2023 Report on International Religious Freedom: Russia-Occupied Territories of Ukraine

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Russia occupies Crimea and parts of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolayiv, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts. The amount of Ukrainian territory Russia occupied shifted during the year.

In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia claimed that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 of March 27, 2014, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” and Resolution 75/192 of December 28, 2020, entitled “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” affirmed continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes that Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Russian occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in Crimea. On February 24, 2022, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and on October 5, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved “treaties” on the purported annexation of the entire Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts following referendums in those territories that were almost universally described as illegitimate. On March 3 and October 12, 2022, UN General Assembly resolutions condemned both Russia’s invasion and purported annexation of these Ukrainian territories, respectively. Russia’s occupation authorities have had de facto control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts since 2014, exercising control through proxies. Following the invasion in February, Russia appointed local “authorities” in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts, as it did in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. The U.S. government recognizes Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts as part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize Russia’s purported annexation of these territories.

Since its invasion of Crimea and portions of Donbas in 2014, numerous reports document the Russian Federation and its proxies have committed extensive, ongoing, and egregious abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief as well as physical and psychological abuse of members of religious minority groups. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia’s forces intensified these practices and carried them into other occupied territories against members of all religious groups suspected of being pro-Ukrainian. There were reports of widespread regional bans of minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians, Roman and Ukrainian Greek Catholics, and non-Ukrainian Orthodox Church communities; illegal imprisonment, physical abuse and disappearances of religious leaders; and the deliberate destruction or seizure of religious buildings. Sources continued to state it was difficult to gain a full accounting of Russia’s extensive violations of religious rights given heavy censorship of media, abuses against human rights activists, and denial of access for international observers. For details on Ukrainians whom Russia occupying forces detained in occupied areas of Ukraine and subsequently transferred to Russia, please refer to the 2023 International Religious Freedom Report on Russia.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the four other oblasts Russia purported to annex remain within Ukraine’s international borders and subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities in Donetsk, Luhansk (the Donbas), Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya continued their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation.

In an appeal to participants in a January 17 UN Security Council meeting, the country’s Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement calling on the international community, “to help Ukrainians resist the Russian invasion, which brings death, slavery, darkness and religious oppression.” In a November 17 report submitted to the UN Security Council, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris stated, “The OHCHR also has serious concerns about freedom of religion in Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian Federation.” According to the OHCHR, many detainees had serious health problems and disabilities. The OHCHR said prisoners transferred from Crimea to the Russian Federation reported they suffered from inadequate conditions while in detention, and they cited instances of mistreatment.

According to a December report by the Religious Freedom Initiative of Mission Eurasia, a Christian organization promoting evangelism in Eurasia, Russsia’s occupation authorities persecuted “almost all religious communities, except for those Orthodox communities that fell under ROC control.” Russia’s occupation authorities in control of Luhansk continued their ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” put in place by Russia’s Donetsk occupation authorities upheld a similar ban. Russia-led occupation authorities in occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the UOC to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the OHCHR, most religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law were still unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian law applied in occupied areas that prevent or discourage reregistration. According to Russian news website Vedomosti.ru, on October 25, Russian Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko told the State Duma that the ministry was conducting a legal review of regulatory acts followed by Russia-led authorities in the occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzya, and Kherson Oblasts to ensure the regulations conformed with Russian law. Russia’s Ministry of Justice was reportedly in contact with NGOs operating there, including religious ones, requiring that their registration documents were consistent with Russian legislation. He stated that occupation authorities had registered 83 religious organizations in the four regions.

According to a study by the Ukraine-based Workshop for the Academic Study of Religion (WASR), as of September 24, nearly 500 sacred sites in the country had been destroyed or damaged since the full-scale invasion, noting that the actual number could be much higher.

According to Russian media reports, in February, Crimean “police” detained a suspect who reportedly damaged tombstones and crosses at a cemetery and smashed a windowpane of a church in Chaikine village, Simferopol District.

Although U.S. embassy officials had no access to Russia-occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine, the embassy continued its outreach to religious community representatives from these areas and continued to publicly condemn Russia’s targeted abuses against members of non-ROC religious communities. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with Crimean Tatars, both internally displaced persons and those who had come to the government-controlled part of the country, including lawyers and family members of political prisoners.

Section I: Religious Demography.

According to 2021 Razumkov Center data on eastern Ukraine, encompassing the areas occupied by Russia, 61 percent of inhabitants identified as Orthodox, 27 percent claimed no religion, and 6 percent were “simply Christian.” These areas also maintain significant Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist, UGCC, Muslim, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. Among Orthodox adherents, 32 percent identified with the OCU, 26 percent with the UOC, and 40 percent were “simply Orthodox.” According to VAAD, prior to the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts).

The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates (most recent available), the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate that the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, is 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.

According to information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014, the UOC remains the largest Christian denomination in Crimea. Smaller Christian denominations include the OCU, RCC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.

There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the 2014 Russian occupation. No updates have been available since the occupation began. The 2001 census, the most recent, records 671 Karaites living in the region.

Section II: Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom.

Legal Framework

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the four other oblasts Russia purported to annex remain within Ukraine’s international borders and subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities in Donetsk, Luhansk (the Donbas), Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation. The Muslim religious-political group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under Russian Federation law but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continue to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea and other occupied areas under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

Most religious communities have found it difficult or impossible to comply with occupation authorities’ law. Until their purported annexation by Russia in September, parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts are under the control of Russia-installed “authorities” purporting to represent the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Both so-called “republics” place restrictions on religious groups not approved by Russia, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahir, both of which are banned in Russia. The Russian Supreme Court has banned the activities of the civil society organization Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars and several religious organizations on the grounds of “extremism” and “terrorism,” including a regional branch of Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”), Tablighi Jamaat, and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Russia’s Federal List of Extremist Organizations or the Federal List of Terrorist Organizations. These restrictions apply to Crimea and the four purportedly annexed oblasts of the country. None of these groups is banned in Ukraine.

Since 2022, the Russian Federation has adopted legal acts purported to formally extend the application of Russian law to the territory of the four regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts. Although considered invalid by international legal experts, these have had direct practical consequences for residents in the occupied regions. In particular, they provide that, as a matter of Russian law, all Ukrainian citizens and stateless persons permanently residing in these regions are recognized as citizens of the Russian Federation, with the exception of those who fail to take an oath or formally reject Russian citizenship within one month of the entry into force of Russia’s so-called “treaties” on annexation with the ostensibly independent, but Russian-controlled “governments,” in those areas. Residents who do not take Russian citizenship are subject to exclusion from pensions, social security, and health insurance.

A 2022 decree (756) signed by the President of the Russian Federation imposes martial law in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts. The decree provides for a wide range of measures that may be imposed “if required,” including curfews, property seizures, internment, and restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of association, and activities of political parties and other public associations.

A “law” that Russia’s occupation authorities in Donetsk Oblast amended in 2021 defines what constitutes a religious association and upholds the stipulation that only registered religious associations exist. The amendments tighten the definition of a religious association, restricting its activities to only “participants and/or members.” The amendment defines a religious association’s activities as holding religious beliefs, conducting worship services and other religious rites and ceremonies, and “the teaching of religion and the religious education of its participants and/or members.” The amendment removes the definition of religious activity as “missionary practice and religious educational activity, including the spread of religious knowledge, the provision of professional religious education and the religious education of its participants.”

A 2018 “religion law” imposed by the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” requires reregistration of religious communities already registered under Ukrainian law, as well as bans any religious community that does not obtain permission from Russia’s proxy authorities to exist in Luhansk.

According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($131 to $1,310); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($2,620 to $26,200).

“Government” Practices

Abuses Involving Violence, Detention, or Mass Resettlement

In an appeal to participants in a January 17 UN Security Council meeting, the country’s Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement that, “[t]he war has brought enormous suffering to these people, with the people’s freedom, their religious beliefs having effectively become the initial target of the Russian occupiers. In 11 months, they destroyed or ransacked more than 270 churches and sacred buildings [and] killed and tortured to death dozens of clergymen. Wherever Russia comes, religious freedom ends. Where Russia is, they torture ‘wrong’ Orthodox Christians, mock Catholics, imprison Muslims for religious beliefs for terms unthinkable even in Soviet times, force Protestants to flee abroad from inevitable repressions and persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The religious leaders called on the international community, “to help Ukrainians resist the Russian invasion, which brings death, slavery, darkness and religious oppression.”

In a November 17 report submitted to the UN Security Council, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Kehris stated, “The OHCHR also has serious concerns about freedom of religion in Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian Federation. International humanitarian law obliges the occupying Power to respect the laws in force in the country. However, the Russian Federation applies its own laws in occupied territory, which has resulted in restrictions on religious minorities. Previous HRMMU reports also documented cases 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 in Zaporizhie, Kherson, and Kharkiv regions.” According to Kehris, the OHCHR “documented the prosecution of nine members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After February 24, 2022, Russian authorities arrested 18 Crimean Tatar men in Crimea for suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They potentially face long-term sentences in prison.”

According to an OHCHR report, as of April, Russia’s occupation authorities continued to hold at least 23 Crimean Tatars who were initially detained in Crimea and later held in detention in Russia. Many reportedly had serious health problems and disabilities. The OHCHR said prisoners transferred from Crimea to the Russian Federation reported that they suffered from inadequate conditions while in detention. The OHCHR also cited instances of mistreatment, including “poor hygiene and sanitary standards, extremely low quality of food, the unjustified seizure of personal items, including religious books such as the Qur’an, and severe prison overcrowding.” According to OHCHR’s report released in December, as of November 30, arbitrary detention continued in Crimea. According to the OHCHR, from August 1 to November 30, “Russian authorities deported at least 13 civilian detainees from Crimea to penal colonies in the Russian Federation,” but it was unclear how many of those were Crimean Tatars.

According to a December 1 report by Mission Eurasia’s Religious Freedom Initiative, Russia’s occupation authorities persecuted “almost all religious communities, except for those Orthodox communities that fell under ROC control…Occupation administrations uprooted displays of Ukrainian identity with deep hatred, and fought any forms of opposition, striving to subjugate or stop the activities of religious minorities,” including through “physical extermination of priests, pastors, imams, and other religious figures,” whom Russia’s forces arrested, “kidnapped”, and subjected to the “most painful” forms of torture. “This violence was formally justified by… the ‘Yarovaya law’ on counterterrorism. Those priests who could not be intimidated and induced to cooperate were forcefully deported from the occupied territories by representatives of the Russian government.”

According to the Mission Eurasia report, occupation authorities also “conduct raids of places where worshippers congregate, collect personal and biometric information, loot prayer houses, and turn them into administrative institutions or military bases. The personal information collected from the members of ‘unwanted’ religious communities is used to establish surveillance over them, and for future raids on their homes… The frequency of documented cases of the use of methods of psychological and physical violence is growing.” The report also said “at least” several UOC priests “endured threats, attacks, illegal arrests, and torture for retaining their Ukrainian identity and for refusing to pray for “the victory of Russian arms.”

During the year, DESS worked to inform the international community of abuses of the right to the freedom of religion committed by Russia’s occupation forces and to counter Russia’s disinformation about religious life in Ukraine. According to the English language newspaper Kyiv Post, in November, a delegation of high-level religious leaders from the AUCCRO visited Washington DC to highlight the impact of Russia’s ongoing invasion on religious communities and Ukraine’s religious freedom. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim members of the delegation said that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first began in 2014, Russian aggression included often overlooked religious elements accompanied by the cynical use of religious narratives as a tactic by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill. They said Ukrainian religious communities in areas under Russian occupation had faced years of suppression and discrimination, including the repression of beliefs as well as physical attacks on religious leaders, relics, and places of worship.

During the Washington, D.C. visit, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria of the OCU stated that Ukrainians were “eyewitnesses of Russian atrocities.” Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich stressed that Ukraine’s religious leaders “represent millions of people that were displaced, women and children being killed every single day.” Bishop Ivan Rusyn of the Ukrainian Evangelical Church said the war “is about the very existence of our freedom, identity, values, and culture.” Rusyn said those living in temporarily occupied territories were targeted simply for practicing a faith different to that imposed by Russia. According to Rusyn, an investigation of Russia’s religious persecution in occupied regions of Ukraine found 43 cases of targeted persecution of clergy and more than 109 acts pressuring churches and religious figures representing Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

According to Forum 18, “Serious violations of freedom of religion and belief and other human rights take place within all the occupied Ukrainian territory. Within the Russia-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea these include forced imposition of Russian laws and restrictions on exercising human rights, including freedom of religion or belief; jailing Muslim and Jehovah’s Witness Crimean prisoners of conscience; forcible closure of places of worship; and fining people for leading meetings for worship without Russian state permission. Within the Russia-occupied Ukrainian region of Luhansk, these have up to the renewed 2022 invasion of Ukraine included: rendering illegal all Protestant and non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox communities; a climate of fear about discussing human rights violations; repeated denials of permission to a Roman Catholic priest to live in the region; and increasing numbers of banned allegedly ‘extremist’ books, including an edition of the Gospel of John published in 1820.”

In a July 17 interview reported in pro-UOC media outlet Dialog.tut, UOC priest Serhiy Chertylin, who fled the occupied part of Kherson Oblast in August 2022, said occupation authorities were forcing UOC priests to write petitions “requesting” the Moscow Patriarch take local UOC dioceses under his direct control, renaming all UOC churches as ROC churches under the subordination of the Moscow Patriarchate. Chertylin said many pro-Ukrainian UOC priests were consequently afraid to move from the Russia-occupied areas to the government-controlled part of Ukraine, fearing they could be treated as Russian collaborators.

According to media reports, the ROC subordinated the UOC’s Donetsk and Mariupol Diocese, Horlivka and Slovyansk Diocese, the Berkyansk Diocese, and part of the Kherson Diocese directly to the Synod, the ROC’s governing body. Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the ROC Synod subordinated all three Crimea-based UOC dioceses and the Rovenky Diocese, the Luhansk and Alchevsk Diocese, as well as the part of the Kherson Diocese in Russia-occupied territory to the Moscow Patriarch. On December 28, the UOC published a statement saying that the entire Kherson Diocese remained under its jurisdiction.

Occupation authorities detained UOC priest Ihor Novosilskyy, rector of St. Olha’s Church in Tokarivka village, Kherson Oblast, in September 2022, and, according to the UOC, subjected him to nine months of severe torture and psychological abuse, which local residents witnessed. Occupation authorities released him on May 22.

According to Forum 18, in May, Russia’s occupation authorities detained UOC priest Kostiantyn Maksimov in Tokmak when he tried to cross into Crimea in May. In October, the OHCHR expressed concern about the fate of Father Kostiantyn after his detention by the Russians, stating, “[a]s of 31 July 2023, his fate and whereabouts remained unknown despite multiple requests from his relatives to the occupying authorities and official institutions of the Russian Federation, raising serious concerns with respect to enforced disappearance.”

In a September 19 interview with Suspilne.media news, the website of the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine, Archbishop Serhiy, Head of the OCU Donetsk and Mariupol Diocese, said that on September 17, the “DPR” [so-called Donetsk People’s Republic] State Security Ministry” detained OCU priests Khrystofor Khrimli and Andriy Chuy in the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast. On multiple occasions occupation authorities reportedly offered money to the priests and used threats of arrest and property confiscation to make them join a local ROC-controlled diocese. While in detention, representatives of the “Security Ministry” handcuffed the priests and took them to a detention center in Donetsk. According to a May 3 Russian media report, a “DPR court” found the priests “guilty” of membership in the “anti-Russian and extremist” OCU, ordering them to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles ($800) and leave “Russia.” On October 3, Archbishop Serhiy said occupation authorities had transferred the clerics from Donetsk to Russia, where they likely remained in detention.

According to the OCU and media reports, on January 26, Russia’s occupying forces “kidnapped” OCU priest Platon Danyshchuk, rector of the Holy Trinity Church in Dobropillya village, Kherson Oblast. During a sermon, he reportedly referred to the Russian army as invaders. Occupation authorities released him on February 4, reportedly banning him from serving in the village church following his refusal to join the ROC. According to Df.news website, which stands for “spiritual front” and focuses on promoting independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians from Russia, his congregation refused to attend the April 16 Easter service because it was led by an ROC priest.

In the February 16 interview reported on the Dt.ua news website, Aider Rustemov, Mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea, estimated that more than 50,000 Crimean Tatars had fled the occupied region since 2014. Muslim leaders who stayed in the newly occupied areas of the country faced intimidation, said Rustemov. He stated Russia’s forces had tortured Iman Rustem Asamov of Shchaslyvtseve village, as well as Iman Dilshod Rakhimov of Strilkove village, Kherson Oblast.

According to the Ukraine-based Information Center for Human Rights, in April, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, released a report entitled, Crimean Tatars’ Struggle for Human Rights. The report highlighted numerous detentions of Crimean Tatars during the year by Russia-supported authorities in occupied Crimea, including detentions in January, July, and August, reportedly because of their opposition to Russia’s occupation. According to Mijatovic, “The prevalent conflation of arrests of Crimean Tatar activists with ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ activity by pro-Russian propaganda paves the way for the stigmatization of a significant part of the Crimean Tatar people, antagonizing the general population of Crimea against them and creating an anti-Muslim climate.”

According to Forum 18, on November 23, armed and masked officials of the Russian Police Center for Countering Extremism raided the independent Yukhary-Jami Mosque in the southern Crimean town of Alushta, seizing Islamic books. Early that morning, they also raided the homes of the imam, Yusuf Ashirov, and two mosque community leaders and subsequently jailed the three men for between two and five days. Human rights defender Lutfiye Zudiyeva said the actions against Alushta’s Yukhary-Jami Mosque community were part of a wider plan to subjugate all Muslim activity in Crimea to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol, which collaborates with Russia occupation authorities. On November 24, while Ashirov was in prison, officials of the Centre for Countering Extremism appeared at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque. Prayers were led by pro-Russia Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol imam Emirali Ablayev, who came from Simferopol. A mosque community member said Russia’s aim was to place the mosque under the control of the Spiritual Administration. On November 30, masked officers raided the home of Abdul Gafarov, the chair of the Yukhary-Jami Mosque community. They told Gafarov that as head of the mosque community, he had to convince the community to accept the new imam imposed by the Spiritual Administration and keep the community calm. Police charged the mosque community for possessing “extremist” books, which officials said they found during the November 23 search of the mosque. According to Crimean Solidarity, on December 19, the Alushta Town Court fined the mosque 100,000 rubles ($2,620).

According to press reports, the status and condition of Artur Kozhevnikov, chairman of the German Evangelical Lutheran community in Berdyansk, Zaporizhzhya Oblast, whom Russia’s forces detained in 2022, remained unknown through year’s end.

According to the Kyiv-based Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), the Russian government unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned at least 193 individuals pursuant to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 149 persons in 2022.

According to Forum 18, since Russia’s forces seized UGCC priests Ivan Levytskyy and Bohdan Heleta from Berdyansk in November 2022, there was “no information on whether they are still alive and, if so, where and why they are being held.” The Donetsk Exarchate of the UGCC stated that Heleta needed regular medication for a serious health condition.

According to the NGO Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), on May 16, UOC priest Kostyantyn Maksymov left the city of Tokmak in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhya Oblast on a volunteer humanitarian mission through Crimea. The center said there was no contact with him since his arrival at a checkpoint on the administrative boundary between the oblast and Crimea. The Russia-controlled Tokmak “police” told Forum 18 on October 17 it had no information about the priest, “Even if we had, we wouldn’t give it by phone.” According to Forum 18, Artem Sharlay, head of the Religious Organizations Department in the Russia-installed “Zaporizhzhya Oblast Administration,” Maksymov had refused to transfer from the Berdyansk Diocese of the UOC to the ROC and was no longer serving as a priest.

Abuses Limiting Religious Belief and Expression

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russia’s occupation authorities in Donetsk Oblast continued to label the group an extremist organization, and as such, its activities were banned. According to Protestant and Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, many of their members fled occupied areas to escape oppressive conditions and to seek greater religious freedom in Ukrainian government-controlled territory. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the “law” applied by Russia’s occupation authorities on worship and religious associations in Donetsk continued to “ban all religious organizations that did not meet a March 2019 registration deadline and to require previously registered religious groups to reregister.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, since 2022, Russia occupation authorities seized 32 kingdom halls in occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson Oblasts. Occupation authorities destroyed 12 kingdom halls, while 21, including two seized ones, sustained serious damage, and 79, including 30 seized kingdom halls, had sustained minor damage during the fighting and shelling in the Chernihiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhya, and Zhytomyr Oblasts since February 2022.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russia’s occupation authorities also continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation outlawing the group. The OHCHR reported that Russia’s occupation authorities since 2017 denied the right of all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea to operate. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who continued practicing their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement and were subject to detention, house arrest, or travel restrictions.

Abuses Involving the Ability of Individuals to Engage in Religious Activities Alone or In Community with Others

On March 17, Forum 18 reported Russia’s occupation authorities had jailed 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea for exercising freedom of religion or belief, all facing prison terms of at least six years. Four were illegally transferred to Russia to serve their prison sentences. Two (Oleksandr Dubovenko and Oleksandr Lytvynyuk) had their appeals largely rejected on March 16, while the other six awaited their appeals. In addition, Crimean “courts” handed down two suspended prison sentences.

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on February 27, the Yalta “City Court” in occupied Crimea sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Taras Kuzyo to six years and six months in prison, Serhiy Lyulin and Petro Zhyltsov to six years and one month in prison, and Darya Kuzyo to three years with a suspended sentence. Russian proxy authorities launched a criminal case against the Witnesses in March 2021, two years after they initially came to search their premises. The investigation “found” that Taras Kuzyo was the organizer of an “extremist organization.”

Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to impede the rights of Crimean Tatars following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of Crimean Tatars, as an extremist organization. According to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), on January 25, Russia-imposed law enforcement officers detained at least 34 Crimean Tatar activists who were demonstrating in Simferopol in support of six Crimean Tatars whom Russian authorities arrested for allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. The six men, Ekrem Krosh, Ayder Asanov, Refat Seydametov, Osman Abdurazzakov, Leman Zekiryayev, and Khalil Mambetov, were detained on January 24 after police searched their homes in Crimea’s Dzhankoy District.

Rights groups reported that detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimean Solidarity, the Russian security service (FSB) subjected Osman Abdurazakov, Abdulmedzhit Seytumerov, Remzi Nimetulayev, and Ametkhan Umerov to forced examination at the Simferopol psychiatric hospital in April-May, October, and October-November, respectively, as part of a Hizb ut-Tahrir case. The FSB detained Abdurazakov in January and Seytumerov, Nimetulayev, and Umerov in August 24, and they remained in detention at year’s end.

According to the CHRG, as of August, 106 Crimean residents remained in prison for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Detainees also included individuals accused of belonging to Tablighi Jamaat and Takfir wal-Hijra, groups that are similarly legal in Ukraine. According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, during the year, occupation authorities detained 12 additional Crimean Tatars on charges of Hizb ut-Tahrir membership. Observers stated they believed these individuals were largely prosecuted in retaliation for their opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Their cases were considered, according to the CHRG, “in violation of the right to a fair trial; the main evidence for the court is the testimony of anonymous witnesses (many of whom are RF [Russian Federation] FSB men), pre-trial testimony of witnesses who later declare in court that such testimony was given under duress, and linguistic examinations of conversations of the accused Muslims.” The evidence provided by the defense was usually rejected by “judges.”

In February, Crimean Tatar activist Dzhemil Gafarov, detained in Simferopol in 2019 on charges of Hizb ut-Tahrir membership, died in a pretrial detention center in Novocherkassk, in Russia’s Rostov Region. In 2022, he was diagnosed with kidney failure and suffered a heart attack. Gafarov said the administration of the pretrial detention center refused to provide medical assistance. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on January 11, the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Crimean Tatars Alim Karimov, Seyran Murtaza, Erfan Osmanov, Dzhemil Gafarov, and Servet Gaziev to 13 years in prison, finding them guilty of involvement in “terrorism.” Occupation authorities had detained them since 2019. The human rights center Memorial recognized the Crimean Tatar detainees, including Gafarov, as political prisoners.

On April 11, RFE/RL quoted Crimean Solidarity as saying that prison officials in Dmitrograd, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Russia placed Crimean Muslim Tatar Timur Yalkabov in a punishment cell for more than two months, during which time his health deteriorated due to the poor conditions. First arrested in 2021, Russia’s Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced him in 2022 to 17 years of detention, with the first four years to be served in prison.

In March, Russia’s Southern District Military Court sentenced Crimean Tatar activist Ametkhan Abdulvapov to 10 years and six months in prison for his alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. He was found guilty of participation in the activities of a terrorist organization. In May, the Southern District Military Court sentenced four Crimean Tatars to a high-security penal colony for their involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir: Povara Jebbar Bekirov was sentenced to 17 years for organizing the activities of a terrorist cell and Rustem Tairov, Rustem Murasov, and Zavur Abdullayev were each sentenced to two years for their participation. Russia occupation authorities initially detained these individuals in Russia-occupied Ukrainian territory.

In May, the Southern District Military Court sentenced Ernes Seytosmanov, whom authorities detained in 2022 in Crimea to 18 years in prison for “organizing the activities of an organization…recognized as terrorist” and “preparing for actions aimed at the forcible seizure of power or the forcible retention of power.” In June, the Southern Military District Court sentenced Ansar Osmanov, whom authorities detained in 2022 in Crimea, to 20 years in prison on the same charges. In June, the Southern Military District Court sentenced Ametkhan Abdulvapov, whom authorities detained in Crimea in 2022, to 10-and-a-half years in prison for “participating in the activities of an organization…recognized as terrorist” and “preparing for actions aimed at the forcible seizure of power or the forcible retention of power.” In April, the Southern District Military Court sentenced Murat Mustafayev to four years in custody on charges of engaging in the activities of a terrorist organization and preparing for the violent seizure of power; the court ordered him to serve two years in prison followed by two years in a maximum-security penal colony.

According to the OHCHR, on August 24, Russian authorities arrested six Crimean Tatar men in Bakhchisarai, Crimea, on suspicion of being associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The men were activists of the public movement Crimean Solidarity. The following day, police apprehended and held 22 Crimean Tatar men who had gathered at the court in Simferopol to show support for the detained individuals. They were detained for a period of up to seven days for “mass simultaneous gathering of people in public places causing a violation of public order or hindrance to the movement of pedestrians.”

RFE/RL reported that on December 13, Russia-imposed police in Crimea detained Crimean Tatar religious leader Ismail Yurdamov after searching his home. Reportedly, police also searched the home of Crimean Tatar activist Rustem Mustafayev, saying they were looking for banned literature; Mustafayev was not detained.

According to Forum 18, occupation authorities continued to prosecute and fine individuals in Crimea for conducting missionary activity. All six individuals known to have been prosecuted in Russia-occupied Crimea between January and August for conducting missionary activity were Crimean Tatar Muslims, fined for leading prayers in their own communities.

Abuses Involving Discrimination or Unequal Treatment

Media outlets reported that Russia’s occupation authorities deliberately and disproportionally conscripted Crimean Tatars for military service against Ukraine. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, throughout the year, Russia’s occupation authorities in Donetsk likewise often required male Witnesses to undergo military training and threatened those who refused with large fines.

According to media sources, since February 2022, Russian governmental, religious, and state media figures have employed religious propaganda and conspiracy theories to justify Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In a January sermon, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill denounced the Ukrainian government and non-Moscow Patriarchate members, stating “there will be no trace left of the schismatics because they are fulfilling the devil’s evil bidding of eroding Orthodoxy on Kyivan land.”

Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media outlets repeatedly accused of having links to Islamic groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

On March 17, the press service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported “Russian psychological operations personnel posted on the internet two videos, in which ‘actors’ wearing the uniform of Ukraine’s Armed Forces mock the Holy Book of all Muslims, the Quran. The purpose of the staged scene is once again to try to discredit the Armed Forces (now on religious grounds), to cause outrage in countries whose populations profess Islam, and to motivate the Russian population and their Muslim soldiers to go to war … We officially reiterate that such incidents are impossible in the Armed Forces by default because members of various ethnic and religious groups are in our ranks defending Ukraine and fighting against the occupiers. All of them are heroes for our people, and their rights and beliefs are safeguarded.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to Russian media, in February, Crimean “police” detained a suspect who reportedly damaged tombstones and crosses at a cemetery and smashed a windowpane of a church in Chaikine village, Simferopol District.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Although embassy officials had no access to Russia-occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine, the embassy continued its outreach to religious representatives from these areas and on several occasions publicly condemned Russia’s continued abuses against religious minorities.

The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russia’s occupation authorities in occupied areas and called international attention to religious rights abuses committed by Russia’s forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials. On February 24, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Russia’s invasion and attacks in Ukraine have destroyed almost 500 religious sites, caused intense suffering, and horrified the world. May peace return to Ukraine and all of its diverse communities.” On November 17, a U.S. representative stated before that UN Security Council, “It’s alarming that Russia is trying to justify its atrocities and other abuses by framing its war of aggression as a holy war between Good and Evil, in addition to promoting the phony pretense of “denazification” of Ukraine. We should all see through this facade and focus on the well-documented and systematic policy of religious oppression in the territories under Russia’s occupation.” The representative further stated, “Since Russia’s invasion in 2014, its war of aggression has included repression of beliefs against Muslims, Jews, Orthodox, Catholics, evangelicals, and other religious groups. We are concerned about reports that Russia’s occupation authorities continue to detain and physically abuse, torture, and imprison individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs or affiliations, and to baselessly apply “extremist,” “terrorist,” or “undesirable” designations against religious groups.” The representative referenced Bishop Ivan Rusyn of the Ukrainian Evangelical Church who “has publicly mourned the killing of his church’s pastors,” who have been forced underground in Russia-occupied areas.

Embassy officials also continued to meet with Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders from occupied oblasts to discuss human rights abuses by Russia’s occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. government support for their right to the free exercise of religion. Embassy officials highlighted Russia’s religious rights abuses in public messaging.