Dozens of churches in the rebel-held Luhansk region of Ukraine have had to stop meeting after their registration applications were turned down by the authorities of the self-declared republic, reports Oslo-based news agency Forum 18.
The deadline for religious communities to register, set for 15 October by the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), was part of the implementation of a new Religion Law that came into force in February.
The new law prescribed compulsory registration for all religious communities, with those that were already registered but failed to re-register “considered to have halted their activity”, according to Forum 18.
The denial of their applications has affected Protestant churches, including Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, and some Catholic churches. Forum 18 reported that two Catholic parishes in Luhansk and Stakhanov are still waiting for the outcome of their applications. Protestant and Evangelical churches have also faced fines and raids on their places of worship.
Some of the religious communities that were successful in obtaining registration belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Hare Krishna community, according to Forum 18.
According to the news agency in July the LPR State Security Ministry announced 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 LPR, along with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), both backed by Russia, declared independence from Ukraine in April 2014. This resulted in an ongoing armed conflict between Ukrainian government forces and separatist groups supported by Russia. The rebel administration currently controls nearly one-third of Ukraine’s Luhansk region and has declared martial law.
‘Our building no longer belongs to us’
Most of the 44 local Baptist churches, members of the Ukrainian Baptist Union, filed for re-registration but all applications were turned down, said Forum 18.
Under the LPR government every application needs approval of an “Expert Commission of State Religious Studies Expert Analysis”.
One refusal letter, seen by Forum 18, said the submission had been “inadmissible” because it contained violations of Article 18 of the Religion Law, though it did not give details.
Andrei Litsoev, head of the Religious Organisations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Youth and Sport Ministry in Luhansk, was reportedly unwilling to explain to Forum 18 the rejection of many applications and potential repercussions for those meeting without a permit.
In August the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the mandatory registration would “limit freedom of religion or belief and create protection concerns for parishioners”.
“We don’t know if we can hold a service next Sunday in our church hall … The authorities said that our buildings no longer belong to us,” a church member from Luhansk told the Kiev-based Institute for Religious Freedom, as quoted by Forum 18.
Some Seventh-day Adventist congregations have decided to stop their activities altogether, including their charitable work, to avoid “provoking unpleasantness” and protect church properties, musical instruments and religious items from being confiscated, a church member told the news agency.