Authorities of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), an unrecognized entity that declared independence from Ukraine in 2014, have halted worship meetings by a range of religious communities, seized religious literature and fined religious leaders.
The most recent raid came on a Pentecostal Church in Alchevsk on Aug. 6.
Earlier raids included one June 10 on a Baptist congregation in the town of Krasnodon (official Ukrainian name Sorokyne), near the eastern border with Russia. The church had gathered for its regular Sunday morning worship meeting when police arrived.
Officers told church members there that under Article 9 of the local religion law, religious communities are banned from meeting unless they have the compulsory state registration.
A July 26 announcement by LPR stated it had banned the “destructive activity of the extremist religious organization the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian/Baptist Churches,” claiming that the Baptist Union “with its headquarters in Kiev” had refused to submit to compulsory state registration locally.
The announcement went on to claim that the Baptists maintained close ties to Ukrainian nationalists, subjected church members to “psychotropic substances” and invited local medical personnel to “mass religious events” where private medical activity was conducted without authorization from the relevant LPR officials.
Pastor Igor Bandura, first deputy head of Ukraine’s Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that he has seen no document confirming the ban.
“We’ve seen no court document or other legal order,” he said Aug. 2. “Our churches mostly still function, though officials have forcibly closed some, including the one in Molodogvardeisk.”
In addition to raids of Baptist churches and fines against Baptist pastors, armed men have seized five Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls. Only two of the 18 pre-2014 Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev
Patriarchate churches locally still function.
The attacks on churches are part of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian nationalists. The rebel administration currently controls about a third of Ukraine’s Luhansk Region. Pro-Russian rebels similarly seized parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk Region in April 2014 and proclaimed what they called the Donetsk People’s Republic. The rebel administration currently controls nearly half of Ukraine’s Donetsk Region. The rebel-held area adjoins the rebel-held area of Luhansk Region.
LPR authorities insist that religious communities that have not undergone local registration are illegal. They point to a February 2018 local religion law approved by the LPR People’s Council that imposes compulsory registration on all religious communities. According to that law, religious communities must have at least 30 adult local resident members to apply for registration. The law also imposes state registration of all religious literature, which once approved can be distributed only by religious communities among their own members and must have the religious community’s full name on it.
Religious communities in rebel-held territory fear that measures against them could be stepped up after Aug. 18, when the six-month deadline for re-registering under the new religion law expired. Article 33, Part 1 of the law declares that communities which failed to re-register by then “are deemed to have ceased their activity in the territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Any community seeking registration has to be approved by a special commission created by the state. As of June, only two religious communities, both Ukrainian Orthodox churches affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, had gained registration, though 230 religious communities have applied. Some churches in the region, including those affiliated with the Council of Churches Baptists have a policy of not seeking state permission to meet for worship and exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief in any parts of the former Soviet Union where they are active.
Vladimir Rytikov, pastor of the Krasnodon church, said rebel officials have warned them that until the church gets registration it is banned from meeting. However, Rytikov and his congregation are undaunted.
“We will continue to meet just as we have been meeting up till now,” church members told the police. “Christ’s commandments, recorded in the Bible, are for us higher than human laws. And we cannot fulfill laws which contradict Holy Scripture because we serve God, Who is the highest power over all living creatures.” (Forum 18)
BWA Resolution on the Freedom of Religion in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine
EXPRESSES concern that the situation for religious communities is precarious in the eastern part of Ukraine — the Luhansk region. The region is part of a conflict area now widely understood to be under the control of Russia, which has recognized the area as “The Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR).” Recently the LPR launched a law on religion (LPR law #211-II “On the freedom of conscience and religious associations”) from Feb. 2, 2018. This law violates universal human rights, restricts religious freedom and threatens the existence of existing religious groups and organizational networks;
REGRETS that all religious organizations within the LPR, except the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, must now prove their loyalty to LPR authorities through a re-registration procedure in order to maintain their legal status. This includes an obligation for all religious organizations to report in detail their activities;
NOTES that these limitations and regulations are violating Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
AFFIRMS our commitment as Baptists to the biblical concept that all people are created in God’s image and endowed with freedom to worship and practice their religion according to the dictates of their own hearts;
URGES the LPR, regarding Baptist and other churches, to change the law in order to make it compatible with Freedom of Religion or Belief as stated in the international declarations, conventions and agreements;
ENCOURAGES the Russian Republic to influence the LPR to change the law in order to make it compatible with full Freedom of Religion or Belief; and
CALLS upon the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to gather information on the situation in the Luhansk region and to visit the Luhansk area and the authorities in order to put pressure on them to change the law.
Adopted by the Baptist World Alliance General Council, meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, July 2–6, 2018