30 priests killed: Russian military also destroy churches

russian military

Allegations of systematic attacks by the Russian military against Ukrainian religious leaders and deliberate destruction of churches have sparked outrage.

The outrage follows the death last month of a 59-year-old Orthodox priest, Fr Stepan Podolchak (pictured). The Tablet reports he was tortured to death by Russian soldiers.

Human rights groups condemned his death and those of other priests as egregious violations of religious freedom and as potential war crimes.

Arrests and torture for refusing Russian demands

Maksym Vasin, executive director of the Institute for Religious Freedom, revealed disturbing accounts from Ukrainian clergy detained by Russian troops.

He said they reported being tortured, beaten and subjected to inhumane treatment for refusing to collaborate with Moscow’s religious authorities.

“Ukrainian religious leaders were subjected to beatings, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and even attempted rape…for refusing to submit to Russian religious centres” Vasin stated.

Some testified they were abused for declining orders to learn the Russian national anthem.

Lethal strikes on places of worship

The scale of the Russian military assault on Ukraine’s spiritual fabric is staggering.

Yevhen Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, said at least 30 priests have been killed and 26 imprisoned by Russian forces since the invasion began in February 2022.

Ruslan Khalikov, head of the Religion on Fire project documenting attacks, confirmed that over 550 religious buildings across Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed, with many deliberately struck despite there being no military targets nearby.

“There are cases when a church is the only building…and there is no nearby object that the Russians could aim at and miss” Khalikov said, emphasising such strikes likely constitute war crimes under international law.

Alleged motives

According to Vasin, clergy reported three key drivers fuelling the mistreatment by Russian military:

  • Russian hatred and suppression of Ukrainian identity
  • Persecution of denominations outside the Russian Orthodox Church
  • Refusal to take orders from Kremlin-allied religious leaders

“The Russian military and representatives…could not believe that Ukrainian religious leaders…could be independent” Vasin added.

Global outcry “egregious violations”

While Moscow has denied the allegations, human rights groups have forcefully condemned Russia’s actions, decrying the systematic campaign as an unconscionable attack on religious liberty.

On the invasion’s second anniversary, Robert Rehak, chairman of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, revealed that over 50 Ukrainian clergy had been killed or imprisoned

Russia had committed “egregious violations of religious freedom” he said.

As the conflict grinds on, concerns mount over the indiscriminate targeting of Ukraine’s sacred spaces and spiritual leaders defending their nation’s sovereignty against Russian aggression.


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