Persecution against the last remaining major congregation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Russian-occupied Crimea has escalated, with the church closing its doors on Sept. 23, following a local court ruling that it must leave its cathedral.
The Cathedral of Saint Vladimir and Saint Olga, based in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, had been fighting for the right to stay active since the beginning of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula in 2014.
But the Russian Ministry of Justice in Crimea — which has no legitimate legal authority in the peninsula — has repeatedly turned down the church’s applications for a registration permit, forcing it through “all the circles of hell,” according to Kliment, the archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine’s Crimean eparchy.
The church’s eviction is a yet another step by the Russian occupation authorities to end Ukraine’s influence on the annexed peninsula.
“Kliment and his church are a pain in the neck for the occupant authorities because it is an isle of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, where people can speak Ukrainian language, an isle where people help each other,” said Alexander, a parishioner and a lawyer assisting the church, who asked that his last name not be published for fear of persecution by the Russian authorities.
Since the annexation, the majority of Ukrainians in Crimea have taken Russian citizenship. For those who are loyal to Ukraine, it means a lot to have access to a Ukrainian church.
One of them is Alexander. He lives far away from Simferopol but travels all the way there to attend worship services almost every Sunday as many others do, he said.
“You go there, enter the church, leaving behind all these pro-‘Russian world’ surroundings, and feel like you are back home, in Ukraine,” he said, emotionally. “It is impossible to explain. You can only feel it.”
The Simferopol church is about more than religion. Since annexation, it has been proactively trying to protect Ukrainians’ rights in Crimea. When the Russian coast guard illegally captured 24 Ukrainian sailors near Crimea in November 2018, the parishioners raised money and hired a lawyer for them.
“Russia wants nothing Ukrainian in Crimea,” Kliment said. “The methods of achieving this all are sophisticatedly worked out: someone is thrown to prison, someone is killed, someone is barred from entering the territory of Crimea.”
“They take away everything you have,” he added. “For me, it is my church, my congregation, my worship.”
After the Russian annexation in 2014, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was registered in Crimea back in 1996, refused to re-register under Russian legislation, as it did not recognize the peninsula as Russian territory.
But in February 2019, the church decided to comply with the demands of the Russian authorities to preserve its existence.
“The Crimean authorities, Sergey Aksenov, guaranteed then that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be allowed to continue serving in our cathedral if we register under the Russian law,” Kliment said, referring to the Kremlin-appointed leader and so-called “prime minister” of Crimea. “So far I can say — it was a lie.”
The church has never succeeded in registering as a religious organization under the occupation authorities. This month, the consequences of that became clear.
On Sept. 16, a commission from the so-called Crimean “Ministry of Property and Land Relations” arrived at the cathedral and started taking inventory. A court ruled everything in the cathedral has to be “returned to the state.”
The cathedral, located in a larger complex, is formally leasing part of the three-story postwar building. The cathedral has no other premises. The ministry that has been confiscating its property is based in the exact same building.
The church is being evicted because, by Russian law, it has been operating illegally since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and proclaimed the region part of the Russian state.
Kliment believes that Russia wants Ukrainians to leave the peninsula.
“The Russian Federation set up a task for itself to destroy everything connected to Ukraine on the territory of Crimea — everything, and the main target is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” said Kliment.
Before Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian church had 49 parishes on the peninsula. Only seven are left now, one of them being the cathedral in Simferopol.
Russian authorities have been evicting the Ukrainian churches one by one, sometimes giving their premises to Russian churches.
Apart from Kliment, four more bishops still serve the Ukrainian Church in Crimea. The rest had to leave the peninsula back in 2014, fearing for their safety.
According to Kliment, his registration applications have been constantly rejected without a reason.
“They ask me to fulfill some requirements that no other organization is asked to comply with — neither Muslims, nor Catholics. Even the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate does not have this in their statute,” he said.
Officially, the problem is in the church’s statute — it breaches Russian legislation, according to the Crimean “Ministry of Justice.” Kliment has argued that his church copied statutes from other churches already registered in Crimea.
“We copycatted the statute of the Moscow Patriarchate. We just replaced ‘Moscow’ with ‘Ukraine’ and that is pretty much it, but it still got rejected,” said Alexander.
The Kyiv Post obtained the statute of the religious organization the church is trying to register and the previous decision of the local Ministry of Justice rejecting it. The most recent decision, from Sept. 24, has not yet been handed over to Kliment.
In its application the church, for instance, says that the organization will be established “by adult citizens of the Russian Federation,” but the Ministry responded that this is illegal because the church does not specify how many members are in the organization.
The church met all the rules Russia had set up. For instance, Russia does not allow people with other citizenships to launch religious organizations on its territory. But Kliment, like the majority of Ukrainians living in Crimea, received a Russian passport in 2014.
“It should not have less than 10 members who permanently live in the same city or village,” the document says.
Kliment added these words to the statute, but the Ministry still found something else that “breaches the law,” Alexander told the Kyiv Post.
“The church applied and it got declined. It applied again — declined. Again — the same result. We fixed all the possible flaws in our documents, but still get rejected. It just means that there is no political will to register our organization,” said Sergiy Zayets, another lawyer acting for the church from Kyiv.
The Crimean occupation authorities deny they have treated the church unfairly.
“Nobody oppresses anyone. We are bringing the documents into conformity. No coercive measures are taken,” Aksenov said in February, according to Interfax.
It is unfair that no other organization treated in such a way, Alexander believes.
Russian authorities in Crimea demanded that the church register as a branch of a foreign legal entity, according to court documents.
The conflict has triggered an international response. The UN Committee for Human Rights on Sept. 6 asked Russia to stop evicting the church “while their case is under consideration by the Committee,” according to their letter. There has been no reaction from Russia.
The persecution of the Ukrainian church in Crimea is Russia’s response to Ukraine breaking away from the Moscow Patriarchate and establishing an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to Dmytro Gorievoy, a Ukrainian religion expert.
For 330 years the Ukrainian Church had been subordinating to the Moscow Patriarchate in the world hierarchy of Eastern Orthodox churches. But that ended in January, when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted the Ukrainian church “autocephaly” — i. e. independence.
“They (Russian authorities) are expelling the Ukrainian Patriarchate from Crimea because they believe that this way they get ‘justice,’” Gorievoy said.
“They feel that the Moscow Patriarchate has suffered great losses following Ukraine’s autocephaly. So far, 500 parishes around Ukraine have chosen to switch from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian church — symbolically and strategically, it is such a great defeat,” the expert said.
Russia does not accept this as a voluntary transition and claims the churches were seized illegally. So, it fights back — in Crimea.
Kliment also views his church’s difficulties as the Russian response to the Ukrainian church’s newfound independence.
“I do not believe that I will be eventually allowed to register the church in Crimea,” he said.
“I keep applying so I have the proof that whatever they say is a lie.”