed. You need to be buried alive.’
The report concludes: ‘Russia will continue to weaponise the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and religion to incite social tensions in Ukraine and influence battlefield realities.’
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has stated that Russia is a growing violator of religious freedoms.
The ISW warns that Russia may try to eradicate religious organisations that remain independent of Kremlin control. Russian forces did the same with the Crimea’s Muslim Tartar population, after occupying the peninsula in 2014.
In Russia itself, there are signs that the state is clamping down on religious protests against the war.
On March 30, a court in Moscow jailed a 63-year-old Orthodox Christian, Mikhail Simonov, for seven years for disseminating “false information”.
Simonov had made two short social media posts condemning Russia’s war against the Ukraine. He stated: ‘We, Russia, have become godless. Forgive us, Lord!’
According to human rights organisation Forum 18, Simonov is the first person to be sentenced to imprisonment for expressing his opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine in religious terms.
Two others are standing trial for opposing the war from a religious perspective. Orthodox Christian Anna Chagina, a musician and a teacher, was arrested for displaying a poster reading, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matthew 5:9) during an anti-war protest in March 2022.
She later told Forum 18: ‘Many times, I inwardly turn to these words of Christ and realise that peacemaking begins with what is in a person’s heart.’
In March, Archbishop Viktor Ivanovich Pivovarov was fined a month’s average wages, for giving a sermon against the war. When he was taken to court, the Archbishop declared: ‘There is a holy war, and it’s an aggressive one.’
Release International describes the ISW report as disturbing; confirming and highlighting what its own partners have been saying in Ukraine, that in areas under Russian occupation, Christians are facing violent persecution.
Says CEO Paul Robinson: ‘The report describes a campaign of state-sanctioned systematic religious persecution, targeting Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, Evangelicals and others.
‘It condemns the conduct of Russian forces towards Protestants in occupied Ukraine as nothing less than brutal. In their words, President Putin is weaponising religion. State control over religion has become a factor in this war.
‘Please pray for the Christians of Ukraine, that they may weather the storm. And pray for the church in Russia, that the Lord will refine it, raise up godly leaders, and give ordinary believers in that country a hunger and thirst for righteousness.’
Release International is working with partners in Ukraine to support Christians providing pastoral care and medical help in occupied and disputed areas.
Release International is active in some 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families; Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.