Some fell victim to indiscriminate shelling. But in other cases the destruction was deliberate.
by Ruslan Khalikov
On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Ukrainian religious life has been affected by this attack since the very first day. Attacks on religious buildings have both hard and soft components from the point of view of international law. The first is characterized by the fact that attacks on religious buildings or artifacts are war crimes. The second component concerns freedom of religion or belief. Shelling 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 for 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 hostilities against cultural property, so long as it is not being used for military purposes … Cultural property includes places of worship, institutions dedicated to religion, charity, education, the arts and sciences, historic 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 a situation of war, “The convictions and religious practices of civilians and persons hors de combat must be respected.”
The religious situation in Ukraine, unlike in 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 an absolute dominant status. In Ukraine, there are two large and several smaller Orthodox churches, as well as three Eastern and one Western Catholic church. Religious communities banned in the Russian Federation, including the 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 another.
War crimes committed during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine are being recorded by various investigative bodies and human rights defenders. However, the scale of hostilities and crimes is so huge that investigations and court processes create an extraordinary burden on the judicial system and law enforcement agencies of Ukraine. Therefore, state institutions and public organizations are also engaged in the recording and documentation of war crimes.
Among public organizations’ initiatives, the project “Religion on Fire” can be cited as an example. It has been launched by the Workshop for the Academic Study of Religions and supported by the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine. The project aims at recording and documenting the war crimes committed by the Russian troops by destroying or damaging religious buildings and kidnapping or killing religious leaders in Ukraine. Speaking about state initiatives, it is worth mentioning that the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience has launched a project aimed at mapping the damage of religious buildings during the full-scale Russian invasion.
Religious buildings and communities affected by the war
During the full-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, there 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 come under fire several times. In particular, the mosque in Severodonetsk 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 city.
At least fifteen religious leaders in Ukraine have been killed in the shelling or shot, including military chaplains, as well as civil volunteers from religious communities. About ten local religious leaders have been abducted by Russian forces, and some of them are still imprisoned.
About 110 damaged buildings belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was a part of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) until recently, and about 20 churches belong to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). It is not possible to provide an accurate estimate today, due to the fact that hostilities are ongoing in a number of regions, and approximately 20% of Ukraine’s territory remains occupied by Russian troops (Crimea is 100% occupied, the Luhansk region more than 95%, other regions in smaller percentages). In occupied areas, access to religious buildings and obtaining information about them remain difficult and sometimes impossible.
However, even the meager available data 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, such numerous destruction of churches, deaths and injuries, kidnappings of UOC (MP) priests, even those who had suffered in the already Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine, did not find words of condolence from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). At the same time, on March 26, 2022, Patriarch Kirill officially expressed condolences regarding the death of the Russian military priest Oleg Artemov during shelling.
The attitude of the top ROC leadership, as well as the actual support for the war and Russia’s regime, have significantly changed the attitude of Orthodox Ukrainians towards the Russian Church. So, since February 24, 2022, about 600 parishes have left the UOC (MP), a larger number than those who had left in the previous three years. This is still not a critical number, since there are about 12,000 parishes in UOC, but the trends are visible. Eventually, according to the results of the Council of the UOC (MP), which took place on May 27, 2022, this church 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 have been shelled as a result of indiscriminatory bombing, while others have been deliberately destroyed with machine-guns or artillery. Currently, there are no official investigations results in most of the cases, but we can reasonably claim that some of the attacks on religious buildings were deliberate. First of all, there are published testimonies of eyewitnesses who have seen that a specific religious building has been targeted with large-caliber machine guns or other weapons. This is the case of the St. George Church in the village of Zavorichi (Kyiv region), which was built in 1873 and destroyed on March 7, 2022, by targeted fire. Another example eyewitnesses have seen is how, after the first hit on Irpin Biblical Seminary (Irpin, Kyiv region), aerial reconnaissance was conducted by a drone, and the next day, a repeated, more destructive shelling of the building took place.
Secondly, the very fact that a church was shot with a machine gun, especially from close range, indicates that the church was the target, as it 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 village foundation, was fired at with a machine gun, probably from an armored vehicle moving along the road.
Moreover, there are cases when a church has been fired at from the inside, in particular, the icons have been shot. For example, it happened in St. Dimitrii Rostovskyi Church in Makariv (Kyiv region), where a bullet was shot through the head of John the Baptist on the icon “Removal from the Cross.” The eye of St. Nicholas was also shot on the icon in St. Nicholas the Wonderworker’s Church at the State Tax University in Irpin. Other cases are depicted in the images accompanying this article.
During the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 20% of the Ukrainian territory has been temporarily occupied or is in the war zone, and the entire territory of Ukraine is regularly bombarded with missiles, aerial bombs, and artillery. As a result of shelling and hostilities, residential buildings, civil infrastructures, and parts of cultural heritage, in particular, religious buildings, are damaged. If some churches could have come under fire by accident (due to the indiscriminate shelling and bombing), in other cases there is evidence of targeted attacks by the Russian military.
The vast majority of damaged religious buildings belong to Orthodox Christianity, and this corresponds to the general situation of religious life in Ukraine. The majority of religious buildings belong to Orthodox churches, and about 60% of Ukrainians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. At the same time, religious buildings of other denominations also have come under fire, just as among the dead clerics there are representatives not only of Orthodox Christianity, but other denominations as well.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine aims, among other things, at establishing an authoritarian, exclusivist approach to religious freedom, which is prevailing in the Russian Federation. In particular, the activities of religious minorities are significantly restricted in the occupied territories. And all activities are prohibited in the case of denominations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the followers of Said Nursi, and others.
Even belonging to Russian Orthodox Christianity can guarantee security only on the condition of full political loyalty to the occupation administration. This approach is completely different from the religious pluralism existing in Ukraine, which might be lost if Ukrainian territory finds itself, at least temporarily, under Russian occupation.