Russian takeover of Crimea leads to inter-Church tensions

Reports of violence and intimidation by pro-Russian groups against non-Russian Orthodox Christians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are beginning to emerge.

According to Ukraine’s Liga News website, on June 1, a group of armed men in traditional Cossack clothes attacked the Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate (the UOC-KP) in the Crimean village of Perevalnoe.

The group smashed the door, trashed the church and attacked the priest Ivan Katkalo and parishioners including a pregnant woman, who came to the priest’s aid.

The police took three hours to get to the scene, and upon their arrival they allegedly sided with the attackers, stating that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) was anti-Russian and therefore had no place in Crimea, UOC – KP said.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is divided into two factions loyal to competing Patriarchs, one in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, the other, and biggest, to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The UOC-MP, for short , is an integral, but autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The faction loyal to Kiev is not recognised by the other Orthodox churches as canonical. (There is also a smaller Autonomous Orthodox Church in Ukraine).

First hints of trouble

In March, the Catholic News Agency, CNA, reported some of the first claims of "persecution" made by members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church soon after the disputed referendum, with Russian President Vladimir Putin signing a bill to annex Crimea. (Ukrainian Greek Catholics are loyal to the Pope, not one of the Orthodox Patriarchs).

The reported incidents included the kidnapping of three priests in Crimea; members of clergy receiving threatening phone calls; a note being left at the home of a priest stating this should be "a lesson to all Vatican agents;" a parish in Kolomyya being vandalized; and another church in Dora being burned to the ground from arson.

These hostilities contain echoes of Russia’s USSR predecessor, whose atheist policies severely persecuted Christians, killing between 12 -20 million people between 1922 and 1991. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was especially under pressure, having to operate completely underground until 1989.

"During Soviet times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican," Bishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, told the Catholic News Agency. "Of course not all people in Crimea think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does."

Since the referendum, maltreatment is not isolated to Christians. There are reports of Ukraine’s Jewish community complaining of growing anti-Semitism. Anxieties have also been expressed by Crimean Tartars, a Sunni Muslim minority group, who died by the thousands while being deported by Stalin on cattle trains to Central Asia in 1944.

In an email to World Watch Monitor, Ukrainian Pastor Edward Dolzhikiv said he can empathise with feeling unwelcome. He finally escaped Crimea to return to his home town in Uzhgorod on Ukraine’s western border with the EU, just before the referendum, on March 14. That same day the Crimean parliament removed the Ukrainian coat of arms from its building.

After having lived in Crimea since 2009, he and his family had first fled Eastern Ukraine in fear of a civil war leaving all of their possessions behind, except what they could fit into their car, on February 17.

Dolzhikiv returned to Crimea alone on February 25, days after the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to minister to his predominantly Korean congregation at the 'New Light' Presbyterian Church.

Many Koreans have lived in Crimea since World War II, during which Stalin feared that ethnic Koreans would support Japan. He deported many from the Far East of the USSR to Central Asia. Upon their arrival, many were persecuted by Islamic groups, so they fled west to Crimea.

Dolzhikiv’s visit was cut short, due to tremendous pressure with the hastily-arranged referendum on March 16. The situation was too dangerous because he was pro-Ukrainian and had no interest in becoming Russian Orthodox, apparently the most protected religious group.

"People threaten you, call you names and they became reluctant to help. My kids could not continue studying in school because it became Russian, and it became impossible to pay for the utilities when the Russian currency was implemented," he said.

His church is still in operation but looking to hire another pastor. However its legal status is uncertain, given the strict control of religious organisations by Crimea’s new Russian authorities.

Dolzhikiv said it is very likely that the church will close because of fundamental differences between the basic laws concerning religious freedom. Ukrainian law grants equal status to all religions, while Russian law grants special privileges to Russian Orthodoxy.

Dolzhikiv’s friends who are still in Crimea told him the situation is less certain and more difficult each day.

"What is clear in Crimea is the refusal of local authorities to rent state buildings to churches. For example, for 18 years a ‘Charismatic’ church, called 'Vozrozhdenie' [Renaissance] run by pastor  Sergey Tarasik, rented a building but since Crimea became Russian they are refused to continue renting it and now they are temporarily gathering in a Baptist church building," he said.

"The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is growing. It is very much against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and any other churches," said Dolzhikiv.

Crimea’s bordering territories under pressure

Since Russian occupation of Crimea the right of religious freedom is also affecting the region’s neighbouring ‘provinces’.

A group of 25 armed men, wearing Balaclava masks, seized the Central Church of Christ and a ministry training school in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlovka during Sunday morning worship on May 25.

The Protestant church was meeting in an art museum that also housed the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Ukraine, an extension of the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver.

Despite the region’s difficulties Andrew Zhuravlev, the minister for the Central Church of Christ and an instructor for the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Ukraine, said church life was operating normally until the group stormed the church.

"Their commander introduced his soldiers as part of the Russian troops and told us that any denominations apart from the Eastern Orthodox [Moscow Patriarchs] are illegal on this territory," he said in a statement to World Watch Monitor.

"He [the commander] said the building that belongs to the church and the Bear Valley Bible institute is being taken from us, and they will have their headquarters there. His answer to any of our questions and requests was that it was a command from his chief officer and that we should leave the building."

"This officer gave us three hours to take some our things out of the building, after that the building was ’cleaned’ – that meant that remaining things were destroyed and we don’t have any access to the building or neighbouring land," Zhuravlev said.

"Of course, we were shocked because of all that, children were crying of fear, one young Christian lady fainted, and some started arguing with soldiers trying to get the building back."

Gorlovka is located in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk region where tensions are especially high since it’s become the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

The pro-Russian rebels no longer recognise the current Ukrainian government and have formed a breakaway state.

Three days following the attack on the Central Church of Christ, the Ukrainian government killed numerous rebels in a major offensive involving warplanes and paratroopers.