Church Without Freedom and Rights: What awaits evangelical churches in the occupied territories of Ukraine?

March 1, 2019 was the deadline for churches and religious organisations to re-register in the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). Only the Russian Orthodox churches of the Moscow Patriarchate have no problem with religious freedom. All of the other churches are now considered illegal.

What will happen now? It is important to observe what is happening in Russia, where thousands of believers are being persecuted as 'sectarians' and 'extremists', or in the neighbouring Lugansk People's Republic (LPR), where all evangelical groups and organisations have been banned on the basis of the 'law' titled 'On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations'. Baptists have been directly labeled as extremists and accused of ties with Ukraine and the West.

Pro-Russian separatists ride on a tank in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.Reuters

The law in the DPR creates the basis for a similar scenario. According to this law, 'the creation of a sect and expansion of sectarianism' is forbidden and subject to persecution (Article 3, Point 6 of the 'Law on the Freedom of Religious Expression and Religious Associations' of the DPR).

Any organisation risks being labeled a sect if it is not prepared to register. And the only church allowed to register is the church of the Moscow Patriarchate. All of the others are unlikely even to receive the approval of Orthodox experts. Even a religious group is obliged to go through the process of coordinating its activities, go through a religious examination, become registered, and provide regular detailed reports on its activities (Article 7, Statutes 2-3).

So even if believers wish to gather in simple home groups in kitchens, attics, or basements, they will most likely face punishment.

All of this means that churches must not engage in any type of mission work or other public activity, spread out in very small groups, and go deeply underground.

How can we help those who are living in this territory of arbitrary laws and terror? Ukrainian political and religious leaders are appealing to the international community for support. Social organizations are gathering facts on the multiple violations of religious freedom and are publishing extensive reports.

But so far it is difficult to say how and what the international community can do to help Christians in the territory of the DPR, because this quasi-state entity is not recognised by anyone and cannot be influenced by anything other than a direct call from the Kremlin.

The US explicitly states that Russia is behind religious freedom violations in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, because Russia considers independent religious activity to be a great threat and is fighting against missionaries as extremists in every way.

It is apparent that all new religious freedom restrictions are associated with this Russian influence in the spirit of the anti-extremist and, in fact, anti-missionary Yarovaya Laws. And here, social organisations can do little, since even the United Nations, the European Union, and the US cannot influence the flagrant violations of human rights and religious freedom in Russia and in the territories under its control. That's why the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius, speaking of possible catastrophic events after March 1, asks the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the participants in the Minsk negotiation process for diplomatic assistance, but most of all asks for universal prayer for congregations and clergy.

This is what we can do right now. This is what works better than anything else. Christian unanimity in prayer for those who are experiencing discrimination and persecution can bring about real miracles. And this may be the strongest evidence to the world—in the DPR, the LPR, Russia, and everywhere where freedom is violated and where the persecuted need our solidarity and full support.

Dr Michael Cherenkov teaches at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and is the executive field director of Mission Eurasia Field Ministries.