By RUMBI CHAKAMBA
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, attacks on religious freedoms and human rights abuses are reportedly escalating. Sam Mednick who is on the ground in Ukraine reports that religious leaders, local officials, civil society, and journalists are being disappeared or arbitrarily detained, and religious institutions are being destroyed.
Maksym Vasin, the executive director of the Institute for Religious Freedom — which has been documenting Russian attacks on religious freedoms in Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — tells Sam that the violence has never been as “cruel” as it is now.
“If in 2014 the Russian invaders threatened to kill priests, now they are being killed,” Vasin says. “If previously they expelled believers from Ukrainian churches and prayer houses, now they are destroying them with bombs and missiles strikes.”
IRF has documented the destruction or damage of at least 70 spiritual sites in eight regions as a result of Russian shelling and airstrikes — compared with less than a dozen over the previous eight years. Last week, the Drobitsky Yar Holocaust Memorial near the northeastern city of Kharkiv was reportedly shelled by Russian forces.
Vasin says the Russian army has also killed, captured, or arbitrarily imprisoned at least nine priests and pastors and is particularly targeting religious leaders because they are influential in their communities.
“Given that the church as an institution of society enjoys the greatest level of trust of the citizens of Ukraine, religious figures are one of the biggest obstacles for the Russian invaders,” he says.
“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.”
— Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church
Kirill, a trusted adviser of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a struggle “for eternal salvation” for ethnic Russians, during his sermon to usher in the beginning of the Orthodox Lent. Though Kirill received criticism for his religious justifications, the United States Institute of Peace says the conflict has “deeply rooted religious significance,” with religious narratives playing a role in the battle for Ukrainian national identity.
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