What does the Russian invasion mean for religious minorities in Ukraine?

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Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags are seen in downtown Lviv, Ukraine, February 19, 2022, during a march for unity. The event showed the willingness of Ukrainians to resist Russian aggression. (Mykola Tys/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Ilast week the Washington Post obtained a letter from the United States to the United Nations warning of further human rights violations by Russia against vulnerable groups in Ukraine, including religious minorities. Although the letter did not specify which religious groups would be targeted, it alleged that “Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps as a result of a military occupation.” By far, the majority religious tradition in Ukraine is Orthodox Christianity (78% of the population, according to a 2017 Pew report). Religious minorities include Greek Catholics (10%), Protestant Christians (1-2.5%), as well as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholics and Pagans. There are also a small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints. More than 13% of illegally annexed Crimea is made up of Tatar Muslims. As the shadow of Russia falls over Ukraine, these religious minorities are among those most at risk if the Russian military campaign succeeds.

For many in Central and Eastern Europe, this Russian “blacklist” may conjure up the terrifying stories of the NKVD – the Soviet security forces – knocking on doors at night to take away family members, never to be seen again. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that many people were able to access documents relating to the deaths of their loved ones in prisons, labor camps or at mass execution sites. This trauma is still powerful in many Eastern European families. My own Polish great-grandfather was taken in 1945 to perish, as we later discovered, in a prison where he was placed on unspecified charges, most likely related to his visits to France in the period pre-war. Those who belong to any of the groups listed in the American letter should read it with the greatest anxiety.

Ukraine legally guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution, although religion in the country is not without tension. The country’s Orthodox Christian majority is largely split between two factions: In 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed, with its leadership in Kyiv and independent recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The OCU formation only deepened the split with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which is under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow. (Both factions in Ukraine condemned the Russian invasion.) Additionally, for religious minorities, there are numerous reports of local authorities denying religious minorities permits to build places of worship. The national legacy of anti-Semitism also continues, even under a Jewish president and prime minister, as Jewish-owned buildings are still frequently vandalized. Tatar Muslims also continue to face discrimination.

Some scholars argue that the rise of religious nationalism in Ukraine has contributed to a decrease in religious tolerance. Others, like Mykhaylo Yakubovych, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany and associate professor of religious studies at the National University of Ostroh Academy in Ukraine, say the situation for religious minorities has improved. He wrote to me via Facebook Messenger to say: “Unlike many other post-Soviet states, as well as some central European countries like Hungary or Poland, Ukraine has made substantial progress. [on protecting religious minorities].” He also noted that the tension between the country’s Orthodox factions, the OCU and the UOC, is political rather than strictly religious. His opinion is aligned with that of Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the OCU, who wrote in a recent statement: “Ukraine is proud of inter-confessional and inter-ethnic peace. No matter how hard the Kremlin tried to inflame the [pro-Russian] opposition over the years, he failed.

Although we cannot predict the future, the past can be a good indicator of how Russia deals with religious minorities. In 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Russia as a “country of particular concern” for creating an increasingly repressive environment for religious minorities. While Ukraine’s approach may not be ideal, it is legally framed in a way that has much more in common with how minorities are treated in the West; the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution is essential to the existence of religious diversity. In the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, authorities continued to exert pressure on minority religious groups. They are now required to re-register under harsh Russian law which discourages or prevents recognition of many religious minorities. Many of them refuse to re-register, thereby losing the legal status and protection they enjoyed under Ukrainian law. It is striking to note that among these groups is also the OCU, the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, described by the Moscow Patriarchate as “schismatic”.

Russia’s capture of Crimea also illustrates what could happen now in Ukraine. In the summer of 2003, I stood on the shores of the Kerch Strait, at the eastern end of the Crimean Peninsula, gazing across the water at the glittering Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side. At the time, the Kerch Strait was not only a border between Europe and Asia, but also a still undisputed border between Ukraine and Russia. In the same year, a bilateral agreement signed between the two countries mutually guaranteed freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait. As such, this place was not only a border between two continents but also a meeting place of two countries.

That summer, I was on a backpacking trip to Ukraine — the geopolitical neighbor of my native Poland — with my college friends. Empires had come and gone in Ukraine, and they all left behind cultural sediments: tombs, places of worship and inscriptions on the walls. We took a train to Odessa, the gateway city to the Crimean Peninsula, itself an important site linking Europe to the Silk Road, with monuments of ancient Scythian cultures, the Khazar Khanate, Byzantine, Mongol and Ottoman Empires. The historical and cultural sites that particularly attracted me were linked to religious traditions that I would study and teach later: Islam and Judaism.

As in the rest of the country, hospitality was clearly helping many Crimeans get by economically. In the rented rooms we stayed in, we spoke to our Tatar and Uzbek Muslim hosts in a mix of Russian Polish and broken Ukrainian, about our commonalities and our differences. But such a trip could never take place. After Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, foreign tourism all but disappeared from Crimea, a once-popular destination given its ancient monuments and Black Sea beaches, leaving its economy severely weakened.

After fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine, and now across the country, the situation in annexed Crimea has largely faded from political debate in the West, but it remains a stark warning for what may be to come. in the rest of Ukraine. The denunciation of the imminent persecution of Ukrainian religious minorities in the US letter is plausible, given the hostile treatment by Russian authorities of the Tatar Muslim minority in eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Muslims have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful house searches, physical assaults and enforced disappearances. The Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar’s highest self-governing body, was forcibly dissolved in 2016 amid an unsubstantiated allegation of “extremism”.

Historically, Tatar Muslims have had reason to fear Russian annexation, as they have long opposed Russian rule. After the first Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783, 300,000 Tatars emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Under Stalin’s rule, in May 1944, the entire Tatar Muslim ethnic group was deported from Crimea to Central Asia on charges of national treason (some Tatars having collaborated with the Nazis). Gathering the 200,000 people – men, women, children and the elderly – took three days. Their homes and possessions were confiscated by the Soviet state. Historians estimate that between 18 and 45% of these 200,000 people died in exile, due to starvation, forced labor, disease and cold. It wasn’t until 1989, under Gorbachev, that the Tatars were legally allowed to return to Crimea, but the process of their reassimilation was painfully slow and they did not get fair reparations.

Likewise, the history of Judaism in what is now Ukraine dates back more than 1,000 years and is overshadowed by persecution and the threat of pogroms and exile. And yet, at times, Jewish communities in Ukraine have flourished. Hasidism, an important mystical stream of Judaism, originated in what was then known as the Pale of Settlement: a stretch of land between present-day Lithuania and Romania. After the World War II genocide, the surviving Jewish population in Ukraine gradually declined, with many Ukrainian Jews emigrating to Israel and the United States.

While antisemitism has remained a problem in Ukraine, there is now a legal ban on antisemitic behavior in the country. However, political upheaval has always been dangerous for Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. They have caused intergenerational trauma among Ukrainian Jews who now feel the shadow of anti-Semitic violence hanging over their community. A rabbi in Odessa recently bought enough cans for the whole year and hired Israeli security guards. Many Ukrainian Jews have already evacuated to Israel.

There is no room for democracy or religious minorities in Russia’s vision of Ukraine as a country essentially identical to Russia. They will be perceived as a threat to a manufactured, ultimately controllable homogeneity. With democracy currently under serious threat in Ukraine, minorities are likely to be the first to feel the brunt of Russian repression, heralded by the persecution of Tatar Muslims in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Protecting the rights of religious minorities is often the litmus test for democracy. It is a test that the region cannot fail without disastrous consequences.

Anna Piela is a visiting scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Her research interests are primarily Islam and gender. She is currently a principal investigator in a project funded by the American Academy of Religion on the racial identity performances of white Polish converts to Islam. Last year, his book, Wearing the niqab: Muslim women in the UK and US, was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Follow her work at home website and on Twitter @annapiela999.

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