Punishment for “illegal” worship meetings has included the seizure of religious literature, fines of up to $160, 50 hours’ community service, and ten days’ imprisonment.

A Pentecostal church in the rebel-held Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine was raided by armed men on 6 August, the latest in a series of raids on religious communities, reports Oslo-based news service Forum 18.

The raid took place during a worship meeting at the Grace Church of God Pentecostal church in Alchevsk. Armed men forced congregants to lie face down on the floor, seized a church computer and arrested a number of church leaders, according to Forum 18. Two of them, including the pastor, were scheduled to appear before court yesterday (8 August).

The armed men were from the State Security Ministry of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), a witness told Forum 18.

Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been targeted since pro-Russian rebels took control of a third of the Luhansk region in March 2014 and established a rebel administration.

Raids have taken place in Krasnodon, Gorodyshche, Molodogvardeisk, Stakhanov, Nagolno-Tarasovka, Chervonopartizansk, Alchevsk and Luhansk, according to Forum 18.

Punishment for “illegal” worship meetings has included the seizure of religious literature, fines of up to US$160 (the equivalent of more than six weeks’ wages), 50 hours’ community service, and ten days’ imprisonment.

The LPR State Security Ministry announced last month on its website that it had banned the “’destructive activity of the extremist religious organisation the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian/Baptist Churches”.

“The ministry claimed that the Baptist Union, ‘with its headquarters in Kiev’, had refused to submit to compulsory state registration locally [and that it] preached the idea of the forcible seizure of the republic by the Ukrainian armed forces, [maintaining] close ties with representatives of Ukrainian nationalist armed formations,” Forum 18 reported.

Religion Law

The churches in LPR fear more measures against them, as a six-month deadline for re-registration under a new Religion Law expires later this month.

The law prescribes compulsory registration for all religious communities and that each must have at least 30 adult local resident members. All religious literature must also be registered and used only by the community that registered it.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) has also been threatened on a regular basis, according to Bishop Afasani (Yavorsky) of Luhansk and Starobilsk.

Rebels initially forced the closure of all eight of its churches in the city of Luhansk, and ten more in rebel-held areas. Since then, two churches in the city have re-opened but the bishop fears that the new religion law will make it impossible for churches to function.

“Officials have warned that from 14 August activity by the Kiev Patriarchate will be halted,” he told Forum 18.

The Kiev Patriarchate, the second largest Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, broke away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in 1992.

“The Russian invasion in 2014 sharpened differences between the [two], each of which supported its respective government’s stance over the seizure of Crimea and the armed incursion into Eastern Ukraine,” according to former US Navy officer James Durso, who said the battle for Ukraine has a religious component that “is well understood by leaders in Moscow and Kiev”.

“Should the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine unite and be freed of Moscow’s jurisdiction, the united Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be the largest after Russia’s and will cause the center of gravity of Orthodoxy to shift west, endangering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to consolidate the Russian world,” he wrote.