The Russian annexation of Crimea in March has restricted religious freedom for Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the peninsula, according to persecution watchdogs.
“The Russian government appears to see all religious organizations outside of the Russian Orthodox Church as potentially anti-Russian and therefore potentially subversive,” said Isaac Six, advocacy director for International Christian Concern (ICC). “Similar to conditions under the Soviet Union, unless the church is willing to answer to Moscow, it is repressed.”
Russian authorities required the re-registration of more than 1,500 religious communities with Ukrainian registration, according to Forum 18, a Norwegian Christian news service. Six said this left many churches “in a sort of legal limbo with little idea if they will be able to continue holding services indefinitely.”
Crimean religious groups had more freedom under Ukrainian law, which gives equal legal standing to all religions. Unlike under Russian law, they did not have to notify authorities to establish a religious community, pay fees to register, and did not face regulation to suppress “extremism,” lawyer and blogger Maksym Vasin wrote.
Since the annexation, authorities imposed steep rent increases and difficult regulations, according to Forum 18. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate in Simferopol faced a huge increase in rent for the cathedral and offices it has rented since 1995. Archbishop Kliment said the new rent would be about $7,000 a month.
“We’re a non-commercial organization—how can we pay commercial rates? We live on donations,” Kliment told Forum 18. “If I lose the Cathedral, the Diocese will not be able to function and will be liquidated as an organization. The Crimean authorities are doing all they can to liquidate us.”
Ukrainian news reported a group of armed men broke into a Kiev Patriarchate church and assaulted a priest. But when the church called the police, they “apparently sided with the armed men, saying that the church was ‘anti-Russian’ and had no place in Crimea,” Six said.
The government of Ukraine strongly condemned the “discrimination, pressure, and threats,” and violence it said Kiev Patriarchate clergy and congregants experienced since the “occupation.”
In Sevastopol, Roman Catholics fear they may not regain use of the Church of St. Kliment. Although seized many years earlier, they were negotiating with the government over its return, but a representative of the church said press reports indicate that will not happen now.
Ahead of the annexation, Ukrainian Greek Catholics worried as authorities arrested multiple priests and the church had no legal status in Russia. Many Catholics fled Crimea at the time.
“We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested,” a priest told Catholic News Service in March.
Since then, Russia has restricted Ukrainian Greek Catholics, only allowing their priests to remain in Crimea for three months. Then the priests, who are Ukrainian citizens, must leave for at least one month, Forum 18 said, noting officials did not require this of other churches.
ICC said non-traditional Christian groups including Charismatic churches also seem to be under increased pressure and suspicion.