Separatists came to Donbas armed with the ideology of “Russkiy Mir”, the Russian World, in its most aggressive version that was enshrined in the "Constitution of the Donets People’s Republic" adopted on May 14, 2014. Its preamble states that the "Supreme Council" adopts the "Constitution" "confessing the Orthodox faith (the Holy Greek Orthodox Christian faith of the Eastern Rite) of the Russian Orthodox Church (of the Moscow Patriarchate) and acknowledging it to be the keystone of the "Russian World." By doing so, the separatists, under the guise of Orthodoxy, introduced a special doctrine providing the foundation for the Russian World and opposed not only to the Christian religion as such, but also to all other Orthodox Churches. The ninth chapter of the "DPR Constitution" declares this creed to have a commanding status: "In Donetsk People's Republic, the leading and dominant faith is the Orthodox faith (the Holy Greek Orthodox Christian faith of the Eastern Rite) as professed by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). The historical importance and the role of Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church (of the Moscow Patriarchate) are acknowledged and respected, primarily, as systemically important pillars of the Russian World."
This provision also puts the separatists into the opposition to most believers of Donbas, where diversity has always been a typical feature. The number of local Protestant communities registered there before the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war was just a little below the number of parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. In these circumstances, a religious conflict was inevitable.
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The Donetsk Regional State Administration reported that as of the end of 2014, 1,795 religious organizations, including 1,723 religious communities, were registered in Donetsk Oblast (including the occupied territories). Orthodox religious organizations accounted for about 49% of those (42.9% of them being religious organizations of the Moscow Patriarchate). Protestants of all denominations had over 700 organizations, or 40.9% of the total number, including charismatic churches accounting for more than 12%, and Baptists having more than 10%. The rest were 38 Muslim, 19 Jewish, 14 Buddhist and 8 Vaishnav religious organizations registered in the oblast. In addition to that, the locals practiced domestic churches and communities with no official registration, as the Ukranian law permits this. Some churches in the occupied territories had to close down because of the violence on the part of the separatists. The Donetsk Oblast State Administration (currently based in the Ukraine-controlled Mariupol) also reported that 26 religious missions were officially registered in Donetsk Oblast. All of them represented Protestant denominations (Baptists, Evangelical Christians, Full Gospel Church, Church of Christ, Church of God Pentecostal, Association of Independent ECB Churches and Association of Missionary Churches of Evangelical Christians of Ukraine). The following missions were very actively engaged in evangelization and charitable activities: Ark (ECB, Makyivka), Path to Heart (ECB, Khartsyzsk), Ark (CEF, Slovyansk), Opportunity (CEF, Mariupol), God's Assembly in Ukraine (CEF, Donetsk), Share thy Bread with the Hungry (Full Gospel Church, Makyivka), City of Refuge (CEF, Donetsk), and Blue Cross (ECB, Makyivka).
The war in Eastern Ukraine was preceded by a massive pro-Russian propaganda campaign but people with firm beliefs were more resistant to it than others. That is why at the beginning of the war, most Protestants of Donbas were morally on the side of Ukraine. With the Orthodox, the situation is more complicated, since many believers consider themselves to be Orthodox not on religious, but on ideological grounds. In fact, all those who had some value navigators, whether Protestants, Orthodox, Vaishnav or Muslim, seemed to be immune to propaganda and, therefore, were perceived by the adherents of the "Russian World" as potential enemies.
Many residents of Donbas met the victory of the Maidan with suspicion, even though their attitudes varied. Many did not like the corrupt Yanukovych government, but still prayed for it. Students being beaten up and later people shot down on Maidan, as well as Viktor Yanukovych fleeing – all those events raised certain questions: to what extent the authorities can be considered legitimate, for how long it is necessary to pray for them, and how the new government should be perceived? Some of the bishops had their own standpoint, and others did not, but since neither priesthood nor episcopate had a clear understanding of the situation, it was deemed necessary to refrain from stating any political positions. However, the outbreak of the war urged many to self-determination, expressing their position not only in word, but also in deed and helping residents of the combat zone in need of assistance, as well as the Ukrainian military.
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In different cities of Donbas, after the outbreak of the war, the events followed one and the same scenario. First, rumors that the Right Sector is coming; later, seizure of administrative buildings, with police being absolutely inert; then, mobilization of lumpenprols who considered themselves to be the masters of the streets; then, the arrival of mercenaries with military skills who forced out the lumpen; and finally, the emergence of heavy weapons and unidentified military professionals. In these circumstances, even those pastors who previously had not supported Maidan turned into the supporters of Ukraine. Gradually, the mood of the population began to change, and today most Donbas residents in the liberated territories remember the occupation period only as a nightmare.
Oleksiy Palchenko, the Deacon of a small Love of Jesus Pentecostal church located on the outskirts of Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast, said that only one Protestant church out of twenty active in the city supported separatists. He himself, during the occupation, would drive to Ukrainian checkpoints the assistance gathered by the parishioners of his church – elderly pensioners, who helped the Ukrainian military from their miserable pensions, cooked, and made sauerkraut.
There were no arrests of Christians in Kramatorsk, but some pastors were warned that they were on the arrest list and therefore had to leave the city. In Slovyansk, however, the arrests of ministers and active parishioners of Protestant churches began very soon.
On May 16, 2014, at the order of the city's military authorities, the Bishop of the Ukrainian Church of God Evangelical association and the senior pastor of the Good News Pentecostal church in Slovyansk Oleksiy Demydovych was arrested by the separatists. Before that, separatists came after his brother, pastor Serhiy Demydovych, and searched his home and garage for something, saying that he "worked for Americans." Fortunately, Serhiy Demydovych at that time was in Kyiv and escaped the arrest, but Oleksiy spent seven hours in the basement, blindfolded. After that, the separatist-appointed mayor of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev came and ordered to release Oleksiy Demydovych. A former drug addict, Ponomarev underwent a rehabilitation course at one of the Protestant churches and in this way became familiar with Protestant activities. Pastors took the first arrest for a warning, and quickly left the occupied city. Members of the "militia" who sympathized with them later confessed to parishioners: "Had the pastors not left then, they would have never been able to do so."
The separatists made no bones of the "dissenters": all Orthodox priests not belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate were expelled from the city right away (which probably saved their lives), but the question of what to do with the Protestants did not have a general solution. Natalya Bradarska, widow of the Deacon of the Transfiguration Pentecostal Evangelical church who was gunned down told how the militants came to them. They liked the grand church building with columns located in the town center. "Americans? A pro-American church?" the separatists asked. They could not believe that the building of the former House of Culture was fully restored by parishioners with just donations: "You get help from Americans, Americans are our enemies, and we are the Russian Orthodox Army." First, the militants hesitated whether to seize the building or not, but then they said: "Keep praying for now." And they seized another church, Good News, which was located on a hill and therefore was more valuable from the military point of view. The pastor of the Good News church Petro Dudnyk told that the separatists chased everyone out of the church, saying that the barracks would be located there. After the separatists fled, Ukrainian military had to use three trucks to take away all the weapons they left in the church building.
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The scale of repressions is difficult to assess so far, since fragmented information comes from various sources and still needs to be summarized. The press center of the civic movement Vsi razom! (All Together) in March 2015 published the results of the monitoring of persecution on religious grounds in the occupied territories of Donbas: "The facts of murders of seven members of the clergy have been established reliably. More than 40 church ministers have been in captivity, with interrogations and beatings. Also in 2014, militants seized buildings and premises of 12 Christian communities, a church orphanage, a Christian university, and the premises of three rehabilitation centers for alcohol and drug abusers. Besides, shelling damaged five church buildings, three of which were burnt down." It is safe to say that the repressions had a much larger scale than these data show. In particular, despite the fact that the separatists treated the Baptists rather tolerantly, according to the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, as of September 2014, seven of their churches were seized and three more were destroyed. The relatively "tolerant" attitude towards the Baptists was manifest in the fact that in the city of Antratsyt, the separatists seized the building of the House of Prayer for all Nations Baptist Church twice, later giving it back.
Pastor Serhiy Kosyak provided information on the seizure of church buildings. In May 2014, the separatists seized church buildings in Horlivka and Snizhne and the Evening Light rehabilitation center in Donetsk, taking captive 29 people, some of whom were beaten. In June 2014, they seized churches in Torez, Shakhtarsk and Druzhkivka, two churches in Horlivka, the Rock of Salvation rehabilitation center and the entire premises of Donetsk Christian University in Donetsk. In August 2014, they seized church buildings in Donetsk, Olenivka and Horlivka, and in September 2014, in Donetsk and Rovenky. The seizure of churches was very often accompanied by the arrests of pastors.
While Protestant churches were seized selectively, those of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church were taken consistently and systematically. Administrator of the Donetsk Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Archbishop Serhiy (Horobtsov) in February 2015 said that 30 out of the 40 parishes of the Kyiv Patriarchate in the occupied territory ceased their activities, and most of the clergy had to emigrate because of the threats of the separatists, while those who remained had to go underground.
The overall picture of the persecution of Christians in the occupied territories is not uniform. Arrests were carried out systematically in the cities where the respective structures were created: in Slovyansk, Donetsk, and Horlivka. In other places, such as Kramatorsk, such structures were established, but never started working. In some provincial towns, separatists did not interfere in the life of the citizens, while elsewhere, autonomous groups of Russian mercenaries and units of Russian Cossacks terrorized the population.
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Slovyansk suffered the most of the repressions. On June 8, 2014, the Trinity Sunday, the separatists abducted four Christians: Viktor Bradarsky (40 y.o., 3 children), two sons of pastor Pavenko, Ruvim (29 y.o., married) and Albert (24 y.o., married), and Volodymyr Velychko (8 children, 41 y.o.). They were taken after the service, when people were leaving the Transfiguration church. In 16 hours, they were shot down, but the murder was concealed from the relatives.
While Slovyansk was controlled by just one separatist group, in Donetsk there were many of them, which made repressions even more unpredictable. On February 25, 2014, in downtown Donetsk, a prayer marathon "for peace, love and unity of Ukraine" was launched for representatives of all religious groups. On May 24, 2014, the militants raided the prayer tent, threatening to shoot down anyone coming to pray. Marathon participant Serhiy Kosyak, pastor of the Assembly of God Evangelical Church of Donetsk, went to the separatists' headquarters to discuss the incident, where he was arrested. After eight hours of tortures, a commander came and started yelling at his subordinates, demanding that they ask for forgiveness and return all belongings. He then came up to Pastor Serhiy and said that he went to the New Generation rehabilitation center, but then departed from God and that by saving him he hoped to get some grace in Lord. From this episode, it is clear that the attitude of the separatists to the marathon was hostile, but there were many locals among the militants, who knew the worshipers personally, and this somehow held them off. Nevertheless, continued attacks and arrests of the worshipers, and then in August, already under Igor Strelkov, a series of arrests and the direct ban on church assemblies forced them to go underground.
Besides the centralized separatist structure in Donetsk, there are also other autonomous groups, in which there are no sympathizers for the churchgoers. One of such extremist groups, the Russian Orthodox Army, took captive Father Tykhon Kulbaka, a Greek Catholic priest, on July 4, 2014. Father Tykhon, a diabetic, spent 12 days in captivity without medicines. He survived by a miracle. Three times they took him out for execution, each time shooting over his head. Roman Catholic priests were also arrested. On May 27, 2014, priest Pavlo Vityok was arrested, spending a day in captivity. On July 15, Viktor Vonsovych was arrested, spending ten days in captivity.
In the first months of the occupation, Donetsk pastors tried to find some kind of a compromise with local militants, many of whom they knew personally. In July 2014, mercenaries started arriving to the city, and the situation worsened for the Christians. With the arrival of Igor Strelkov (Girkin), the arrests of the Christians in Donetsk grew more frequent. In August 2014, reprisals reached the peak, and subdued thereafter.
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Further decrease of the level of persecution was due to several factors. Primarily, the separatists solved their property issues, having seized everything they wanted. There were even several cases when buildings were restituted to church communities. Secondly, pastors and priests who irritated the separatists were forced to leave the occupied territory. The activities of the Orthodox churches of the Moscow Patriarchate were not affected. Thirdly, the separatists gradually became used to Protestants and started developing some general principles of administrating the territories. Fourthly, the separatists saw that the Protestants' assistance to the needy reduces the level of social tension created by the lack of financing and ruined social infrastructure.
For this very reason, the militants are unusually tolerant of the Vaishnavs, who feed the hungry in the occupied territories as part of their Food for Life program. Nevertheless, the Vaishnavs experienced reprisals along with other denominations: some of the followers of this faith were arrested, and all public Vaishnav activities were banned. However, they chose not to focus attention on these facts, believing their main priority today to be the charitable distribution of food.
The repressions, in any case, never ceased, only becoming more systematic and pragmatic. Instead of the seizure of church property, the separatist authorities chose the strategy of forced cooperation, the first step being the requirement to register churches. However, this process is still at an early stage, and there have been yet no direct reprisals for the refusal to register. Nevertheless, moral pressure increases.
Within religious communities and even church councils, groups of people emerged who support the separatists and insist on cooperation with the separatist authorities. For pastors and parishioners, it is dangerous to show their pro-Ukrainian stand even inside the church, since they may be reported to the "Ministry of State Security" carrying out political reprisals against dissenters.
All these arrests were made on ideological grounds, since in the separatists' worldview, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox (other than the Moscow Patriarchate) are enemies of the "Russian World." Separatist groups were numerous, and the reprisals took the form of chaotic bandit attacks. With time, the ideological basis was replaced with the pragmatic one, aimed at retaining power. Therefore, the repression of religious organizations in Donbas will not stop. It will only change the form with a view to strengthening the overall control.