Deportations and Persecutions of Religious Leaders: History and Contemporary War Crimes

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and occupation of part of its territories, the Russian Federation has been systematically committing mass war crimes, the definition of which is set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The main ideological concept of the Russian aggressor is the doctrine of the “Russian world,” which systematizes criminal intentions hidden behind the pseudo-values of Russian culture, language, and Orthodox faith. The term “pseudo-values” aptly describes this teaching, as no Christian church advocates for deliberate aggression and crimes against other peoples. Furthermore, the suffering inflicted daily with the conscious agreement of the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev), is not endorsed by any Christian church. 

The Russian patriarch, in his church sermons, calls the war of aggression against Ukraine “sacred,” justifies Russian war criminals, and is directly involved in appointing Russian clergy as “military chaplains” in Russian military units and for service in pseudo-terrorist formations in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Such policies and behaviors of the Russian Orthodox Church are unacceptable from the standpoint of Christian tenets and traditions and constitute a deliberate subversive ideology that contradicts the Christian faith. This ideology contains signs of the heresy of “ethnophyletism” (a policy where national interests are placed above religious doctrine, justifying the aggressive policy of Russian state expansion in the war against Ukraine with pseudo-religious justification). 

From this ideology of the Russian Orthodox Church, it becomes evident that Moscow, which claims to protect “traditional values” but actually persecutes believers, forcibly deports and illegally kidnaps children, and rapes and pillages the population under Russian occupation, is systematically deceiving the international community and spreading disinformation. This was analyzed and discussed by experts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on February 29, 2024. 

In response, the international community of Christian religious leaders, scholars, and public figures (Orthodox, Catholic, and several Protestant churches) published a declaration condemning the doctrine of the “Russian world,” stating that this pseudo-teaching is a foundation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. They emphasized that the Russian church leadership has not responded to the evident criminal aggression of the Russian authorities against the Ukrainian people. Concurrently, the Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, requesting a condemnation of the “Russian world” doctrine as heretical from the Orthodox perspective. On December 9, 2022, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, speaking at an international conference in Abu Dhabi, discussed the deep religious and cultural ties between Kyiv and Constantinople and the tradition of Greek Orthodoxy. He strongly condemned the “Russian world” doctrine, highlighting the countless victims in Ukraine, the destruction of church monuments, cultural heritage, and infrastructure resulting from Russian aggression, with the “Russian world” as its cornerstone: 

“Patriarch Kirillʼs ambiguous stance on the war and his support for President Putinʼs policies have drawn sharp criticism in the Orthodox world and beyond. Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who have chosen to remain under the Russian Church have also expressed their disapproval. Thus, the split in the Orthodox world is deepening and widening. Some churches agree with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, others, whose countries are too dependent on Russia, blindly support the Moscow Patriarchate, and still others prefer to remain complicitly silent. Meanwhile, the Russian Church is using state means to consolidate its influence on the canonical territory of other Churches, contrary to the most elementary rules of church organization of Orthodoxy. Its intervention in Africa is presented as punitive actions against the Patriarchate of Alexandria for recognizing the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Obviously, in these circumstances, the peacekeeping role of the Church is very difficult.” – Patriarch Bartholomew.

This is exactly what the Holy Bible says: “By their fruits you will know them. Does one pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? … [Bible: Matthew 7:16-17].”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and a model of the main church of the Russian Armed Forces. Photo source: https://tatmitropolia.ru/.


As Patriarch Bartholomew noted in his speech, the Russian authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church under its auspices carry out punitive actions against churches that disagree with their policies and ideological beliefs. These repressive methods not only concern the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa but are also widely used against Ukrainian religious leaders who remained in the occupied territories of Ukraine. 

It is known that after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, Evangelical Christians, Orthodox communities of the Kyiv Patriarchate (after the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly to the Orthodox Church on January 6, 2019, as part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-authored), Greek Catholics, and Jehovahʼs Witnesses became the main targets of religious persecution by the Russian-backed occupation authorities. In particular, the media reported an incident in the occupied city of Horlivka, Donetsk region, when armed militants of the so-called “DPR” forced the Seventh-Day Adventist house of worship to stop the service, forced people to disperse, and abducted and held pastor Serhiy Lytovchenko in captivity. In August-September 2014, the militants of the so-called “LPR” closed all the houses of worship of Evangelical Christians in the town of Rovenky, Luhansk region. On March 27, 2018, in the occupied city of Stakhanov, Luhansk region, pro-Russian militants looted a church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and in July of the same year, the occupation authorities of the so-called “LPR” declared the churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists “extremist” and their activities “destructive.” In addition to outright bans on these churches, the militants actively spread disinformation about Protestant churches, calling them “sectarians” and “American spies.” In 2015, Taras Sen, pastor of the Christ is the Answer church, served in the occupied city of Sverdlovsk, Luhansk region. He was arrested in September 2015, declared a “spy,” kidnapped, and severely beaten. One of the security force representatives told him they would shoot people like him, the pastor recalls.

This practice of religious discrimination by the Russian invaders is not new but has its roots in the persecution and forced deportation of religious leaders by the communist authorities during the Soviet era. In particular, in 1951, Operation North took place, during which about 10,000 people were forcibly deported to Siberia simply for being members of the Jehovahʼs Witnesses religious community. In a memo to Stalin, USSR Minister of State Security Viktor Abakumov argued the need for the forced eviction of Jehovahʼs Witnesses due to alleged anti-Soviet sentiments and the fact that the main center of the religious organization was located in Brooklyn, USA, suggesting a potential threat of espionage. These baseless accusations led to the deportation of thousands to Siberia, embedding the terms “sectarians,” “American spies,” and “anti-state activities” deeply in the minds of the Soviet and now Russian special services. It is clear who the “teachers” of the current Russian occupiers on Ukrainian lands are.

A tragic photo of Jehovahʼs Witnesses deported to Siberia. Photo source: Kommersant.ru


Not long after the full-scale invasion in 2022, there were more cases of persecution and torture of priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in the Russian-occupied territories. One of the most terrible stories was the torture of an Orthodox priest, Father Stepan Podolchak, in the village of Kalanchak in the occupied Kherson region. The Russian invaders broke down the door, put a bag over the priestʼs head, and took him to an unknown location. Two days later, they called his wife to identify the body. According to Bishop Borys (Kharko), Father Stepan was shot by the Russian military for refusing to work with the occupation authorities.

Archpriest Stepan Podolchak. Photo source: Religiyna Pravda.


In addition to the physical destruction of the clergy, the Russians also use repressive measures of forced deportation, as evidenced by case of Father Sviatoslav Petersky, an OCU priest from the city of Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region. The 74-year-old priest was forcibly evicted from the city by Russians because he did not recognize the results of the “pseudo-referendum” on the accession of the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

Greek Catholic priest Petro Krenytskyi was also subjected to repression in the occupied city. By order of the occupation administration of the Zaporizhzhia region, he was forcibly deported from Melitopol, and physical force and abuse were used against him. Father Petro recalls: “I did not know that I would be deported. But I had a premonition. I paid the workers. FSB (Russian secret service) officers in civilian clothes came to the church for the morning service. They tried so hard to encrypt themselves and even crossed themselves. One with his left hand… then a car flew into the yard. There were six of them. People in black uniforms closed the gate and immediately started beating me, forcing me to my knees. My knee hurt, my right foot hurt a lot, and I had bruises on my back. But I remember the first blows, and then I started praying, and God seemed to envelop me in His love, and I stopped feeling pain…”

Father Petro Krenytskyi. Photo source: RIA Pivden.


After Father Peter was handed over to a Russian officer, he was taken to a checkpoint and told to walk, indicating that he would be deported from the Zaporizhzhia region. The Russian officer threatened to shoot him, but by God’s grace, he was spared. When the exhausted priest reached the last checkpoint, civilians picked him up and took him to Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhia.

Another story involves two priests from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ivan Levytskyi and Bohdan Geleta. In November 2022, they were abducted by the Russian military in occupied Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia region, and remain in detention, Their conditions and whereabouts are still unknown. An additional aggravating factor is that Father Bohdan Geleta suffers from diabetes, which further complicates his detention and poses a direct threat to his life.

The photo shows Fr Ivan Levytskyi and Fr Bohdan Geleta.
Photo source: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church


All these numerous cases of religious persecution, kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian religious leaders, and the destruction of churches and houses of worship, can only mean one thing: the Russian invaders systematically misinform and spread fake news about their alleged “goal of protecting” Christianity and values in Ukraine. In reality, they are cynically destroying any religion and community that does not share their totalitarian violent methods of taking over other peoples, including their religious identity and traditions. In this crime, they are direct “criminal students” of the totalitarian communist regime, abusing, robbing, and oppressing religious communities in the same way the Soviet secret services did about 100 years ago. 

To conclude, Ukraine exists, and the Lord protects it with His hand. As for Russian war crimes, the Holy Bible says: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A person will reap only what he sows.” [Galatians 6:7-8]. There will be appropriate consequences for all these actions.


Vladyslav Havrylov, author
Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors. USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east. For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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