Freedom of Religion Must Prevail in Ukraine, Even as War Drags On, Senior UN Human Rights Official Tells Security Council
UN Agency Documents Tension, Violence between Rival Orthodox Worshippers
Everyone in Ukraine must have complete freedom to manifest and practice their religion or belief, a senior UN official told the Security Council today as she detailed restrictions on religious freedom and threats to the safety of religious communities in the country and called on both Ukraine and the Russian Federation to ensure that fundamental human right.
“Concerns regarding the enjoyment of freedom of religion in Ukraine, including in occupied territory, have increased since February 2022,” said Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), noting growing tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
“Restoring peace and respect for the United Nations Charter and international law is urgent. While the war and occupation persist, we call on all parties to ensure that all people in Ukraine have full freedom to manifest and practice their religion or belief, in line with international human rights law.”
Since February 2022, OHCHR has documented 10 cases of physical violence and six cases of threatened violence resulting from disputes between parishioners of different Orthodox communities, she said. Ukrainian law enforcement’s response in these cases has failed to sufficiently investigate incidents and take action to protect members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, she added.
She drew attention to the Ukraine Parliament’s first-reading approval of draft amendments to the law on religious organizations, which, if adopted, would establish a procedure to dissolve “religious organizations affiliated with influence centres, the management of which is located in a country, which carries out armed aggression against Ukraine”. Lawmakers must clearly define the specific legitimate aim of the proposed restrictions and ensure their necessity and proportionality and revise the text accordingly, she said.
Meanwhile, although international humanitarian law obliges an occupying Power to respect the laws in force in the country, the Russian Federation is applying its own laws in occupied territory, she said. Elaborating, she detailed restrictions on religious minorities and cases of alleged torture of clergy.
Vakhtang Kipshidze, Vice-Chairman of Synodal Department for Church’s Relations with Society and Mass Media, Moscow Patriarchate, who also briefed the Council, said: “An analysis of the situation leads us to the assessment that the authorities of the country have an objective of completely annihilating the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Believers who do not want to convert to the Orthodox Church [of Ukraine], established by current Ukrainian authorities in 2018, will be stripped of their rights, he said.
“The first step to the restoration of peace in Ukraine is the end to persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” he said, calling on Council members to abandon political differences for the sake of the principle of religious freedom and adopt effective measures to protect worshipers in Ukraine.
During the debate that followed, the Russian Federation’s representative, said that the Ukraine Parliament’s draft legislation would completely ban the activities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Kyiv regime is trying to justify the purge of the country’s religious field and free the hands of radicals to violence and lawlessness, he added, pointing to seizures of churches and forced illegal legal liquidation of their communities under the guise of supposedly “voluntary transitions” to other faiths, since 2019. Despite OHCHR documenting 10 cases of physical violence and six cases of threats after conflicts between parishioners of different Orthodox Christian communities, the Council’s Western members continue to ignore this, he said, pointing to “an attempt to reform the consciousness of tens of millions of Ukrainians”.
The United States’ delegate, however, said that the Russian Federation’s use of the Council to further disinformation was additional evidence that it does not respect freedom of expression and belief around the world. He also expressed alarm that the Russian Federation is trying to justify its invasion by framing the war as a holy war between good and evil. “We should all see through this façade” and focus on the well-documented and systematic policy of religious oppression in the territories under Russian Federation occupation, he said.
Malta’s representative similarly criticized the Russian Federation for yet again attempting to divert attention from its aggression against Ukraine by requesting today’s meeting. France’s delegate said that Moscow must comply with Council resolution 2347 (2017), which states that a deliberate attack on a religious site is a war crime. Ecuador’s representative noted that the Geneva Conventions prohibit acts of hostility against places of worship, which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.
“Efforts to instrumentalize religion or use it for political goals is an adventurous enterprise and may prove dangerous,” said Albania’s representative, who joined others in calling on the Russian Federation to stop the war and withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. Mozambique’s representative, meanwhile, said both Ukrainian and Russian clergy and religious leaders could be influential advocates for compassion and compromise.
Ukraine’s representative, speaking at the end of the meeting, said that the Russian Orthodox Church itself has taken part in occupation and pursued annexation of her country’s territory. It has also been responsible for providing ideological support of Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine. The Russian authorities in the occupied territories of Ukraine have harassed, intimidated, prosecuted or imprisoned hundreds of those belonging to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Protestant churches and Muslim religious communities, as well as Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious groups, she said. Ukraine’s draft law discussed today has a very clear goal — to counter the attempts of the aggressor State to instrumentalize religious organizations in Ukraine for the purposes of aggression, she added.
THREATS TO INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY
ILZE BRANDS KEHRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), speaking via video-teleconference on behalf of the High Commissioner, said that to date, the Office has recorded nearly 10,000 civilians killed and more than 18,000 injured, as well as extensive damage to Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Humanitarian needs will be magnified as winter approaches and temperatures drop below freezing. OHCHR is monitoring the situation of freedom of religion across Ukraine, in both territory controlled by the Government of Ukraine and territory occupied by the Russian Federation. “Tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has historic links to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which obtained autocephaly under the Constantinople Patriarchate in 2019, including over ownership of land and buildings, increased following the Russian Federation’s full-scale armed attack in February 2022, in some cases manifesting in violent incidents,” she reported.
These tensions have affected freedom of religion in the territory controlled by the Government of Ukraine, she said, noting that since February 2022, OHCHR has documented 10 cases of physical violence and six cases of threatened violence resulting from disputes between parishioners of different Orthodox communities. “Regrettably, Ukrainian law enforcement’s response in these cases has been inadequate, failing to sufficiently investigate incidents and take action to protect members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” In addition, since February 2022, of the more than 6,600 criminal cases brought against individuals for collaboration and other conflict-related crimes in Ukraine, 68 have involved Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy members, according to Ukrainian authorities, she added, noting that OHCHR is monitoring 44 of these cases. Full respect for due process and fair trial rights in these extremely sensitive cases must be ensured, she emphasized, noting that in at least 26 cases involving Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy members, OHCHR has identified concerns regarding the fairness of the criminal proceedings.
OHCHR is closely monitoring how legislative developments in Ukraine may impact enjoyment of freedom of religion, she said, adding that the Office has previously expressed concern over the cumulative impact of Government actions targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that could be discriminatory. In October, Ukraine’s Parliament approved in its first reading a set of draft amendments to the law on religious organizations, which would establish a procedure for the dissolution of “religious organizations affiliated with influence centres, the management of which is located in a country, which carries out armed aggression against Ukraine.” International law permits restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion only if they are prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, she said, urging lawmakers to clearly define the specific legitimate aim of the proposed restrictions and ensure their necessity and proportionality and revise the text accordingly.
Noting serious concerns of the OHCHR about freedom of religion in Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian Federation, she recalled that international humanitarian law obliges an occupying Power to respect the laws in force in the country. However, the Russian Federation is applying its own laws in occupied territory. She detailed restrictions on religious minorities, such as in Crimea where Russian authorities have prosecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb-ut-Tahrir — two organizations that are prohibited in the Russian Federation, but not in Ukraine. In Simferopol, the occupying authorities evicted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the cathedral, depriving parishioners of their last place of worship in the city, she said, also detailing cases of alleged torture of clergy. “Concerns regarding the enjoyment of freedom of religion in Ukraine, including in occupied territory, have increased since February 2022,” she continued. “Restoring peace and respect for the United Nations Charter and international law is urgent. While the war and occupation persist, we call on all parties to ensure that all people in Ukraine have full freedom to manifest and practice their religion or belief, in line with international human rights law.”
VAKHTANG KIPSHIDZE, Vice-Chairman of Synodal Department for Church’s Relations with Society and Mass Media, Moscow Patriarchate, said it could never have been imagined that the history of faith-based persecution would repeat itself in our time in Ukraine. “An analysis of the situation leads us to the assessment that the authorities of the country have an objective of completely annihilating the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” The present Ukrainian authorities, encroaching on the principle of religious freedom, decided in 2018 to establish an Orthodox Church, renouncing more than 1,000 years of regional religious history and presenting the current Ukrainian Orthodox Church as an enemy of the State. All believers who do not want to convert to the new church will be stripped of their rights, he said.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has repeatedly turned to the Secretary-General with descriptions of violations of the rights of worshippers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but the only response has been silence, he said. It seems the international community is indifferent to the shameless devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which unites tens of millions of worshippers. The voices of believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are not heard in the Council; rather, these believers are intimidated and afraid to openly defend their rights because repression awaits them in Ukraine. “The first step to the restoration of peace in Ukraine is the end to persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” he added.
The Council needs to put aside political differences and protect ordinary worshippers from unprecedented repression, he said. Clergy and lay people, monks and bishops should not become bargaining chips in global politics. Otherwise, the mockery of peoples’ faith will continue. If warring States destroy cultural and historical ties established over centuries, then they will plunge into the abyss of barbarism. Faith needs to be upheld to ensure some space for mercy for the defenceless, prisoners and civilians in the horrors of war. He called on Council members to abandon political differences for the sake of the principle of religious freedom and adopt effective measures to protect worshipers in Ukraine.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that on 19 October, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted in the first reading the act to amend certain laws to completely ban the activities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. If adopted, this law will make it possible to prohibit in court the activities of any Ukrainian religious organization that is “affiliated with centres of influence” in the Russian Federation. Comparing the President of Ukraine to Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, he said that the only thing missing is a Colosseum with Christians torn to pieces, although the Kyiv regime is moving towards this. Ukrainian police, security forces and journalists spread groundless accusations that weapons, ammunition and provisions for the “aggressor” are stored in churches, he said, adding that the Kyiv regime is trying to justify the purge of the country’s religious field and free the hands of radicals to violence and lawlessness.
Since 2019, there have been seizures of churches and forced illegal legal liquidation of their communities under the guise of supposedly “voluntary transitions” to other faiths, he said, also recalling the expulsion of monks from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, the oldest monastery in Ukraine and a symbol of canonical Orthodoxy. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “democratic” regime placed the elderly leader of the monastery under arrest, but released him on bail of $1 million. In the last six months, OHCHR has documented 10 cases of physical violence and six cases of threats after conflicts between parishioners of different Orthodox Christian communities, he noted, adding that this is just a drop in a bucket compared to the real facts. Western members of the Security Council continue to ignore this as they cannot criticize Zelenskyy, otherwise the question may arise to whom exactly they are supplying weapons. “In fact, we are talking about an attempt to reform the consciousness of tens of millions of Ukrainians,” he said.
YAMANAKA OSAMU (Japan) said the Russian Federation is attempting to paint itself as a guardian of religious freedom, yet it has inflicted tremendous damage on religious facilities in Ukraine. He strongly condemned the Russian Federation’s attacks on religious sites in Ukraine, noting that, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 327 cultural sites, including 124 religious sites, have been damaged since February 2022 when Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine. “This tragic list will become longer and longer until Russia stops its invasion of Ukraine,” he said, adding that, without peace and stability, freedom of religion will be undermined. “Let me repeat in the strongest possible terms — Russia must withdraw all its troops and military equipment from Ukraine and respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders,” he said.
ADRIAN DOMINIK HAURI (Switzerland) said that any measures restricting the right to manifest one's religion or beliefs must be provided for by law, serve a legitimate public interest and be necessary and proportionate. Nothing can justify the Russian Federation's military aggression against Ukraine, which, for over 20 months, has been causing immeasurable suffering far beyond the battlefield. He condemned Moscow's repeated air strikes, which are causing not only painful loss of life, but also heavy material destruction, including of religious sites and objects. He underscored the protection afforded to places of worship and religious practices under international humanitarian law and expressed deep concern at the serious violations of human rights, particularly in the Russian Federation-occupied territories of Ukraine. Accordingly, he called on that country to immediately cease its military aggression against Ukraine.
DOMINGOS ESTÊVÃO FERNANDES (Mozambique) said threats to religious freedom are inherently problematic and may serve as catalysts for conflict. He voiced concern about the intrusion on religious freedom, especially within the Orthodox Church due to the Russian Federation-Ukraine conflict and emphasized that religion must not be used as a tool to restrict worship rights. “We are of the view that both Ukrainian and Russian clergy and religious leaders could be influential advocates for compassion and compromise, contributing to the cessation of hostilities and eventual reconciliation.” By championing peace and reconciliation, they can help bridge divides, enhance mutual understanding and de-escalate tensions, thereby nurturing a culture of peace. Tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence amongst Orthodox believers are essential for national unity in a diverse society like Ukraine, he added.
AURÉLIE FLORE KOUMBA PAMBO (Gabon) noted in recent weeks reports of decisions that ban part of the Orthodox Church from Ukraine. She said these developments are clearly linked to clashes between the clergy and political authorities and are intensifying in the context of the stalemate of the war. These churches are facing choices now which transcend their usual religious and faith-based work. She called for parties to respect guarantees of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. She urged the parties not to resort to unilateral actions which reduce the space for expression of individual freedoms, and not to fuel fears, rejection and hatred between communities. Diplomacy must be chosen above all, she added.
FERGUS JOHN ECKERSLEY (United Kingdom) condemned all persecution on the grounds of religion or belief, adding: “Ukraine shares these values. It is a pluralist and multifaith society, with the right to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in its Constitution.” Moreover, Ukraine’s lawmakers have sought the advice of experts on freedom of religion and belief as they respond to threats to national security. However, the Russian Federation does not share this commitment, he said, stating that its authorities arbitrarily arrest Crimean Tatars, accuse them of extremism and terrorism for peacefully practising their faith, and discipline Russian Orthodox priests for expressing opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Over 100 religious sites have been damaged or destroyed since the invasion started. The Russian Federation is presenting itself today as the protector of the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, but is it Christian to kill civilians, he asked, calling for that country to end its war of aggression and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
MONICA SOLEDAD SÁNCHEZ IZQUIERDO (Ecuador) said that her country unambiguously recognizes and defends freedom of thought, conscience and religion and is concerned about the use of religion to exacerbate conflict or violence or even to justify it. She also expressed regret that, since the beginning of the military aggression against Ukraine, at least 142 religious sites have been destroyed, as verified by UNESCO within the framework of its preliminary assessment of damage caused to cultural sites. Emphasizing that the Geneva Conventions prohibit acts of hostility against places of worship, which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples, she urged all religious leaders in Ukraine, the Russian Federation and around the world to call to counter any hate speech and promote an end to violence, including an end to military occupation.
FRANCESCA MARIA GATT (Malta) said that regrettably, today’s meeting represents yet another attempt by the Russian Federation to divert attention from its aggression against Ukraine. Several UN reports provide evidence that Moscow’s authorities have committed wilful killing, torture, sexual violence, shelling of civilian infrastructure and the deportation of children to the Russian Federation, whose ongoing attacks against Ukraine have left a wide trail of destruction. A clear example of this is the damage inflicted on the largest Orthodox Church in Odesa by a Russian Federation missile strike on 23 July, adding to the UNESCO list of cultural, historical and artistic sites damaged amid the conflict. Strongly condemning attacks against religious and cultural heritage, she urged the Russian Federation to comply with its international law obligations and immediately cease its aggression.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said that although the Russian Federation is once again exploiting the Council to wage a campaign of disinformation, it will not succeed in diverting attention from its illegal war of aggression against Ukraine or its countless violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. That country, which has targeted Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, including its religious sites, in indiscriminate attacks, must comply with Council resolution 2347 (2017), which states that a deliberate attack on a religious site is a war crime, he said. In the territories it illegally occupies, specifically in Crimea, the Russian Federation has been trampling on the rights of Crimean Tatars, Protestants and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, he said, voicing support for the investigations carried out by the Ukrainian courts and the International Criminal Court. He once again urged the Russian Federation to end its aggression and withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil. “This is the only way to ensure the protection of the civilian population and infrastructure in Ukraine,” he stressed.
ROBERT A. WOOD (United States) said that his country takes seriously all allegations of human rights violations, including those concerning beliefs. However, the Russian Federation’s transparent use of the Council to further disinformation is additional evidence that it does not respect freedom of expression and belief around the world. Its damage to religious sites in Ukraine and abysmal religious freedom record at home shows how little it actually values religious freedom. He expressed alarm that the Russian Federation is trying to justify its invasion by framing the war as a holy war between good and evil. “We should all see through this façade” and focus on the well-documented and systematic policy of religious oppression in the territories under Russian Federation occupation, he said.
BISMARK ANYANAH (Ghana) said his country remains convinced of the need to end the war now and create conditions for addressing the several root causes and other instigating factors, including religious tensions which predate the current hostilities. The Human Rights Council remains the appropriate international forum to redress all forms of human rights violations, including the assertions of religious persecution targeting the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, he said, and reiterated the call on the conflicting parties to uphold their commitments under international law to respect the rights of all persons to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. He also called for constructive dialogue in good faith among all stakeholders to find mutually agreeable solutions to the deep schisms caused by divergences surrounding the Orthodox Church and stressed the urgency of an immediate, unconditional cessation of the hostilities in Ukraine.
NORBERTO MORETTI (Brazil) said that his country, as a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society, encourages tolerance and respect for religious diversity. “Under no circumstances should religious practice foment tensions within and between countries,” he emphasized. Noting recent decisions that may affect the legal status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, he called on all parties involved to avoid any measures that could restrict individual freedoms or deepen resentment that fuels conflict. “It would be regrettable if deep, historical ties between the Orthodox communities in Russia and Ukraine fell victim to the dynamics of war. On the contrary, the shared Orthodox faith, as a constituent part of their national identities should foster dialogue,” he said. Brazil supports a peaceful solution to the conflict, in accordance with Article 33 of the UN Charter, and is willing to contribute to efforts to restore peace, as soon as the parties are ready to engage in negotiations, he added.
SHAHD JAMAL YOUSUF IBRAHIM MATAR (United Arab Emirates) expressed concern about reports of religious intolerance and continuing damage inflicted on cultural sites throughout the war in Ukraine, noting that historic sites and places of worship are protected under international humanitarian law. Religious and cultural sites form centres of gravity for communities, particularly amid the upheaval of conflict and important pillars for recovery post-conflict. Creating a culture of tolerance is a core element of conflict resolution and post-war healing and must be an important consideration for the parties to conflict and the Council, she said. Acts of religious intolerance or destruction to sites only serve to escalate and prolong conflicts. She called for the Council to be “unequivocal in our condemnation of such acts and focus our efforts on a return to peace and security in Ukraine”.
ALBANA DAUTLLARI (Albania) said that the unprovoked military aggression of the Russian Federation has not stopped, like the misuse of the Security Council with meetings such as this one called by Moscow to advance a narrative in support of its illegal actions in Ukraine. Albania upholds the principle of freedom of religion and belief at home and worldwide. “Efforts to instrumentalize religion or use it for political goals is an adventurous enterprise and may prove dangerous,” she stressed. “Regrettably, we have become accustomed to witnessing Russian propaganda exploit religion to legitimize its geopolitical ambition,” she said, urging to keep politics and religion apart. Religious leaders must work for peace and understanding, to promote respect among people and nations, she emphasized, reiterating the call on the Russian Federation to stop the war and withdraw all its troops from the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.
GENG SHUANG (China), Council President for November, speaking in his national capacity, noted the deepening conflicts between religions, cultures and societies. Relevant parties should remain highly vigilant, make all efforts to prevent the spillover of negative impacts and refrain from deliberately inciting hatred or artificially creating new conflicts, he said. Dialogue and negotiation are the fundamental way to a political solution of the Ukraine crisis. Parties to the conflict must remain rational, exercise restraint and actively respond to the international community’s appeal for an early ceasefire and realize a cessation of hostilities. He expressed hope that, during this process, religion can be a positive force in advocating for peace and promoting unity. China will continue to engage with all parties to facilitate efforts toward a political solution to the Ukraine issue, he added.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), taking the floor a second time, expressed gratitude to those Council members who called for respect for freedom of faith in Ukraine. Western delegates, however, read standard statements and offered no interest in any facts. They should turn to the Internet to see incidents of churches being closed and parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church being beaten. Perhaps then will Western nations discover how their statements represent complicity with the crimes of the Kyiv regime, he said.
NATALIIA MUDRENKO (Ukraine) said that the Russian Federation only remembers human rights when it needs to make its propaganda presentable. “It is not surprising that Moscow has once again used the Council’s platform to promote the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church.” That Church has been responsible for providing ideological support of the aggression and its leader, Kirill Gundyayev, has translated military propaganda narratives in tune with the Kremlin. “The Russian Orthodox Church itself has taken part in occupation and pursued annexation,” she said, recalling that it annexed all three Crimean dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and three other dioceses in the Luhansk region. “Let me remind that these actions were taken against the very church whose rights the Russian delegation pretends to protect by requesting this meeting,” she emphasized. What Russia is not able to steal, it tries to destroy, as happened on 23 July with the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, she said, adding that over 500 religious sites are damaged, including 100 destroyed.
The Russian authorities in the occupied territories of Ukraine have harassed, intimidated, prosecuted or imprisoned hundreds of those belonging to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Protestant churches and Muslim religious communities, as well as Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious groups, many of whom have been blanketly labelled as "extremist" or "terrorist", she said. Turning to the draft law of Ukraine that was discussed today, she said it has a very clear goal — to counter the attempts of the aggressor State to instrumentalize religious organizations in Ukraine for the purposes of aggression. “If adopted, this law will disallow the activities of those religious organizations in Ukraine that affiliated with the main bodies in the aggressor country,” she said, adding that all religious organizations, whose affiliation with an aggressor State is not established by the court, will be able to continue their activities.
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), taking the floor a third time, thanked Ukraine's representative for “the direct and indirect confirmation of our premise that the Kyiv regime is combatting specifically canonical orthodoxy in Ukraine”. The Council also heard a clear example of the advancement of hate speech, he added.