The Destruction Of Religious Sites By Russian Forces In Ukraine

On February 24, 2022, Putin unleashed an attack on Ukraine without any provocation and without any credible justification. Subsequent months have seen evidence suggesting that Russian troops are perpetrating atrocities including of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. Among the ever-growing evidence is evidence of conflict-related sexual violence, including against children, abductions and forcible transfer of population, including of children to be subjected to forced adoptions, and many more. The litany of crimes does not have any limit.

In December 2022, the Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF), a human rights NGO, founded in 2001 in Kyiv, Ukraine, to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief and other human rights, published a report about the impact of Putin’s war on the right to freedom of religion or belief in Ukraine, and the impact of the war on religious or belief communities.

The report concludes that from February 24, 2022, Russian attacks on freedom of religion or belief in Ukraine have become more common and harsher. The report identified that between February 24 and July 15, 2022, at least 270 places of worship, spiritual educational institutions, and sacred sites (cemeteries, memorials, etc.) were either completely destroyed or damaged by Russian troops. The largest number of churches, mosques, and synagogues was affected in the Donetsk region with 71 buildings destroyed or damaged, especially in the city of Mariupol. In the Kyiv region, 53 places of worship were destroyed or damaged. As the report further states, “If previously priests on the occupied territories only received death threats, now religious leaders are tortured and killed – again, but on a scale far worse than in 2014. If previously Russian occupational authorities expelled Ukrainian believers from their churches and prayer houses, now Russia is destroying the spiritual heritage of Ukraine with missile attacks, shelling, and looting of religious buildings without justification by military necessity.”

The report suggests that “Russian media and religious leaders, such as Patriarch Kirill (…), are justifying the war against Ukraine with propaganda about the supposed protection of Orthodox believers of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian speakers.” This is not the first allegation of this sort. Indeed, in June 2022, the U.K. Government imposed targeted sanctions against Patriarch Kirill standing accused of supporting and endorsing Putin’s war. Furthermore, as reported in a new expert legal analysis, “Religious authorities [in Russia] have reinforced the narrative praising the invasion with innuendo and spiritual meaning. On March 13, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, gifted an Orthodox icon to Gen. and Director of the Russian National Guard Viktor Zolotov in order to ‘inspire young soldiers’ who are ‘on the path to defending the Fatherland’.” Such support of religious leaders must be dully investigated.

The report makes several recommendations including to create a special tribunal for the punishment of the crime of aggression against Ukraine, to facilitate the investigation by the International Criminal Court of any war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide that are perpetrated on the territory of Ukraine, for States to support the efforts of Ukraine in investigating and prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and for States to impose targeted sanctions against many of the perpetrators of the atrocities.

As more evidence of Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine comes to light, and atrocities affecting all aspects of life, it is crucial that the evidence is taken forward by competent domestic and international courts to ensure justice and accountability.