Torturing the priests and destroying the churches

Below just some of the hundreds of Russian crimes against churches during the war in Ukraine are described.
Mykola Komarovskyi, Yevhen Zakharov31 March 2024UA DE EN ES FR RU

© Марія Крикуненко / Харківська правозахисна група © Мария Крикуненко / Харьковская правозащитная группа

© Mariia Krykunenko/ Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

February 26, 2022. On the third day of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russians controlled part of the highways north of Kyiv. On one of them, near Ivankov, they stopped an old Soviet car where Maksym Anatoliiovych Kozachyna, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and chaplain, was traveling. His family he was returning to after the service would never see him again: the clergyman was shot and was not allowed to be buried for three days.

Maksym Kozachyna became one of at least three priests killed by the Russian military during the aggressive war against Ukraine.

In addition, the T4P war crimes database records 356 cases of damaging religious sites or other unlawful acts against them.

[катування священників, знищення храмів, eng] © Serhiy Prytkine

© Serhii Prytkin

The second murder also took place in the Kyiv Region. On March 5, 2022, the Russian military opened fire at a Ukrainian roadblock at the entrance to Yasnohorodka. Father Rostyslav Dudarenko, the rector of the local OCU temple, was killed. This was reported by the commander of the local territorial defense unit with the call sign “Shustryi.” According to him, the clergyman was walking toward the Russian BMP with a cross in his raised hands.

Максим Козачина. Світлина: Viktoriia Kramarenko / Facebook [священник піп]

Maksym Kozachyna. Photo: Viktoriia Kramarenko / Facebook

On February 15, 2024, it became known that the occupants killed archpriest Stepan Podolchak, the rector and builder of the Church of All Saints of the Ukrainian land, in the Kalanchak settlement of the Kherson Region. As specified by OCU Bishop of Kherson and Tavrichesky Nykodym (Kulyhin), the clergyman was tortured to death.

Four priests were killed due to shelling from different types of artillery.

On May 30, 2022, the Sviatohirsk Lavra was damaged by shelling: two monks and a nun were killed, and three monks were wounded.

Відспівування та похорон убієнних святогірців в Адамівці, джерело фото: Офіційний сайт Свято-Успенської Святогірської Лаври

The funeral and burial of the murdered Sviatohirsk Lavra monks in Adamivka. Source:Official website of the Holy Assumption Sviatohirsk Lavra

Dozens of clergy under torture

Twenty priests were kidnapped. Their fate is unknown. We know about six priests who were abducted and later released. After moving to government-controlled territory or after de-occupation, all of them told that they had been tortured.

On May 17, 2022, the Russian military abducted Oleksandr Salfetnikov, pastor of the Light of the Gospel Baptist Church in the town of Balakliia. After his release, the clergyman described how he was tortured, demanding he admit that he was involved in Ukrainian intelligence and corrupted young people.

On 24.03.2022 at noon, the Russian military burst into the building of the alcohol and drug addicts rehabilitation center of the Salvation Church in the village of Motyzhyn, Kyiv Region. They suspected Pastor Oleh of assisting the Ukrainian military, so they tied him up, beat him, and then took him to their deployment on a farm near the village. Then, the pastor was thrown for two days in a well and later — in a barn.

Ферма, де була розташована база росіян, джерело фото: Слідство Інфо

The farm where the Russians were deployed. Source: Investigations Info

Since 2021, priest Kostiantyn Maksymov has served in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the town of Tokmak, which, with the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, was under occupation. According to his mother, Svitlana Maksymova, on the morning of 16.05.2023, her son left the occupied Tokmak with a volunteer humanitarian mission through Crimea. At 10:27 a.m., he called his friends to inform them that he had arrived at the checkpoint (probably in the town of Chonhar). There has been no contact with Maksymov since then. There is information that the clergyman was detained by the Russian military and is kept in a filtration camp in Dzhankoi. There is no information yet about the place, conditions, and reason for Kostiantyn Maksymov’s lengthy detention, as well as his health state.

Священник Костянтин Максимов, джерело фото: Центр громадянських свобод

Priest Kostiantyn Maksymov. Source:Center for Civil Liberties

In late November 2022, Russian occupiers detained in Berdiansk two priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdan Heleta. They were taken to Russia, and nobody knows exactly where they are now. Both priests are under investigation on Russian criminal charges related to explosives, weapons, and ammunition that Russian propaganda claims were found in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Berdiansk, where Father Ivan and Father Bohdan serve. These accusations were also broadcast on Russian occupation media, along with claims that “extremist” literature was allegedly found in the church. The Donetsk Diocesan Office denied all the allegations made by the Russian occupation forces.

Отець Богдан Гелета (зліва) та отець Іван Левицький, джерело фото: сайт Української Греко-Католицької Церкви

Father Bohdan Heleta (left) and Father Ivan Levytskyi. Source: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church website

Deportation of priests

In the Zaporizhzhya region, the Russian military detained and expelled from his hometown of Melitopol a 74-year-old priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who refused to obtain a Russian passport. Russian propaganda called him an “opponent of referendums” and a man who justifies “Kyiv terrorism.”

Протоієрей УПЦ Святослав Пітерський, джерело фото: Первый Запорожский

UOC Archpriest Sviatoslav Piterskyi

In the occupied Donetsk Region in September 2023, Russian officials arrested two OCU priests, Father Christopher Khrimli and Father Andrii Chui. The court fined both of them for “missionary activity” and ordered their deportation from Russia (after the illegal annexation, Russian authorities consider Donetsk and other occupied Regions of Ukraine to be Russian territories). Fathers Christopher and Andrii are being held at a deportation center near Rostov-on-Don.

Христофор Хрімлі та Андрій Чуй, джерело фото: Новини Донбасу

Christopher Khrimli and Andrii Chui. Source:Donbass News

Russia is destroying Orthodox churches in Ukraine

The majority of the 356 cases of damaging religious sites registered in the T4P database relate to the destruction of churches due to Russian shelling of Ukrainian towns and villages with various types of weapons. In 266 episodes, the documenters recorded shelling from barrel artillery or volley fire systems, in 29 — a missile strike, and in 20 — an air strike.

On the night of July 23, 2023, the Russian military shelled Odessa with 19 missiles of various types: Kalibr, X-22, Oniks, Iskander-K, and Iskander-M. Ukraine’s air defense forces repelled a significant part of the attacks. The remaining missiles damaged the city’s infrastructure. The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral of the UOC, which is a historical monument of local importance, was almost entirely destroyed by this shelling.

Спасо-Преображенський кафедральний собор УПЦ, джерело фото: Одеська обласна прокуратура

Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral of the UOC. Source: Odessa Regional Prosecutor’s Office

At least three episodes involved deliberate damage or destruction of temples by the tanks and other armored vehicles’ fire. Unlike artillery shelling, where it is difficult to prove the intent to damage a specific building, in this case, the purpose of a particular military officer is unquestioned.

On March 05, 2022, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was damaged during the shelling of the Yasnohorodka village, as was reported by the UOC Synodal Information and Education Department.

On March 25, 2022, the ancient Ascension Church of the Boryspil Eparchy of the UOC in the village of Luk’ianivka, Kyiv Region, a monument to Ukrainian wooden architecture from the second half of the XIX century, was destroyed.

Храм Вознесіння Господнього Бориспільської єпархії Української Православної Церкви, джерело фото телеграм-канал Киевский Движ

The Church of the Ascension of the Lord of the Boryspil Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Source: Kievsky Dvizh telegram channel.

The church and the adjacent cemetery in the village of Kyselivka, Kherson Region, were destroyed by the Russian tank fire.

Храм Непорочного Зачаття Пресвятої Діви Марії у Киселівці, джерело фото: CREDO

Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kiselivka. Source: CREDO

Persecution of various Christian denominations

The bulk of damaged or destroyed religious sites are Orthodox churches. This contrasts with Russian authorities’ statements about the alleged “protection” of the Orthodox faith.

T4P documenters also registered nine crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition to the destruction, three episodes documented other unlawful acts.

On 14.12.2022, the Russian authorities in temporarily occupied Berdiansk announced the “nationalization” of the premises of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is also known that the Russians in the occupied territories repeatedly conducted searches and raids in the buildings owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In February 2023, occupation police officers in the Kherson Region searched the empty Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Skadovsk. They seized the religious publications.

On January 15, 2024, Russian sources informed about raids in two empty Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mariupol. A short video published on Russian resources shows masked armed men taking printed materials from the hall and putting them into a green armored military truck marked by a “V” sign.

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Let’s recall that as far back as April 2017, the RF Supreme Court recognized Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization and altogether banned their activities in Russia. As the above examples show, Russia has extended its policy of prohibition Jehovah’s Witnesses to the territories it occupies. Earlier, the same practice had already become systematic in occupied Crimea.

Similar illegal actions were recorded against the Mennonite Brethren Church in the Zaporizhzhia region. In August 2022, Russians in occupied Molochansk asked to vacate the premises belonging to this church. This was reported by the pastor Oleksii Makaiov at the time.

Будинок молитви менонітів у Молочанську, джерело фото: Релігійно-інформаційна служба України

Mennonite House of Prayer in Molochansk. Source: Religious Information Service of Ukraine

In occupied Berdiansk, the Russians seized the Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To justify the seizure of the building, the Russians claimed that Ukrainian military and partisans were hiding there.

As can be seen, the actions of Russians are deliberately directed specifically against religious institutions that do not belong to the Orthodox Church. This may indicate a clear hostile policy towards other Christian denominations. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were altogether outlawed after the occupation of Ukrainian territories.

Shelling of mosques and synagogues

In July 2022, a mosque in the Kyivskyi district of Kharkiv was damaged due to the shelling by Uragan MLRS.

Мечеть у Київському районі міста Харківа, джерело фото: Харківська правозахисна група

Mosque in the Kyivskyi district of Kharkiv. Source:Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

During the fighting in Mariupol, Russian armed forces shelled the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, where, at the time, almost 90 people were hiding, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Eighty-six Turkish citizens, including 34 children, were hiding from shelling in the mosque, as reported in the Facebook post of 11.03.2022 by Petro Andriushchenko, advisor to the mayor of Mariupol.

A synagogue in Huliaipole built in 1909 and an architectural monument, was damaged in January 2023.

Синагога у місті Гуляйполе, джерело фото фкйсбук-сторінка Гуляйпільські старожитності

Synagogue in Huliaipole. Source: Huliaipole Antiquities / Facebook

There are six episodes in the T4P database where synagogues are listed as damaged objects. Damage to at least four Catholic and one Protestant temple is also recorded in the database.

[катування священників, знищення храмів, eng] © Serhiy Prytkine

© Serhii Prytkin

Destruction of cultural heritage

Four episodes from the entire database list mention damage to buildings listed as monuments of national importance.

The roof and dome of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (St. Nicholas church), built in 1809-1823, were damaged due to the shelling of the town of Izium on 27.03.2022. The shelling also damaged the facades and windows of the nearby Office of the Izium Diocese.

Хрестовоздвиженська (Миколаївська) церква, джерело фото: сайт Ізюмської єпархії

Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (St. Nicholas church) in Izium. Source: Izium Diocese website

Shelling also damaged the roof, windows, facade, and entrance space of the Holy Ascension Cathedral in Izium, built in 1826 and completed in 1902-1903.

Свято-Вознесенський кафедральний собор в Ізюмі, джерело фото: Українська Православна Церква

Holy Ascension Cathedral in Izium. Source: Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The 1778 building of the Holy Assumption Cathedral in Kharkiv was damaged due to shelling in March 2022. People were hiding in the temple during the shelling, but fortunately, none of them were injured. The cathedral’s windows and stained-glass windows were broken, and the church utensils were damaged.

Свято-Успенський собор, місто Харків, джерело фото: телеграм-канал Держспецзв’язку

Holy Assumption Cathedral, Kharkiv. Source: telegram channel of the SSSCIP

The Church of St. John the Theologian in Kharkiv was also similarly damaged.

On August 19, 2023, the Russian military undertook a missile attack on the historical center of Chernihiv. The missile damaged Pyatnitskaya Church, an architectural monument of national importance under the responsibility of the National Architectural and Historical Reserve “Chernihiv Ancient."

П’ятницька церква, місто Чернигів, джерело фото: Чернігів стародавній

Pyatnitska Church, Chernihiv city. Source: Chernihiv Ancient.

Russian attacks on memorial complexes and cemeteries were repeatedly recorded during this war.

In March 2022, the memorial in Drobytskyi Yar near Kharkiv was shelled. Drobytskyi Yar is the site of the mass murder of Kharkiv Jews by the Nazis during World War II. According to the State Archive of the Kharkiv Region, some 16-20 thousand people were shot at this place.

Меморіал “Дробицький Яр” після обстрілу. © Денис Волоха / Харківська правозахисна група

The Drobytskyi Yar memorial after the shelling. © Denys Volokha / Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

As a result of shelling in the village of Sim’ianivka in the Sumy Region, the memorial steles of the Soviet soldiers’ mass grave and the monument to fellow countrymen soldiers killed in World War II were damaged. This object is a historical monument of local importance.

Robbing the churches

It is not uncommon for Russians to rob the church’s premises. In some cases, they limited themselves to ordinary household items, and sometimes, they did not neglect to take away icons and other sacral valuables.

For example, in Koriukivka, Chernihiv Region, Russian occupiers robbed the local church. Oleksandr Koshovyi, the church deacon of the local religious community “Tabernacle,” recalls that the occupants broke into the church at night. They broke a window, looted the church, and took out foodstuff. “They were not even squeamish to dig in the trash bin.”

Церква у Корюківці на Чернігівщині, джерело фото: фейсбук-сторінка Регіонального управління Сил ТрО “Північ” Збройних Сил України

Church in Koriukivka, Chernihiv Region. Source: Facebook page of the TRO forces Regional Directorate "North" of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The Russians removed air conditioners, washing machines, computers, routers, kitchen equipment, and even the father rector’s old sneakers, which he liked to run, from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus seminary in Vorzel. Some liturgical items, notably the monstrance and commemorative chalice from the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 2001, were also stolen from the seminary.

In November 2022, occupation forces seized icons from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine church in Enerhodar. The Russians said they had prevented an “illegal attempt” to export seven Orthodox icons. The occupation forces handed over the church valuables belonging to the religious community to the Melitopol Local History Museum. We are talking about icons of the late XVIII — early XIX century.

Старовинна ікона, джерело фото: Центр національного спротиву

An ancient icon. Source: National Resistance Center

Use of churches for military needs

The Russian military turned the premises of the Church of the Ascension (built in 1913) in the village of Lukashivka, Chernihiv Region, into their headquarters and military warehouse. A torture chamber was also organized on the territory of the church, according to the founder and head of the NGO “Ukraine Incognita,” Roman Malenkov.

Джерело фото: фейсбук-сторінка Релігійно-інформаційної служби України

Source: Facebook page of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

Джерело фото: фейсбук-сторінка Релігійно-інформаційної служби України

Source: Facebook page of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

According to the AFU General Staff, the Russian military deployed a depot with military equipment on the Oleksandr Nevskyi Cathedral in Melitopol territory.

After occupying the village of Pobeda, Brovary district of the Kyiv Region, the Russian military placed armored vehicles around the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They refused the priest’s request to move to a safer place with his children. On March 5, 2022, the temple was shelled.

Legal qualification

Crime of destruction or damage to religious institutions is described in a particular norm of the Rome Statute, which provides liability for “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives” (RS Article 8(b)(ix)).

However, for a person to be held liable under this article, the attack must have been intentionally directed against a place of worship and not be an act when the perpetrator is indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Otherwise, such action will be qualified under another, more general article.

The crimes against clergy can be qualified in various ways. For example, the mass abduction of priests can be considered an element of the crime against humanity, manifested in the form of forced disappearance of the population. As far as we know, priests are mostly detained without any legal basis and held incommunicado. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is preparing a submission to the International Criminal Court in this regard.

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