Some were victims of indiscriminate shelling. But in other cases, the destruction was deliberate.
by Ruslan Khalikov
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Ukrainian religious life has been affected by this attack since day one. Attacks on religious buildings have both hard and soft components from the perspective of international law. The first is characterized by the fact that attacks against religious buildings or artefacts are war crimes. The second part concerns freedom of religion or belief. Bombing a church building not only damages it, but also violates the right of believers to practice religion, as the church is no longer a safe place of worship.
According to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1954), 15.18 and 15.18.1, “It is prohibited: a. to commit any act of hostility against cultural property, as long as it is not used for military purposes… Cultural property includes places of worship, institutions dedicated to religion, charity, education , arts and sciences, historical monuments and works of art and science.
The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (2005), at Rule 104, states that in times of war, “The religious beliefs and practices of civilians and persons hors de combat must be respected. »
The religious situation in Ukraine, unlike Russia, is characterized by a high level of religious pluralism and respect for freedom of religion or belief. No religious denomination has state support and no church has absolute dominant status. In Ukraine, there are two large Orthodox churches and several smaller ones, as well as three Eastern and one Western Catholic churches. Religious communities banned in the Russian Federation, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, have the right to freely practice their faith in Ukraine. Therefore, the restriction of religious freedom in Ukraine by the Russian Federation is not only a violation of international humanitarian law, but an attack on the Ukrainian way of life, a kind of war of one type of civilization against a other.
War crimes committed during Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine are recorded by various investigative bodies and human rights defenders. However, the scale of hostilities and crimes is so enormous that investigations and legal proceedings create an extraordinary burden on the Ukrainian judiciary and law enforcement agencies. Therefore, state institutions and public organizations are also engaged in recording and documenting war crimes.
Among the initiatives of public organizations, the “Religion on Fire” project can be cited as an example. It was initiated by the Workshop for the Academic Study of Religions and supported by the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine. The project aims to record and document war crimes committed by Russian troops by destroying or damaging religious buildings and kidnapping or killing religious leaders in Ukraine. Speaking of state initiatives, it is worth mentioning that the Ukrainian State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience started a project aimed at mapping the damage caused to religious buildings during the large-scale Russian invasion .
Religious buildings and war-affected communities
During the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 200 religious buildings were damaged, and many of them were completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Among the damaged buildings are Christian churches and prayer houses, synagogues and Holocaust memorials (in particular, the Babyn Yar memorial complex in Kyiv), mosques and buildings of various religious minorities. Many religious buildings have been the target of fire on several occasions. In particular, the Severodonetsk mosque was damaged by shelling on the night of March 19, and completely destroyed (with at least 17 people inside) on June 19, when the Russian army launched a huge assault on the town.
At least fifteen religious leaders in Ukraine have been killed in the shelling or by gunfire, including military chaplains, as well as civilian volunteers from religious communities. A dozen local religious leaders were abducted by Russian forces, and some of them are still imprisoned.
About 110 damaged buildings belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was part of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) until recently, and about 20 churches belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU). It is not possible to provide a precise estimate today, due to the fact that hostilities are ongoing in a number of regions, and about 20% of Ukrainian territory remains occupied by Russian troops (Crimea is 100% occupied, the Luhansk region more than 95%, other regions in lower percentages). In the occupied areas, access to religious buildings and obtaining information about them remains difficult and sometimes impossible.
However, even the meager data available indicates that most of the damaged or destroyed religious buildings belong to the UOC (MP). That is, even belonging to Russian Orthodoxy cannot guarantee the inviolability of either the church building or the community. Moreover, these numerous destructions of churches, dead and wounded, kidnappings of UOC (MP) priests, even those who had suffered in the Ukrainian territories already controlled by Russia, did not find words of condolence from from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). At the same time, on March 26, 2022, Patriarch Kirill officially expressed his condolences for the death of Russian military priest Oleg Artemov during a bombing.
The attitude of the top leadership of the ROC, as well as the actual support for the war and the Russian regime, significantly changed the attitude of Orthodox Ukrainians towards the Russian Church. Thus, since February 24, 2022, approximately 600 parishes have left the UOC (MP), a greater number than those who left in the previous three years. This is not yet a critical figure, since there are around 12,000 parishes in the UOC, but the trends are visible. Finally, according to the results of the Council of the UOC (MP), which took place on May 27, 2022, this ecclesiastical structure announced its withdrawal from the hierarchy of the ROC. Preliminary contacts are currently underway regarding the recognition of the ecclesiastical independence of the UOC (ex-MP) in the Orthodox world (at the same time, the status of autocephaly is not mentioned, because the OCU already has it in Ukraine).
Deliberate destruction of religious buildings
Some religious sites were shelled as a result of indiscriminate shelling, while others were deliberately destroyed with machine gun or artillery. Currently, there are no official investigation results in most cases, but we can reasonably say that some of the attacks on religious buildings were deliberate. First, there are published testimonies of eyewitnesses who saw that a specific religious building was targeted by large caliber machine guns or other weapons. This is the case of St. George’s Church in the village of Zavorichi (Kyiv region), which was built in 1873 and destroyed on March 7, 2022, by targeted fire. Another example that eyewitnesses saw is how after the first hit on the Bible seminary in Irpin (Irpin, Kyiv region), aerial reconnaissance was carried out by a drone, and the next day repeated bombing and more destruction of the building took place.
Secondly, the very fact that a church was shot with a machine gun, especially at close range, indicates that the church was the target, as happened in the village of Druzhnya (Kyiv region). The chapel, built on the side of the road in honor of the 370th anniversary of the founding of the village, was the target of machine gun fire, probably from an armored vehicle traveling on the road.
Also, there are cases when a church was pulled from the inside, in particular, the icons were knocked down. For example, this happened in the St. Dimitrii Rostovskyi Church in Makariv (Kyiv region), where a bullet was fired in the head of John the Baptist on the “Removal of the Cross” icon. The eye of St. Nicholas has also been photographed on the icon in the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker at Irpin State Fiscal University. Other cases are described in the images accompanying this article.
During the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, 20% of Ukrainian territory was temporarily occupied or is in the war zone, and the entire territory of Ukraine is regularly bombarded with missiles, air bombs and bombs. ‘artillery. As a result of bombardments and hostilities, residential buildings, civil infrastructure and cultural heritage items, especially religious buildings, are damaged. While some churches may have been attacked by accident (due to shelling and indiscriminate shelling), in other cases there is evidence of targeted attacks by the Russian military.
The vast majority of damaged religious buildings belong to Orthodox Christianity, which corresponds to the general situation of religious life in Ukraine. The majority of religious buildings are owned by Orthodox churches and around 60% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians. At the same time, religious buildings of other faiths also came under fire, just as among the dead clerics there are representatives not only of Orthodox Christianity, but also of other faiths.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine aims, among other things, to establish an authoritarian and exclusivist approach to religious freedom, which prevails in the Russian Federation. In particular, the activities of religious minorities are considerably restricted in the occupied territories. And all activities are prohibited in the case of denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, supporters of Said Nursi, and others.
Even belonging to Russian Orthodox Christianity can guarantee security only on the condition of total political loyalty to the occupation administration. This approach is completely different from the religious pluralism existing in Ukraine, which could be lost if the Ukrainian territory were, at least temporarily, under Russian occupation.