"The only ones who have not suffered are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate", - pastor, volunteer and social activist Serhiy Kosiak says in an interview with OstroV. We talk with him about how the religious life of believers has changed in the occupied territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
There are "laws" "on the freedom of religion and religious associations" in the "DNR" and "LNR". According to these acts, all religious organizations must receive a special permit (registration) in order to continue their activities in the territory of the "republics". But not all the churches receive such permission, therefore, they are forced to go underground.
In 2018, the "Supreme Court" of the "DNR" banned the activity of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious organization due to the extremist activity of this association, and a little earlier, the Ministry of State Security of the "LNR" stopped the activity of the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists religious organization.
Despite the similarities in the goals, the methods of policy regarding religious organizations in the Donetsk and Luhansk "republics" differ significantly…
- Serhiy, what is the situation with freedom of religion in the occupied territory of Donbass, its dynamics?
- Since 2014, churches in the occupied territory have experienced several waves of their religious activity and freedoms. This is connected not only with a temporary factor, but also with territorial. For example, the situation in Donetsk and Horlivka was completely different in 2014.
It depended on what units were at that time: Bezler or the same Vostok. I would call 2014 the year of religious lawlessness. Now the situation has radically changed in form, the appearance of some kind of legality has appeared. But in reality, the same hatred for all non-Orthodox remains.
- What do you associate it with?
- Since the beginning of the conflict, the ideology of the "DNR" and "LNR" said that the Protestant and Evangelical churches are the U.S. agents and spies. The Ukrainian Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate was called schismatics; catholic branch - uniates. After all, the religious thread of Orthodoxy is woven into the ideology of the Russian World: if you are Russian, you must be Orthodox. It is cultivated in all Russian films and series. Therefore, the hostility of all non-Orthodox entered the idea of the Russian World. After the arrival of the Russian World in the Donbass, all these principles spread there.
- In what way?
- There was a direct physical action in 2014. People came with machine guns, dispersed without charge or trial, arrested senior ministers or the church's pastor, threw into the basement, beat, robbed church buildings or grabbed them. They could even kill the church ministers, as it was in Sloviansk in 2014.
- In your opinion, what was the motivation of such actions, in particular, in Sloviansk, where a whole family was killed?
- This is xenophobia, disfavor and personal dislike for Protestants, feeling that they are alien, non-Orthodox. After all, they were killed not by stranger militants, but by locals from Sloviansk. Some worked at their enterprise, so there is a social factor. Those people who once were nobody and suddenly received arms killed, they felt their power and took all the accumulated envy and anger out…
- Will this religious chaos be over?
- These persecutions and pressure are not over. They have become more strategic. Yes, they stopped killing on religious grounds. But there were other methods. The only church that must exist in the ideology of the "DNR" and "LNR" is the Orthodox Church related to the Moscow Patriarchate. Starting from 2016, when some kind of "statehood" and "legislation" began to appear there, their goal was to prevent evangelical churches and other organizations that do not belong to Orthodoxy from developing. The minimum program is to prevent development, the maximum - to oust them from those territories.
But you need to understand that the "DNR" and "LNR" are two different states with different religious tolerance.
- Tell more about this.
- For example, the attitude towards evangelical churches and methods of dealing with them are significantly different in the "DNR" and "LNR". The "LNR" literally "break" Evangelical churches. They passed the law that obliged all religious organizations to register before July 2018. Only 10 applications received permission out of 260. All others were refused for various reasons.
But after this procedure, all applicants who were refused, but got noticed, began to be pursued and pressed. Moreover, we observe constant interrogations, surveillance, arrivals at work and inquiries of the authorities, interrogations of neighbors and so on from the Ministry of State Security of the "LNR".
A friend of mine wrote from Luhansk literally yesterday: "Churches are generally forbidden In the Luhansk oblast. They took all the passport data for re-registration, but it was never given. It turns out that they cannot officially gather. People gather secretly, in different places. It is better not to gather more than four people in one place. People often come to the neighbors in civilian clothes, presenting themselves as employees of the Ministry of State Security of the LNR, and interrogate them".
An interesting fact is that the decision on registration or refusal is made by special commissions, which include priests of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. So they decide which church to be in "their canonical territory" and which one - not.
The raids on churches are periodically being conducted in the "LNR" after such a "census" of believers, especially those that submitted the application and did not receive permission to operate. The militants burst wearing masks, stop the service and take the senior.
They recently detained pastor Anatoliy Tolstykh was arrested. He is 82 years old. They conducted a search, during which they threw planted him literature, considered to be extremist on the territory of the "LNR". The trial took place a few days later.
- How do these detentions take place?
- Everything happens quite quickly, but procedurally. They interrogate all those present at meetings, collecting their data. Then they find the senior, detain him, lead him to the police station and interrogate there. After that, they institute legal proceedings, incriminating the administrative offense - illegal holding of religious meetings. The first fine is up to $150, the second is $3100. In addition, there is a separate article and more severe punishment, if you come to the meeting with a minor.
- Does this concern all members of the organization?
- No, only the senior. But I think that this will also concern ordinary members of religious organizations some time later.
- Are there any other sanctions besides fines?
- Of course. At first, they write out fines, intimidate. For the third time, the person is simply told that if he does not cease his activity, he his administrative article will be replaced for the criminal offense: "creation of extremist organization". As it was with the 82-year-old pastor Anatoliy Tolstykh, when he was planted appropriate literature.
- How did his case end?
- The "LNR" court took the pastor's side and exonerate him from guilt.
- They are trying to play democracy now and show the society that they are a state as much as possible. On the other hand, they showed that if you lift your head a little higher than it should be, it can fall down at any time. It was a demonstration of power and strength, - I would say that.
- What will this pastor Tolstykh do now?
- I think he will continue to hold meetings, change places of worship and so on. As he says, - the main thing - not to receive the first fine. Since their court case was closed, they were acquitted, they can refer to this decision just in case.
- So they set a precedent?
- Yes. But this is equivalent to the situation with displaced persons in the controlled territory of Ukraine. How many courts that all these payoffs are illegal have we already won? Nevertheless, this all continues. I experienced these oppressions on myself. I cannot send a batch of my books (2000 copies) to the USA, because I do not have the IDP certificate. I paid all the customs duties, this is not a humanitarian cargo, nevertheless, as individual, I cannot send the cargo without the IDP certificate. I had another similar situation in Kharkiv, when I tried to go to the hospital, and they demanded the IDP certificate.
- What did the story with sending books end with?
- I had to get the IDP certificate to send the cargo. Despite the fact that I have a residence permit in Germany, stamps in my passport are about crossing the border. The content of the book also shows that I do not live in the occupied part…
Despite the fact that there are won by IDPs courts, where it is said that this is discrimination, this continues at the level of state policy. The same thing happens in the "LNR" and "DNR" - they have the task of crushing the evangelical churches and other non-Orthodox religious movements at the level of state policy. Yes, we have a separate precedent when the court acquitted the pastor, but this will not stop all the oppression.
- What is the situation in the "DNR"?
- If the "LNR" took the lists of people who applied for registration of religious organizations – refused them in most cases and now presses them, then the "DNR" went the other way. There, 90% of religious organizations that have applied for registration received it. They decided not to create unnecessary unrest, it is easier for them to control these organizations. But pressure cases are also observed there now.
- How is it shown?
- For example, two weeks ago in Donetsk, people just came, closed the service and dispersed the believers of one of the churches on the grounds that it did not receive registration.
They meet, talk, ask and hint with those who received it. They operate by the KGB methods. The head of the Department of Religious Affairs in the "DPR", former SBU employee, is acting through the methods of the KGB. He will never physically push, but will act by other methods. The goal - to sit quietly and keep a low profile.
- Why are religious organizations so dangerous for the occupation administrations?
- Religion is one of the institutions of governance of society. They analyzed that Protestants are those people who have the ideology of freethinking, they are scattered, but self-organized. This is not the Orthodox Christians who gathered at the Easter and fled to their homes. This is an organized community with internal connections. In addition, historically, Protestantism is a pro-Western movement. Germany is the "mother" of Protestantism, and the USA is the main engine that spread it around the world.
As is known, the main ideological enemies in the ideology of the "DNR" and "LNR" are Americans, respectively, the Protestants for them are the agents of America.
- Jews, Catholics and Muslims face the same problems in the "DNR" and "LNR", do not them?
- They began to put pressure on Catholics at some time, but the Pope quickly reacted to this and in 2016, sent his nuncio (ambassador - ed.) to Donetsk in order to find out how Catholic communities live in the occupied territories. They agreed and were allowed to work. Still, the militants there cannot openly crush and ban all. This is not North Korea, they do not have the power to behave this way. Still, the "authorities" of the "DNR" and "LNR" raise their heads as much as Russia permits. They are not free in their actions, including in politicy regarding religion. Therefore, they are driving people underground (as in the "LNR") or allow them to work quietly without sticking their heads out (as in the "DNR"). This is one collar, but with different chains.
- Can, let us say, a preacher from the USA come to Donetsk or Luhansk?
- No. Firstly, he will not go, he will be frightened. Secondly, he may have problems there or he will not even be allowed into the "LDNR" territory, if he does not belong to any humanitarian mission. As far as I know, since 2014, none of the American missionary preachers came there, and those who lived there left.
- Where does the church property of those religious organizations that have not received registration in the "DNR" and "LNR" disappear?
- Now people are trying to take out some valuable things. As for buildings and premises, they are sealed and then confiscated.
For example, the Family Center church was closed, sealed and transferred to the city's property in Makiivka - now the Civil Registry Office is located there. The leader of the church was social activist, he held charity dinners, that is, his activity went beyond the church premises. Therefore, he attracted the attention of local intelligence services. Since he held charitable dinners, it means that there is money, and the first question asked is: "Where does the money come from? People are poor in the republic. So, you are American agent". If you do not say where the money comes from, and do not share it, they will find a reason to take away the building, as was the case with the Family Center. Therefore, most organizations are trying not to stick out: they quietly gather and pray. Similar situation was in the USSR.
- Do you think it is realistic that the "DNR" and "LNR" completely supplant the Protestant church and other non-Orthodox religious movements?
- If the world community does not respond to the trends that are observed in the "DNR" and "LNR", then yes. In fact, there is now a mopping up of the "gentiles" there. Someone goes underground, someone leaves… Over time, the Protestant churches will become imperceptible there, they will simply dissolve.
- Does the world community react?
- We are working on it. We have groundwork. After all, the Pope once reacted, and the oppression of Catholics ceased. If others also respond in this way, perhaps, the situation will improve.
Recorded by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV