Over 115 Holy Sites Damaged in Ukraine Since Start of Russian Invasion, Top UN Official Tells Security Council, Urging Respect for Religious Freedom
Several Delegates Criticize Moscow for Calling Meeting after Carrying Out Missile Strike on Historic Cathedral in Odesa
Warning that 116 religious sites in Ukraine have been damaged since the Russian Federation’s invasion of that country began in February 2022, a senior United Nations official urged the warring parties today to respect and uphold fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and the right to manifest and practice one’s religion freely and safely.
“Religious sites should be places of worship, not places of war,” declared Nihal Saad, Director of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in her briefing to the Security Council — a meeting requested by the Russian Federation, which has sought the Council’s attention to Kyiv’s oppressive policies towards the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Ms. Saad said that protecting places of worship and safeguarding religious sites take “a second distant place” in wars and conflicts, while saving lives and protecting human welfare is understandably a priority. “We should right-size the religious dimension” in this crisis emanating from the Russian Federation’s armed attack on Ukraine, she said, expressing grave concern over the restrictions to freedom of religion and the safety of members of religious communities in both Government-controlled territory and the areas occupied by the Russian Federation.
She reported that incidents of violence against members and supporters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church increased between 1 February and 30 April 2023 in the Government-controlled territory, with hate speech surging. In Russian-occupied territories, she said there is grave concern over reported incidents of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture or other ill treatment and unlawful deportations perpetrated by Russian armed forces against clergy and members of Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Christian Evangelical communities.
Giving testimony, Yan Taksyur, a writer and citizen of Ukraine, said that he was arrested by Ukrainian security services in March 2022 and was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison. The reason that Ukraine has been “so harsh with me, a 70-year-old person with cancer”, he said, is because he defended the Ukrainian canonical Orthodox Church in his programmes, poems and articles. Attesting that the violence is spreading fast, he described how the “fingers of ordinary worshipers were cut off, their heads had nails put into them”.
In the ensuing debate, several delegations criticized the Russian Federation for calling today’s meeting after having conducted a missile strike Sunday on a historic cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa — an attack also condemned by the United Nations. The representative of the United States stated that Moscow’s calling for this meeting after its destruction of Odesa’s Transfiguration Cathedral, which belongs to the very Ukrainian Orthodox Church the Russian Government claims to be defending today, “is appalling”.
Joining such condemnation, Japan’s delegate said the Kremlin is attempting to paint itself as the guardian of religious freedom, but its invasion of Ukraine has inflicted tremendous damage on the latter. “After all, without peace and stability, freedom of religion will be undermined,” he emphasized. Along the same lines, the speaker from France said this meeting is another diversion on the part of the Russian Federation to carry out a disinformation campaign.
Ukraine’s representative, quoting a letter by Metropolitan Agafangel, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the diocese of Odesa, said the country [Russian Federation] that considers itself Orthodox cannot pay lip service to God’s law and at the same time do evil.
Defending its position, the Russian Federation’s delegate said Ukraine’s authorities have consistently pursued a State policy of destroying canonical orthodoxy in that country, including through legal prohibitions, systematic searches, the seizing of churches and interrogations, and arrests of parishioners and clergy. “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an independent church with its own governing bodies operating under Ukrainian laws and is not controlled by the Russian Federation,” he stressed. He also insisted that an element of the Ukrainian anti-missile system damaged the cathedral in Odesa.
Several Council members called for easing tensions, with Ghana’s representative expressing hope that regulations deemed necessary by Ukrainian authorities to combat alleged acts of subversion by some members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be temporary. “As history has shown, some of the heinous crimes committed against humanity were premised on religion, especially in instances where the lines between religion and politics seemed to be clouded,” she cautioned.
Echoing such a view, China’s speaker warned that religion issues are complex and when handled inappropriately could aggravate tensions, fuel animosity and often cause confrontation. Instead, different religions and denominations should respect one another, enhance exchanges and promote harmony, he urged.
Ecuador’s delegate drew attention to the General Assembly resolution on the promotion of dialogue and interreligious and intercultural tolerance just adopted yesterday to counter hate speech and to promote the end of violence.
At the outset, the Russian Federation protested to the United Kingdom, Council President for July, that Archbishop Gideon from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was not invited to speak in today’s meeting, calling for a vote to allow his participation. The Council however rejected this request by a vote of three in favour (Brazil, China and the Russian Federation) to none against, with 12 abstentions.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) expressed disagreement with the United Kingdom presidency’s approach to inviting Rule 39 briefers to today’s meeting. His delegation proposed three briefers: a representative from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, Archbishop Gideon from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and Jan Taksyur, a Ukrainian writer. The latter two were persecuted in Ukraine for their political and religious views and are ready to share their first-hand experience. However, the United Kingdom presidency single-handedly decided that one of these speakers has no place in this meeting, citing a “lack of time”. Noting that presidency’s commitment to protecting civil society presenters, he wondered if that commitment applies only to representatives of pro-Western non-governmental organizations.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom), Council President for July, said that his delegation consulted with Council members on the proposed briefers, mindful of the tight schedule. Based on the views of Council members, the presidency made a reasonable decision, not rejecting any of the briefers, but offered the Russian Federation a compromise — one of the two briefers would speak and the other would submit a written contribution. Moscow, however, did not engage in this proposal. The presidency faces competing demands and pressure to balance the Council’s work. It had already accommodated five non-United Nations briefers requested by the Russian Federation. It is not the job of the presidency to accept all requests by one delegation and ignore the views of the others.
Mr. POLYANSKIY said there is no quota established for the number of civil society briefers. The world is now seeing the United Kingdom obstruct the participation of a representative from a key international faith, he said, calling for a procedural vote. His delegation will not speak in today’s second meeting, he said.
By a vote of three in favour (Brazil, China and Russian Federation) to none against, with 12 abstentions, the Council rejected the participation of Mr. Gedeon.
Mr. POLYANSKIY said that today marks an unfortunate historic moment for the international community. The United Kingdom, a sponsor of a Council resolution on humankind fraternity and religious tolerance, blocked the participation of an Orthodox Church priest by misusing the prerogative of the Council presidency, he said, urging London to “practice what you preach”.
NIHAL SAAD, Director of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, briefed the Security Council on the freedom of religion and belief dimension and the protection of religious sites within the context of the war in Ukraine. In wars and intercommunal conflicts, saving lives and protecting human welfare is, understandably, often, if not always, a priority while protecting places of worship and safeguarding religious sites and preserving cultural heritage sites take a second distant place, she said. In addressing the situation holistically, “we should right-size the religious dimension in that particular crisis that we have at hand as the result of the Russian Federation’s armed attack on Ukraine,” she said. The division between Ukraine’s Orthodox bodies is not new. It has existed for decades, but it has exacerbated within Ukraine and reverberated worldwide as Orthodox churches have struggled with how and whether to take sides.
Last Sunday, a missile from the Russian Federation hit and severely damaged a historic cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in Odesa, she noted, stressing that the United Nations condemned the attack. According to a preliminary assessment by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 116 religious sites have been damaged since 24 February 2022. Drawing attention to the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites developed by the Alliance of Civilizations and launched in 2019, she said the Plan is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and grounded in a core understanding that religious sites are powerful symbols of collective consciousness. The Russian Federation was among a core group of Member States and other relevant stakeholders who informed the Plan in its consultative phase. “Religious sites should be places of worship, not places of war,” she declared.
According to the updated report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, incidents of violence against members and supporters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church increased in the reporting period between 1 February to 30 April 2023. Authorities searched places of worship and other Ukrainian Orthodox Church facilities, issued notices of suspicions against clergymen, and placed several of them under house arrest. Moreover, in April 2023, several city and regional councils banned the Church’s activities. Many local councils also sought to terminate municipal property rental agreements with the Church, she said, expressing concern that the cumulative impact of Government actions targeting it could be discriminatory. Another worrying sign is the surge in hate speech and several incidents of violence against Church members in April 2023. However, the Government and law enforcement authorities did not effectively address the incidents of hate speech.
In Russian-occupied territories, she said there is grave concern over reports by the Monitoring Mission during the 1 August 2022 to 1 January 2023 that document enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture or other ill treatment and unlawful deportations perpetrated by Russian armed forces against clergy and members of Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Christian Evangelical communities. Moreover, the Russian Federation’s occupation authorities raided, ransacked and closed three places of worship belonging to the Baptist community in Melitopol, reportedly on the grounds of the community’s purported links to foreign intelligence services. “It is imperative that both parties respect and uphold fundamental human rights including freedom of religion or belief and the right to manifest and practice one’s religion freely and safely,” she urged.
YAN TAKSYUR, author, speaking via videoconference, said that he is a writer, television programme host, and citizen of Ukraine, who in March 2022 was arrested by Ukrainian security services. He said he was sent first to a prison of the Ukrainian security services and then to the Kyiv pre-detention facility. In late May 2023, a court sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment. “However, after the exchange of Russian prisoners, I received an opportunity and the honor to speak here before you today,” he said. The reason that Ukraine has been “so harsh with me, a 70-year-old person with cancer” is because in his programmes, poems and articles he defended the Ukrainian canonical Orthodox Church. “I spoke about the repression of it by the Ukrainian Government and security bodies,” he said, adding: “My personal history is but a small part of the persecution and the terror that in the past few years have been unleashed against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its worshipers”.
In 2018, several politicians, including then-Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, created in Ukraine a new religious organization, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, he said. They began to demand the ancient canonical church to transition to a new structure. Immediately violent actions began, targeting worshippers and the leadership of the Church, including the seizure of cathedrals, their illegal re-registration, as well as threats of judicial and physical reprisals. This violates Article 35 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which clearly states that the State does not have the right to interfere in church affairs. “[This] is something I openly spoke about and wrote about: The new wave of persecution targeting the [Ukrainian Orthodox Church] arose under the present President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” he said.
The violence is spreading fast, he warned, describing how the “fingers of ordinary worshipers were cut off, their heads had nails put into them”. There is a mendacious campaign that has been raised by the media. Bishops and ordinary priests living their entire lives in Ukraine are, without any evidence, being accused of complicity and participating in foreign intelligence and of carrying weapons. He noted that several church leaders are “languishing” in prison and others are under house arrest. Churches and cathedrals have been seized and handed over to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities are intervening in the realm of the sacrosanct: the relationship between man and God, where there should be no place for geopolitics. “This is an unacceptable situation,” he said, adding: “It is illegitimate, illegal and criminal in the face of God and people”.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) again emphasized that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church did not request this meeting and his delegation is not speaking on the Church’s behalf. The Zelenskyy regime continues to exert pressure on the Church, he said, and his delegation drew the Council’s attention to this issue at a 17 January meeting. This pressure — which includes the seizure of Ukrainian Orthodox churches and the persecution and beating of priests since the coup d’état in Kyiv in 2014 — reached a new legislative level in January 2023, when a bill was submitted to the country’s Parliament. The legislation, which provides for a ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and permits the seizure of its property, is to be put to a vote on 27 July. “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an independent church with its own governing bodies operating under Ukrainian laws and is not controlled by the Russian Federation,” he stressed.
He said this seizure of property is unparalleled in modern history. He questioned how the host country would react if the United States President proposed to its Congress to ban the Catholic Church and withdraw St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, on the grounds that Catholics obey the Pope. Or if the United Kingdom Parliament debated a bill to ban the Muslim faith because the shrines of Islam are in Mecca and Medina. “To us, too, it looks more like the plot of a science fiction film,” he said. The Zelenskyy regime has consistently pursued a State policy of destroying canonical orthodoxy in Ukraine, including through legal prohibitions, systematic searches, the seizing of churches and interrogations, and arrests of parishioners and clergy. He questioned why the international community is not moving to protect the Church and religious freedoms in Ukraine.
TRINA SAHA (United States) said that the Russian Federation is cynically complaining of mistreatment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church while it engages in systematic religious oppression in territories under its occupation. Moscow is still mistreating members of religious minority groups in areas of Ukraine it occupies as its illegal war continues. That country’s calling for this meeting after its destruction of Odesa’s historic Transfiguration Cathedral, which belongs to the very Ukrainian Orthodox Church the Russian Government claims to be defending today, is appalling, she said. Ukraine’s Institute for Religious Freedom reported that 494 sites in Ukraine have been destroyed, damaged, or looted in the Kremlin’s unconscionable war, she said, urging it to cease its senseless war and respect the human rights of all and the safety of Ukraine’s civilian population, including members of all religious communities.
HAMAMOTO YUKIYA (Japan) said freedom of religion or belief is an indispensable and universal principle shared by the global community. However, the Russian Federation is attempting to paint itself as the guardian of religious freedom. That country has inflicted tremendous damage on Ukraine, he warned, strongly condemning Moscow’s recent missile attacks on Odesa that resulted in civilian causalities and damaged the UNESCO-protected Cathedral. “After all, without peace and stability, freedom of religion will be undermined,” he emphasized, urging the Kremlin to withdraw all its troops and military equipment from Ukraine and respect its neighbouring country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
SÉRGIO FRANÇA DANESE (Brazil) expressed regret that the conflict has also contaminated ties between Orthodox communities in the Russian Federation and Ukraine and noted the recent detention of clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. However, he remained confident that the rule of law would be fully applied and judicial authorities would discern to ensure the rights of the detainees, including respect for their religious freedom. Stressing that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, he said: “Under no circumstances should religious practice be used to foment tensions between communities and States.” He reiterated the call for the de-escalation of hostilities and resumption of dialogue between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. “We understand the hesitations on both sides; however, we recall the obligation of all Member States, under Article 33 of the UN Charter to seek the settlement of disputes by peaceful means,” he said.
DOMINGOS ESTÊVÃO FERNANDES (Mozambique) said that infringing upon basic freedoms, including freedom of religion, goes against key principles of international law, including the United Nations Charter. His country can attest to the importance of faith and spirituality as essential pillars for promoting reconciliation within and between communities. During times of conflict, religious leaders and sites provide a safe place for those seeking refuge and they must be preserved and always protected. “Ideally, our religious leaders should teach and preach peace and ensure that empathy prevails,” he stressed. History is full of instances where religion has been used as a tool to indoctrinate generations into harboring lasting hatred. “The damaging effects of religious schisms and prejudices can last well beyond the end of the conflict, leading to cycles of retribution through generations,” he warned. The weaponization of this highly sensitive issue will only undermine the force towards future reconciliation.
LILLY STELLA NGYEMA NDONG (Gabon) said that while the international community continues to appeal for an end to the war, the conflict continues on many fronts. “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is paying a high price in this all-out war,” she said. Clergy are being affected and churches are being destroyed. It is the responsibility of all parties to the conflict to ensure that places of worship are not turned into battlefields. Pointing out that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she said the Ukrainian Orthodox Church must not be damaged.
GENG SHUANG (China) stressed that religion is an important component of human civilization, but religion issues are complex and when handled inappropriately could aggravate tensions, fuel animosity and often cause confrontation. Beijing consistently maintains that different religions and denominations should respect one another, enhance exchanges and promote harmony. The ongoing war in Ukraine has a spillover effect. His country will continue to stay on the side of peace, he said, urging the parties to the conflict to seek a political solution through dialogue and negotiations.
MOHAMED ISSA ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates) condemned all forms of intolerance. “In our own region, we have seen the detrimental consequences of the politicization of religion and unchecked incitement to violence masquerading as religious faith,” he said. Intolerance could contribute to driving the outbreak, escalation and recurrence of conflict. Cultural heritage and religious sites are the physical manifestation of belief. As such, they are often put at risk when intolerance, hatred and extremism spread. “We have both a legal and moral imperative to ensure the protection of cultural heritage,” he continued. Every act of religious intolerance or destruction to sites only serves to escalate and prolong this conflict. Reiterating the United Arab Emirates’ position that there is no military solution to the war, he urged the parties to avoid committing any acts of hostility directed against places of worship, which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.
CAROLYN ABENA ANIMA OPPONG-NTIRI (Ghana) said that the mistrust the war in Ukraine has created among the nationals of their country is “painful to see”. She noted that during a January meeting of the Council, Ghana expressed hope that regulations deemed necessary by Ukrainian authorities to combat alleged acts of subversion by some members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be temporary, and only related to the efforts to ensure public order during the war. “We are, however, worried about ongoing reports of persisting restrictions on some religious sects, which impacts on the rights of some segment of the Ukrainian population,” she continued. Freedom of religion is a right intended to enhance the stability and cohesion of societies. “As history has shown, some of the heinous crimes committed against humanity were premised on religion, especially in instances where the lines between religion and politics seemed to be clouded,” she warned.
ARIAN SPASSE (Albania) said that as in other Council meetings called by the Russian Federation, the intention of this meeting is the same: to divert attention from the real issue, which is the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine. He said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the freedom of religion. The real freedom being tested now is the freedom of Ukraine, he said, stressing that the Russian Federation is threatening this freedom through sheer violence. He said he expected that religious leaders would be a strong force in protecting human rights.
DARREN CAMILLERI (Malta) strongly condemned the Russian Federation’s barbaric attack in Odesa, which severely damaged the Transfiguration Cathedral. Malta considers allegations of human rights violations, including those related to the freedom of religion or belief, with utmost seriousness, he stressed. On multiple occasions, his Government has consistently condemned ideologies and hate speech that promote racism, discrimination, xenophobia and any other manifestations of intolerance. However, he emphasized, today’s meeting “does not seek solutions” but seeks to distort a sensitive subject to distract the international community and “deviate our focus from the appalling situation in Ukraine as a result of Russian actions”. Accordingly, he called on Moscow to immediately cease all hostilities and unconditionally withdraw all its forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine.
MONICA SOLEDAD SÁNCHEZ IZQUIERDO (Ecuador) expressed concern over the use of religion to exacerbate violence or even to justify it. She condemned the fact that five days after the Russian Federation requested the convening of this meeting, its airstrikes on Odesa led to the destruction of the historic Orthodox Transfiguration Cathedral. “Just yesterday, the General Assembly once again adopted the resolution on the promotion of dialogue and interreligious and intercultural tolerance, to counter hate speech and to promote the end of violence,” she recalled. Further, she asked: “What greater act of violence is there than invading and militarily attacking a neighboring country?” Ecuador reiterates its emphatic appeal for a definitive end to this military aggression, she stressed.
ADRIAN DOMINIK HAURI (Switzerland), recalling the obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stressed that everyone must be able to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and religion without discrimination. Any measure restricting the right to manifest one’s religion or belief must be prescribed by law, serve a legitimate public interest, and be necessary and proportionate. Voicing opposition to the dissemination of hate speech and to any form of defamation or discrimination based on religion, she called on religious institutions and dignitaries to commit themselves to a rhetoric of peace and reconciliation.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said this meeting is another diversion on the part of the Russian Federation to a carry out a disinformation campaign. It is the Russian Federation, he said, that has invaded Ukraine and has violated human rights in that country by committing deliberate atrocities, including the shelling of infrastructure and the forced displacement of children. In the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, the situation for members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine continues to deteriorate due to Moscow’s actions, he said, also pointing to several cases of persecution or discrimination against the Tatars in Crimea. His delegation continues to support Ukraine’s initiative for international justice. “This meeting is just a pretext to force us to look away from atrocities that Russia is committing in Ukraine,” he said, adding: “We will support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people for as long as it takes” and calling on the Russian Federation to withdraw its military forces.
Mr. KARIUKI (United Kingdom), Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity, expressing his country’s commitment to ensuring that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their human right to freedom of religion or belief. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has expressed open support for Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion, which has brought so much suffering upon Ukraine. This suffering includes the recent destruction of the cathedral in Odesa, he said, adding: “And to think Russia has the audacity to lecture us on religious freedom.” It is entirely understandable that Ukraine wants to protect its national security in the face of these attacks, and it has every right to do so. If Moscow is serious about ensuring freedom of religion or belief in Ukraine, instead of using spurious Security Council meetings to advance disinformation, it should end this senseless war and withdraw its forces.
Mr. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), taking the floor again, rejected speculations by Western delegations in the Council on the serious damage to the Transfiguration Church in Odesa. They attributed responsibility to the Russian Federation. If a Russian Federation missile hit the temple, nothing would be left of the Cathedral at all. It’s damaged, but not destroyed, he pointed out. The nature of the damage inside the building indicates that anti-aircraft ammunition of Ukrainian air defense hit the Cathedral.
SERGIY KYSLYTSYA (Ukraine) expressed regret that the Russian Federation continues to misuse the Council’s platform to substantiate its propaganda narratives aimed at legitimizing the invasion of Ukraine. Metropolitan Agafangel, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the diocese of Odesa, wrote in his letter following the attack on the Cathedral in Odesa: “Whatever the goal of the so-called shameful ‘special military operation’ is, it cannot justify killing and violence, destruction and forced displacement. Whom do they want to liberate us from? From life? It is a real genocide of the Ukrainian people… The country that considers itself an Orthodox cannot pay lip service to God’s law and at the same time do evil and darkness…” These are the questions from a person who was awarded the Order of Honour and the Order of Friendship by Putin himself.