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Ukraine would face ‘significant religious oppression’ under Russia, USCIRF warns

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WASHINGTON (BP) – Religious communities including Christians in Ukraine would “likely be targeted with violence and oppression under any Russian influence,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said March 16.

USCIRF is appalled by Russia’s “brutal invasion of Ukraine,” the commission said in its press release.

“We are horrified by Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, the senseless loss of life, and the lack of respect for human rights. There is a direct relationship between religious freedom violations and the dismantling of civil society in and by Russia,” USCIRF said, quoting Commissioner James W. Carr. “The Russian government uses distortions of religious history to support its claim that Ukrainians have no independent ethno-religious identity or state tradition.

“In 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, allowing many parishes previously under the jurisdiction of Moscow to sever those ties in a move that infuriated Russian nationalist sentiments. These parishes and their leadership are in jeopardy if Russian control expands.”

Among Baptists, about 2,000 churches are members of the Ukrainian Baptist Union, comprising about 100,000 believers, estimates Yarsolav “Slavik” Pyzh, president of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv.

“The church will go underground,” he has said in reference to any Russian control of Ukraine. “You have to understand that historically we had that experience before under the Soviet Union. So the church did not forget what does it mean to be persecuted, and I think that we will rearrange, reorganize, and still do what we always do, still preach the Gospel.”

USCIRF’s warning came as the United Nations International Court of Justice ruled 13-2 on March 16 that Russia “shall immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February.” Only Vice-President Kirill Gevorgian of Russia and Judge Xue Hanqin of China dissented, but the court has no direct means of enforcing its ruling.

Russia has expanded its invasion of Ukraine, assaulting widespread military and civilian targets with casualty counts varying widely. The Ukrainian government said 3,000 civilians have died in Mariupol & Kharkiv alone, while the UN puts civilian deaths at approximately 700. Military death counts of Ukrainian forces vary between 1,300 and 4,000. Three million civilians have fled Ukraine, the UN said.

“Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the war in Ukraine where intense fighting is reported in the north, east, and south of the country,” UN representative Farhan Haq said in a March 15 briefing. press statement. “Airstrikes and shelling have continued with significant damage reported in cities including Donetsk, Luhansk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Zhytomyr oblast.”

USCIRF said it has documented Russia’s religious oppression for years and warned of its implications for Russia and beyond.

“In the areas of Ukraine already occupied by Russia in 2014, we have seen the Russian government use baseless charges of religious extremism and terrorism to silence dissent, justify endless raids and mass arrests, and close religious institutions that do not conform to its narrow interpretation of ‘traditional’ religion,” USCIRF Commissioner Khizr Khan said in the press statement. “The Russian government’s aggression toward religious freedom is an indicator that much worse will follow, as we certainly see a risk of this pattern being repeated as Russia expands into Ukraine.”

Russian shelling has damaged “numerous religious buildings,” USCIRF said, noting that while some Russian Orthodox clergy oppose the war, “Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has publicly blessed it and provided supposed religious justification.”

USCIRF provides links here to several reports and podcasts it has written on Russian religious oppression.