Russia’s Religious Persecution and Misinformation in Ukraine

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on February 29, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Elizabeth Hoffman: Good morning, everybody, and thank you so much for joining us at CSIS here today for this important event on Russia's religious persecution and misinformation in Ukraine. My name is Elizabeth Hoffman, I'm the director of government relations and a fellow here at CSIS, and I'm so pleased to be joined today by many experts and practitioners that will speak to this very important issue. I'm particularly thankful to my colleagues Dan Runde and Ilya Timtchenko for their support and help in putting this event together.

It should be no surprise that we're having this conversation today about Russia's religious persecution in Ukraine. Not only has Russia continued to persecute religious believers since their 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, but they also do so within their own borders. Russia has been designated a country of particular concern by the State Department, which is a designation reserved for those nations that repress religious freedom and believers within their own borders. This practice has extended with their campaign as I mentioned in 2014 with the initial invasion of Ukraine and has only been exacerbated by the 2022 full scale invasion of Ukraine.

I'm really pleased to be joined this morning by Catherine Wanner who is a professor of History, Anthropology, and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University; Viktor Yelenskyi, the Head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience; Dr. Borys Gudziak, president of the Ukrainian Catholic University and Metropolitan-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and Mark Elliott, a retired professor of European and Russian History at Asbury University, Wheaton College, Samford University, and Southern Wesleyan University, and editor emeritus of the East-West Church Report.

First, we'll hear from Dr. Wanner and then go down the list as I read it and then we'll have some questions for the group. The audience will also be able to pose questions, so if you're interested in asking the panelist questions, please do use the Q&A box that you see on the bottom of your Zoom screen. We will screen those questions and ask them at the end of their remarks. So, without further ado, I'd first like to turn to Dr. Catherine Wanner for her opening remarks. 

Dr. Catherine Wanner: Thank you, Elizabeth, and thank you to everyone at the Center for Strategic and International Studies for addressing this important and neglected topic. I'm very pleased to participate. 

The first thing I would like to note is that one of the achievements of the Ukrainian State following Ukrainian Independence in 1991 has been the establishment of an impressive degree of religious pluralism in Ukraine. This pluralism is characterized by more than just a passive tolerance for difference, be it religious, linguistic, ethnic, or what have you; but we see among the wide spectrum of religious groups that exist in Ukraine an active engagement with each other. 

And I would cite as simply two examples of this active engagement and acceptance of difference. The response of religious communities to the Maidan protest in November 2013 to February 2014, so really 10 years ago. At that time, a very wide spectrum of religious communities protested on the Maidan, and they were able to articulate a shared political vision and engage in coordinated, concerted activities so as to realize that form of political change. When the Maidan protests ended with Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, fleeing to Russia, Oleksandr Turchynov, who was a Baptist, became the acting president. And this was very uncontroversial, and that's because Turchynov had held high level government positions prior to this moment and went on to similarly hold positions of leadership within Ukraine. 

And the Maidan was preceded by, I cite only the most visible other moment, that is the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, when similarly we had a wide spectrum of religious communities come out and protest in almost a single voice for the realization of a shared vision that would accord a far greater degree of religious liberties and civil liberties more broadly. So, we have then this established basis of religious pluralism and that's due primarily to favorable legislation that allowed religious communities to either create a presence within Ukraine or to thrive and build on the presence that they already had. 

As concerns specifically protestant groups, and that's primarily what I've studied thus far, a wide spectrum of protestant groups, but specifically Baptists, evangelical Christians, and a wide spectrum of Pentecostal groups – ranging from charismatic Pentecostals to far more aesthetic literalist Pentecostal groups – were primarily located in eastern and southern Ukraine. Those regions which are now occupied had been a stronghold of Protestant presence within Ukraine. There were things such as a Christian university, a variety of seminaries, publishing houses that served not only Protestant communities within Ukraine but even more broadly within the former Soviet Union. 

I would like to contrast that kind of religious landscape in Ukraine, certainly prior to 2014 and especially since the full-scale invasion in 2022, and that kind of political atmosphere grounded in civil liberties, with the religious landscape in Russia, which is quite different. In Russia, there is a legislatively enshrined categorization of religious groups. There's first-off the so-called traditional religious groups, of which there are four: Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Those are considered historically rooted in Russia, and within that group, the Orthodox Church receives as a preferential status. Then there are the nontraditional religious groups, where a variety of protestant groups fall into this category, and then there is a similar group, a third category, if you will, of undesirable religious groups, and here we have a wide spectrum up to and including Jehovah's Witnesses that, as most of you know, are outright banned Russia. 

So, this categorization combines with the Yarovaya law, which was passed in 2016, which begins to articulate both in very broad but yet very sweeping terms the kinds of religious activities that can occur, where they can occur, how they can occur, and with what kind of authorization, and what the specifics of mandated registration. In short, this law complicates by virtue of its very, very sweeping nature the ability of religious communities in fact to comply with it, but I believe it's purposely written as such because it also maximizes the possibilities for using the law to repress or otherwise curb the activities of any kind of religious groups. And when those two factors – that is to say, the sort of hierarchical categorization of religious groups and corresponding rights according to those categories, and similarly very sweeping legal restrictions that can be very, very broadly interpreted – when that combines with the historic discrimination and stigmatization of certain groups, most notably Protestant groups as sectarians, as American cells, as fifth columns, a whole variety of slander that was used against non-traditional religious groups so as to repress them – this creates a highly unfavorable environment in which certain religious groups can continue to exist. 

So, what we have in the occupied territories is then the clash of the kind of religious pluralism that had been created in Ukraine and the otherwise selectively highly restrictive political landscape in Russia. This is then compounded by two trends that have been developing, and I'll just briefly note them. 

When we have a rise of not just Christian nationalism but really Orthodox nationalism, where we have the Russian Orthodox Church as quite a vigorous supporter of this war, and even some of the original pro-Russian separatists of unknown origin in some instances that fomented the hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, as of 2014 called themselves an Orthodox Army. But this kind of equation of being Slavic and being Orthodox becomes highly problematic then for those religious minorities such as Protestants, for example, who then are seen as not only betraying their nation but also betraying their faith. 

And when this combines with additional laws on foreign agents and the ability to engage in authorized, or perhaps unauthorized, I should say, collective activity, really heightens vulnerability for religious minorities within the occupied territories. Religion by definition is a collective activity, but when what constitutes collective activity, and how and when it can be enacted becomes highly, highly regulated so as to facilitate repression, you really see tremendous vulnerability and the possibilities for not just discrimination but for repression and violation of religious rights massively expanding. 

As a final point, just to close, I would like to suggest that these kinds of conflicts are not limited to Ukraine and to the occupied territories. I'm a professor at Penn State, as Elizabeth mentioned, so I live in rural central Pennsylvania, where there happens to be a Baptist mega church. It used to be called the Russian Baptist Church – they changed their name after 2022. They are now the Salvation Baptist Church. The majority of members are either Ukrainians, Russians, or Russian speakers, and this community itself has fractured; it has divided in two. While there was universal agreement that the war should be condemned in no uncertain terms and that Russia is the aggressor in this case, the issue that prompted this community to split was over how one should pray for suffering co-religionists. 

The Russians and the Russian speakers argued that the restrictive atmosphere in Russia was such that there was immense suffering among Russian Baptists in Russia, and so the suffering of Russian Baptist should be equated with Ukrainian Baptists, and the two should be prayed for on equal terms. The Ukrainians, those from Ukraine, said no. The suffering of Ukrainians is primarily at the hands of their Russian brethren, who are waging war and shelling Ukrainians every day and destroying Baptist communities throughout Ukraine. And so, it was over the issue of how to recognize the suffering of both Baptists in Russia and Baptists in Ukraine that prompted this community to experience conflicts such that they split. This is my way of saying that these conflicts are not limited to the occupied territories in Ukraine where they are most acutely experienced, but they reverberate in communities in rural central Pennsylvania, which has a significant number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and specifically from Ukraine – as does our neighboring state, Ohio, and Michigan beyond it. So, thank you for your attention, and I'll end it there.

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much Dr. Wanner. Now I'd like to turn to Dr. Yelenskyi for your initial comments please.

Dr. Viktor Yelenskyi: Thank you for having me, thank you for Center, and thank you Catherine, for such an illuminative observation of Russian legal system. But what is going on in Ukraine, it's not about religious regulations, it's about the very existence of people of faith on the occupied territories.

Just exactly two weeks ago, military men in the Ukrainian town of Kalanchak in the Kherson region occupied by Russians – three military men broke the door of the house of Father Stepan Podolchak, put a sack over his head and took him to an unknown destination. After two days, people called his wife and summoned her to identify the body of her husband. Father Stepan Podolchak was tortured to death, and he became the 38th victim among Ukrainian priests during the so-called Great War since the full-fledged invasion of Russian militaries in 2022.

The 39th victim became the 58 years-old pastor from the city of Kupyansk, Kharkiv region who was killed in his church, the Protestant Church of Jesus Christ, just yesterday, during a ride of guided avia bomb of Russians in the town of Kupyansk. I would like to stress that the case of father Podolchak was deliberately murder. It was not shelling, it was not air ride, it was deliberate murder – and it was probably, in my [estimate calculations] there are dozens of such priests, monks, and pastors who were killed by Russians deliberately. For example, Orthodox priest Maksim Kozachyna was killed on March 5th, 2022, wearing in liturgical vest.

The persecution of Christians, of Muslims, and of Jehovah’s Witnesses by Russians in Ukraine dates back to 2014, when Russians annexed Crimea and waged the war in Donbas. The favorite, let's say, target, of Russians became evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses, Orthodox believers not subordinated to Moscow patriarchate, and Muslims, especially Crimean Muslims, from the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, as Catherine mentioned, in Russia, and Russians transferred this practice to occupied territories, now get sentence terms unbelievable in the Brezhnev era USSR.

For instance, I went through archives cases, and normally Jehovah’s Witnesses got, in the late Soviet Union, three and a half years in prison for rejecting military service. Now Crimean Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russian courts get six, eight, nine and a half years in prison. Members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement got six, twelve, and [indistinct] got nineteen and a half years in prison. By the observation of human rights activists, Putin's Russia surpassed the Brezhnev and Khrushchev era USSR in the persecution of political prisoners, and there are more. The number of political prisoners in nowadays Russia surpass the number of political prisoners in Brezhnev and Khrushchev era in the USSR. And we should realize that nowadays Russia is more brutal, much more brutal, much more dangerous and inhuman compared to Brezhnev era USSR. At least in the Brezhnev era, nobody abused the body of political prisoners as they abused the body of killed Alexei Navalny.

I can [give] you many instances of how brutal and how dangerous the circumstances of the Russian prison system are, and how brutal the treatment is by Russians, the so-called National Guards and Russian police, in occupied territories of Ukraine. By the way, I spent a lot of time with a prisoner of the so-called DNR prison, Ihor Kozlovskyi, who spent two years in DNR prison and then was my assistant during my tenure in the Ukrainian Parliament. It's something beyond the good and evil – it's something beyond the human imagination. And all these practices are used toward Ukrainian Evangelicals, toward Ukrainian Jehovah witnesses, toward Ukrainian Orthodox believers, and Catholic believers, and toward people who try to attend weekly service in occupied territories, unless they are members of the Moscow patriarchate.

Pastor Mikhaylo Britsin, from the now occupied town of Melitopol in the Ukrainian south, told a very illustrative story about his Baptist church. His Baptist church was founded in 1910, and in 1936 was closed by Soviet authorities, and the pastor of this church was sentenced and accused of being a German spy. In 2022, the church was closed once again, and the pastor was accused that he is an American spy in this time. So being an American spy is a standard accusation for many pastors, especially in Donbas. Authorities of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk region are absolutely crazy about finding American spies, and all Baptists, all Pentecostals, all Mormons, all Evangelicals, and all 7th Day Adventists, not to [mention] about Jehovah’s Witnesses, are in their eyes, American spies. And this anti-Evangelical, anti-American, anti-Western propaganda is the daily routine for the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk media.

My short comment wouldn't be full if I do not mention about the 630 destroyed or damaged prayer buildings, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques in the territory of Ukraine since the beginning of the Great War. Some of these buildings, or prayer buildings, were ruined deliberately. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church on the borderline between the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions was destroyed by soldiers who tried to hit the cross on the top of cathedral by tank. They failed and tried again, and after the 14th shelling, they destroyed the dome of this cathedral completely and ruined this building to [shreds] actually. Now Ukrainians try to restore some of this building, especially in the Kyiv and Chernihiv districts, and many people all over the world try to help them, and of course they asked me to deliver their gratitude to those who restore the prayer buildings.

To conclude, I would like to say that actually the Russian Federation now is absolutely something different from the Russian Federation back at the end of the 90s and the beginning of this century. This is much closer to a fascist, chauvinistic dictatorship than to just an authoritarian regime. And those standing with Ukraine and those who help Ukraine to fight against Russians, among others, are standing for religious freedom. Thank you for your attention. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much Dr. Yelenskyi and for the work that you're doing. I'd now like to turn to Dr Elliott for his remarks. 

Dr. Mark R. Elliott: First let me thank Daniel Runde, Ilya Timtchenko, and CSIS for this opportunity to reflect on a subject much on my mind in these days so perilous for Ukraine and for the West. I also consider it a privilege to share Zoom space so to speak with such respected panelists.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian forces have been responsible for damaging or destroying at least 660 churches and other religious structures, including at least 206 belonging to Protestants. The largest number of Protestant churches damaged or destroyed have been Pentecostal, 94, Evangelical Christian Baptist, 60, and 7th Day Adventist, 27. And what Russians have not destroyed or seized, they have closed and banned for purposes of worship. For example, in the portions of the Luhansk region under Russian and pro-Russian separatist control, not a single Protestant Church remains open for worship, and in the Russian occupied Donetsk region, only a handful.

One of Putin’s rationales for the full-scale invasion was to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine from alleged genocide at the hands of the so-called Nazi government in Kyiv – but ironically, the largest number of churches Russian forces have damaged or destroyed have been those of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, with its much-debated ties to the Moscow patriarchate – 187. Putin's feigned concern for the population of eastern Ukraine is also seen to be a sham when one considers the death toll of mostly Russian-speaking civilians in the Donbas.

On the individual level, Protestants as well as Catholics Muslims and non- Moscow patriarchate Orthodox have frequently been arrested and interrogated under torture. They have endured confiscation of personal property threats to their families and mock executions. Some faithful have been abducted with no accounting of their status to date and some have been murdered.

On the institutional level, in Russian occupied territories, minority faithful, including Protestants, have been subjected to raids during worship services with the added intimidation of worshippers having their names and passports recorded. Churches have been searched, ransacked, looted, and vandalized. Baptists and Pentecostal pastors have been pressured to transfer their affiliation from church associations based in Kyiv to those based in Moscow. Russian occupation authorities and pro-Russian separatists have required churches to undergo registration with hundreds of Protestant churches closed after failing to receive official recognition. Other churches have been torched by arsonists or have been destroyed by Russian missile attacks and many churches that have survived every other form of assault have been confiscated for use as military bases. Other indignities have included propaganda campaigns against disfavored churches and the counterintuitive deliberate destruction of Bibles and other Christian literature by Russian troops at the behest of a regime quick to boast of its championing of traditional Christian values. And we should be aware that as harsh as restrictions are for minority faiths in Russia proper the Draconian regime imposed upon them in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine is dramatically worse.

On a personal level, I have been involved in a greenhouse project in Ukraine for the benefit of rural church pastors and church charities. For a long time, I was unable to discover the fate of a greenhouse donated to a Pentecostal alcohol rehab center in Bucha back in 2016. Just three weeks ago, I received an email from a friend and scholar Tatiana Vagramenko who managed to visit the rehab center, discovering that its greenhouse miraculously survived the infamous Russian occupation of March 2022. Her account of her interview with the current director is harrowing. Russian troops lined up clients against the wall threatening to execute them, then on a whim commuted their bogus sentences. I thought of Dostoyevsky’s close call with the czarist firing squad and a commuted sentence that emotionally scarred him for the rest of his life. I can only imagine the trauma Bucha’s recovering alcoholics have had to endure at the hands of troops who did indeed murder hundreds of civilians in that key suburb. On a happier note, Bucha rehab clients report that their greenhouse is still in use and that the vegetables they harvest and preserve give them a sense of accomplishment on their road to recovery.

Another account to relate does not have a happy ending, at least not to date. Well before 2014 I visited Donetsk Christian University, in reality an Evangelical Christian Baptist Seminary with aspirations for a more expansive educational mission. I had friends who were teaching there, and I accompanied a representative of one of the western German and American foundations that donated millions to this institution. As of 2014 I believe DCU had the most impressive physical plant and possibly the strongest Protestant theological collection of any Evangelical seminary in the former Soviet Union. Its 21-acre campus included an administrative and classroom building and a modern brick four-story residence hall with 75 rooms all in support of an instructional program that ran from kindergarten to seminary level. Separatist troops of the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic occupied the grounds in early July 2014 expelling all personnel students and their families. DPR soldiers looted the premises confiscated computers and converted Donetsk Christian University into a military base for 150 separatists and a contingent of their prisoners. Such are the dreadful fortunes and misfortunes of war.

In sum sorely tried believers of many minority faiths and traditions other than the privileged adherence of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church deserve our wholehearted support and prayers. They also deserve our best efforts to convince Western governments and Western voters that every effort should be exerted to support Ukraine in its existential struggle against an aggressive empire-minded Russia. Thank you.

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much Dr Elliott, and for sharing those stories. That's really important. I'd now like to recognize Archbishop Gudziak for your initial remarks please. 

Dr. Borys Gudziak: Thank you so much and thank you for these very well- informed presentations. I won't repeat some of the material that was stated, was I meant to share. Let me start with a story that helps us understand and I will try to contextualize what is happening.

Professor Wanner contextualized it geographically: the lack of religious freedom in Russia is now being spread to Ukraine. In Russia, religious institutions are able to function if they support Putin and the government. In the occupied territories those that don't support actively the occupying regime are destined for annihilation. But this has great historical precedent. In 1711, Peter the Great, who many connect with the flourishing of Russian culture’s opening to the West, on his name’s day, after a sumptuous feast in the town of Polotsk, went into an Eastern Catholic church and along with his fellow revelers they beat up four monks, punctured them with swords, cut off their ears and the next day forced some of them to walk with ears in their hands to their own hanging.

Vladimir Putin wants to recover the greatness of Peter the Great. That's an explicit connection that he is making. Whether it was the early 18th century whether it was in the 19th century in the 20th century, the 21st century, the Eastern Catholics, today called the Ukrainian Catholics, are destined for annihilation as a visible structure in society every time there is a Russian occupation. So, what is happening today, and this explains Ukrainians’ resistance, is something that Ukrainians – Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims – have experienced time and time again over the centuries.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was annihilated in the 1920s by Stalin. Stalin arrested all of the Ukrainian Catholic Bishops in 1945, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishops, and the following year the church was rendered illegal. It was the biggest illegal body, religious body, in the world from 1946 to 1989. Today, in the occupied territories the Ukrainian Catholics are being wiped out. In the eastern occupied areas, there is not one officially publicly functioning Catholic priest of the Eastern or the Western right.

This is what Russian occupation brings. It brings not only the war crimes in the occupation, but it brings the historical tradition and present legal status of different confessions in Russia to a territory that is being occupied. It's very important that people of faith internationally and especially in the United States understand this. Russian occupation – the Russian desire to undermine the Ukrainian state, a state that has guaranteed religious liberty – will diminish or negate the religious liberty of Muslims – the Tatars are persecuted – of Jews, of Protestants, of Catholics and Orthodox.

So, this is something that has a long historical legacy, it spans 11 time zones in the Russian Federation and it is spreading in Ukraine with incredible brutality, with a brutality that was modeled by Peter the Great more than 300 years ago and is repeated with the most recent torturing to death of Stepan Podolchak the priest about whom Victor Yelenskyi spoke and others – the prisoners, two Ukrainian Catholic priests, Ivan Levitsky and Bohdan Heleta, who were abducted in November of 22 and now 16 months later still remain in captivity without a clear sense without anybody really knowing uh what their situation is.

So it's very important today for us to raise the voice and speak to our political representatives particularly in the United States, particularly in the Congress. If you haven't done so already, alert your representative to the horrific violation of religious liberty, especially if you are a Protestant because some of the Protestant members of our legislative bodies do not fully understand the danger in which their co-religionists are in Ukraine. Thank you. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much Archbishop. I would like to first ask perhaps just a basic technical question. I think that there has been some, I'll say misinformation, about the Ukrainian government's supposed repression of religious freedom that has been circulating here in the West. I believe that part of that is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of some of the church alignments that is quite technical in nature for those that don't follow this issue closely.

Last fall the Ukrainian Rada the parliament voted on legislation to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Now the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [of the Moscow Patriarchate] is markedly different from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. As you can imagine this causes confusion among those who, as I mentioned, don't follow the issue closely. Maybe Archbishop Gudziak or Dr. Yelenskyi, could you just explain to our audience in brief the difference between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [of the Moscow Patriarchate] and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and why that distinction is important, and perhaps how that's distorted.

Dr. Gudziak: Dr. Yelenskyi you are, I can supplement what you will say, but you are on the ground. Unmute please.

Ms. Hoffman:

Dr. Yelenskyi your microphone is muted. 

Dr. Yelenskyi: Excuse me. I went through a long and exhausting discussion with the Moscow patriarchate lawyer, Mr. Amsterdam, last week about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, about many things, about the so-called ban of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and many other things.

So, first of all, I would like to start with a statement. The Ukrainian government has no intention to ban any church, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, or any other churches. What the Ukrainian government wants is for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate just to leave the Russian Orthodox Church, which is not just supportive but is a direct participant of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Ukrainian government doesn't want the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to change calendar, change liturgical customs, change liturgical language or be a part of another church, as many [supporters] from Moscow patriarchate claim.

I have discussions with priests and [indistinct] of Ukrainian Orthodox Church on a regular basis, and normally I ask them what is valuable for you in links with Moscow patriarchate, which killed your faithful, which destroyed your cathedrals, which try to undermine Ukrainian statehood and openly said we are going to annihilate Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian identity. And for now, I still have no answer for this question, because subordination to Moscow patriarchate is not a part of Orthodox teaching.

And there are at least two other churches in Ukraine which used to have their centers in Russia: the first is the Old Believers Church, a church which did not recognize the Nikon reform from Moscow Kingdom in 17th century. And now this church realized that the head of their Church metropolitan Cornelius of Moscow supported the so-called special military operation and supports Putin, and just severed the links with the center in Moscow, just registered a charter for its church, and now it's called like [Old Orthodox] Church in Ukraine.

Another church which also break ties with Moscow is the true Orthodox church, a church which didn't recognize the declaration of loyalty of Metropolitan Sergius in 1927, also broke ties with Moscow and now registered its charter with another center in Massachusetts in the United States. So last summer 400 clerics from the Ukrainian of Church of Moscow patriarchate addressed the primate of this church and asked him to convene the council and to decide a final break of ties with Moscow patriarchate – this is the second point. Third point, Ukraine, since gaining independence in 1991, did not ban any single church. Before the war, according to Pew Research Center index, Ukraine has not just decent standards in the sphere of religious freedom but very good standards, much better than not only former Soviet Republic but also even compared to many Eastern European countries.

So, I'm in a position to have discussions not only with lawyers who defend Moscow patriarchate on the background of such a severe persecution of religion in occupied territories, but also with academics, with people from different churches; and I’m in a position to discuss with them, and in a position to explain the real goals and real position of the Ukrainian government. 

Dr. Gudziak: If I can add to that, this is not primarily a question of religious freedom, but it's a question of the survival of people. You have the leader of a church using jihadist language, guaranteeing salvation to those who go and kill people in Ukraine. Could we imagine that, you know, we would allow for terrorist groups to have representative religious bodies in Ukraine, I mean in the United States, that are directly under them and take their, let's say, cue from those centers that not only preach but practice terrorist war crimes. This is something that is diverting, this whole issue is diverting attention from the lack, the profound lack, of religious freedom in Russia.

In Russia there are 300 Orthodox Bishops. Can one imagine that, given this war, a Christian Bishop would not speak out against this war? In fact, not a single one of the 300 Orthodox Bishops in Russia has spoken out against the war, and the Moscow patriarchate as such has an official policy of defrocking priests who speak for peace, who speak for a just peace. This is the concern of Ukrainian society, that a church centered in Moscow that universally, at least through silence, but often through very explicit brutal rhetoric, is speaking about the destruction of the Ukrainian state, of the Ukrainian society, of Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian religious life. And it's not only speaking about it – it's supporting it when it happens in the occupied territories.

This needs to be really kept in context, the context of historical precedent going back to the 18th century, developed very strongly under authoritarian Russian Tzarist rule, perfected with the persecution of religion during communism and now repeated in the 21st century, repeated with an explicit reference to these precedents, and realized as part of a plan to recover the Russian Empire: ‘So what we have in Russia we will spread.’ The spread of religious persecution is guaranteed wherever Russian occupation comes, and this is very important to understand for all people of faith. This is what concerns the leadership of the country and every simple churchgoer, every common member of Ukrainian society. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much Dr. Yelenskyi and Archbishop Gudziak. Catherine and Mark, I might ask you to weigh in on this as well – more on the broader accusations that some sectors in the West have made about the Ukrainian government actually being responsible for the persecution of religious believers as opposed to the Kremlin.

Dr. Wanner: I would simply say that one can point to a multitude of examples of individual, let's say, clergy, within Russia. I'm thinking of an example of a Russian Orthodox priest who gave a Sunday sermon on the first of the Ten Commandments “Thou shalt not kill.” He was arrested for that – that was considered subversive. One can point to a multitude of examples of infringements on religious liberties and religious freedom, and of repression based on religion in Russia, and yet these allegations of religious repression in Ukraine are rarely backed up by any kind of evidence. It's very quick and cheap to make allegations, but one needs evidence. If there are infringements of religious liberties and encroachment on religious freedoms in Ukraine, I would like to see some evidence for that. 

Dr. Gudziak: Also, if I may, you know, just another example – it's not clear how many Ukrainians there are in Russia, but from five to seven, maybe more, a million, and if you take that 8% of Ukrainians are Eastern Catholic, you're talking about four to five to 600,000 people of Ukrainian Catholic background. In the 11 time zones of the Russian Federation, there's not a single Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish that is registered as such.

So, it's not only the Jehovah's Witnesses that don't have a legal existence. There’s not a single Ukrainian Language School in Russia for the 7 million people. The Ukrainian libraries have been closed; Ukrainian study programs have been annexed. This is a broad, integrated campaign that ideologically leads to genocide. And it is explicit there, you know – Putin says Ukraine is a fake country; Ukrainian religious communities are either heretical they're schismatic; they are deprived of grace. This is what awaits Ukrainian religious life and Ukrainian society with the spread of Russian occupation. 

Ms. Hoffman: Dr. Elliott, please weigh in.

Dr. Elliott: Yes, I would like to point out a false moral equivalency that's at work here. There are some instances of Ukrainian Orthodox priests supporting the Russian war effort. There have been some instances of pro-Russian literature confiscated from certain Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Ukraine - those are the churches affiliated with the Moscow patriarchate. But these are few in number compared to the vast repression of all manner of minority faiths in the Russian occupied regions of Ukraine. There are instances of Russia and people in the West now sympathizing with Russia, calling upon these rare instances of the Russian government and the military rooting out cases where pro-Russian literature, funds from Russia, some instances of collaboration between Ukrainian Orthodox priests [of the Moscow Patriarchate] and Russian authorities addressing that issue, and comparing that with what's going on not only in Russia proper, but especially and even more draconian in the Russian occupied portions of Ukraine. So, I would say that we've got a problem of illegitimate moral equivalency. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you so much, and for others who are watching who might be interested in understanding more about Russia's cooptation of certain religious groups in their own for political reasons, I would recommend to you a report that some of my colleagues put out a couple years ago called the Kremlin Playbook 3.0, which specifically looks at Russia's co-optation of the Moscow patriarchy.

I would like to ask another question which many of you alluded to in your opening remarks but hoping to get at in a more pointed fashion: What is the strategy of Vladimir Putin of the Russian authorities and specifically targeting religious communities? Why do you think that this is important to their war effort in Ukraine? 

Dr. Wanner: I think religion is used, is instrumentalized, to provide a justification for Russian entitlement to govern Ukraine and indirectly govern areas of Transnistria in Moldova, Belarus, Northern Kazakhstan, Georgia’s Abkhazia – it's a long list. Religion provides – a paper thin, in my view, but nonetheless, a narrative that Putin can use to justify his intervention and his attempts to reintegrate those countries under Moscow rule, much as he seeks to re-forcefully integrate Orthodox and other believers in Ukraine under the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin posits, together with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, that there is something called a Russian world, riskiy mir, that is founded and grounded in a shared confessional Eastern Christian tradition. And he posits that this creates a historic and spiritual common space that, just as it should be governed religiously by the Moscow patriarchate, it should be in a political and especially in a geopolitical sense, governed by the Kremlin.

Religion is used as a justification for integrating many areas of the former Soviet Union into a recreated imperial structure with, once again, Russia, and specifically the Kremlin, and the Moscow patriarchate at its center. That is why religion plays such a large role in this war and why there must be this equation of being Russian or being Slavic, even as being Orthodox. And this of course works to the tremendous detriment of any religious minorities, and so that's why this kind of ruskiy mir is in fundamental contradiction with religious liberty and freedom of conscience. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you Dr Wanner. I wonder, Archbishop Gudziak, would you be interested in weighing in on this question as well? 

Dr. Gudziak: Let me, you know, give you kind of a specific quote – Ekaterina Arkalova, a propagandist of the Spas TV Channel founded by the Russian Orthodox Church, said the following to her viewers after a trip to Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, which is under occupation: “there are many different sects in the Empire South. So, Ukraine is the Empire South, and they have stockpiles: Greek Catholics, the Word of Life Church, Jehovah's Witnesses have stockpiles of ammunition, sectarian literature – all sorts of things. In short, they're sponsoring the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and now, fighting those sects, all of them simultaneously, all those Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, is the main task of our counterintelligence in those territories.”

So, this is a religious TV station that is founded by the Russian Orthodox Church, and it is speaking about our Christian Orthodox responsibility to work together with the counterintelligence of the Russian Federation to suppress these religious communities in the occupied territories. This is a concrete example of policy that is reflected. It would be helpful maybe to share the list of Moscow patriarchate clergy in Ukraine. I think Viktor Yelenskyi can correct me if I'm wrong, but it's over 50 clergy members that have been indicted for explicit collaboration with an occupying regime or with the, let's say, Russian authorities, while not even being under occupation. So, this is explicit policy. What I cited is just an example of it, but it also has deep historical roots, and we've seen throughout this great tragedy the manner in which analysts and political leaders internationally have been either completely wrong or very slow to understand what is happening.

Today, Germans with shame speak about their policy of change through business. That was the policy: we're going to engage Russia, we're going to not look at the human rights issues or the issues of religious freedom, but as we engage, they're going to change. We had both ends of the Italian political spectrum: the conservative Trump-like figure Silvio Berlusconi, after this full-scale invasion, thanking Putin for a few bottles of vodka that Putin sent him before his death. And the other side, Romano Prodi, who 20 years ago said New Zealand has a greater chance of entering the European Union than Ukraine. And both of these were personal friends of Putin.

As Putin was bombing Chechnya to smithereens, as he was occupying Georgia, as he was presiding over the killing of political opposition leaders or journalists, as he began the war, the war has been on for 10 years, President Bush looked Putin in the eye and said: ‘I saw the heart of an honest man.’ President Obama ridiculed his presidential election opponent when Mitt Romney said Russia will be our biggest geopolitical challenge, and he said ‘Mitt, your economics are in the 20s, your social policy is in the 50s, and you're stuck politically in the Cold War.’ And of course, President Trump embraced Putin. As this great invasion was beginning, there was so much confusion even among the churches.

So, we have centuries of an imperial image created for Russia which has become normative, which is accepted, even though all colonialisms are criticized, all colonialisms are being deconstructed. With Professor Wanner, we were present at the North American Assembly of Slavists, which is now finally realizing that Slavic studies needs to be decolonialized. So, it is an uphill battle. When people speak about the greatness of, you know, Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, well, Peter the Great was cutting off the ears of Eastern Catholic monks in their Church, setting a precedent for the torture that people like Ihor Kozlovskyi endured or the priest that was killed a couple weeks ago, Father Stepan Podolchak endured as he was being tortured to death. This is unfortunately the result of ideology – an ideology that is explicitly articulated and supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you. So, I have a final question. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin gave as justification the, essentially, he said, you know, one of the reasons Russia must go in, was that Ukraine was committing genocide and particularly targeting Jews. This is quite ironic given some of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow recently which is vilifying Jews and is really antisemitic. So, I'm hoping you could expand on that a little bit, and on what patterns and trends. Particularly since you sit in Ukraine, how is the rhetoric from Moscow shifting as this war drags on, and how are they co-opting and using religious narratives to justify what they're doing? 

Dr. Yelenskyi: Excuse me. I had a small problem with hearing, but as far as I understood, you are speaking about the attitude to Jews in Ukraine? Let me start, first of all – I scrupulously collect all cases of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and Ukraine is still much more favorable for Jewish people than in many nowadays European countries. In 2020, 2021, and 2023, there was no single anti-Semitic incident in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian Va’ad, the umbrella organization for the Jewish congregation.

I would like to remind you of the evolution of Putin in religious issues, in religious affairs. The first mention about religion from Putin came from his interview with Larry King. Larry King asked him, ‘do you believe in God?’ and Putin replied, ‘I believe in human beings.’ So, next stage, he said, ‘I was baptized, and, miraculously, the cross saved my life in my childhood.’ Next stage, he said that he hesitated between so-called Eurasianism and true Orthodoxy and said that ‘I have been told that our Eastern Orthodoxy is much closer to Islam than to Catholicism,’ and he focused on the anti-Westernism of his, let's say, addition of Eastern Orthodoxy. And with some episodes, he stopped over the Eastern Orthodoxy and as an antithesis to the Western world, to Western Christianity, to democracy, to the rule of law, and he proclaimed that there are just two pillars of our statehood, there are two shields: our nuclear weapons and our Orthodoxy – that's it, and this is ‘my credo,’ and this is guidance for Russian people: that we should rely on our nuclear weapons and on our Orthodoxy.

Under this view, Patriarch Kirill – I also followed his evolution from his 1980s statement, when he said that Ukrainian Catholics have a right to express freely their religious convictions, to nowadays absolutely chauvinistic and jihadist, as Archbishop Gudziak mentioned, jihadist statements about eternal life for those who would be killed in Ukraine – and he just changed his say social capital to the support from the state. And when the Russian Orthodox church had a problem with remote Ural mountains monastery, Patriarch Kirill just sent to this monastery the National Guard – and when the Russian Orthodox church had a problem with the building of the cathedral, and the people in the city of Yekaterinburg protested against this cathedral, he just sent a call to the government and sent National Guard riot police to carp these protesters.

So, in my view, Patriarch Kirill now is the head of not the most influential department of Russian government – he shares the responsibility for Russian aggression against Ukraine, he shares the responsibility for this cannibalistic rhetoric of Russian government, and, in my opinion, cannot be treated in the international arena as a religious leader.

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you. And then, Dr. Elliot, I'd like to give you the closing word. Can you elaborate on why you think that believers of all faiths in the West should care about what's happening in Ukraine? 

Dr. Elliott: Sure. I think it's important especially for a Western audience to recognize the difference between the historic U.S. separation of church and state and the radically opposite position in the Russian Federation today, where one church is subordinate to the state and is an agent of the state's imperial agenda.

So, let me just close with this point: I think it's documented clearly that the Ukrainian state since 1991 has moved in a very tolerant direction, and you could even argue that there is a greater level of tolerance in Ukraine than in many parts of Europe, Western Europe. In contrast to that, the status of minority believers in the Russian occupied portions of Ukraine is even worse than the condition of minority believers in Russia itself, and that should be brought home to Western audiences that want to talk about the traditional values being protected by Moscow. It's just a sham. Thank you. 

Ms. Hoffman: Thank you for your thoughts and thank you to all of our panelists. This was a very informative and important event on an issue and an aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I don't think gets enough attention, so thank you all for joining. We're very grateful.