Armed men – often from the State Security police of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic – have raided religious communities, halted worship meetings and seized religious literature. Courts hand down fines of several weeks' average wages to punish "illegal" worship meetings. A further ban on unapproved worship is imminent.
Along with the Donetsk People's Republic, the LPR declared independence from Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Courts generally punish religious leaders under the LPR Administrative Code, which draws heavily on Russia's Administrative Code, adopted in 2016.
A religion law, which went into effect in February of this year, imposes compulsory registration on all religious communities. Communities must have at least 30 adult local resident members to apply for registration.
The law also imposes state registration of all religious literature, which – once approved – can be distributed only by religious communities among their own members and must have the religious community's full name on it.
Religious communities in rebel-held territory fear that measures against them could be stepped up after Aug. 18, when the six-month deadline for re-registering under the new Religion Law expires.
With key representatives unavailable for questions, an official was asked what will happen to religious communities that do not gain registration after an Aug. 18 deadline. She responded, "This hasn't come into force yet. You will find out once it has," and hung up.
Ukrainian Baptist Union "banned"
On July 26, the LPR State Security Ministry announced on its website that it had banned the "destructive activity of the extremist religious organization the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian/Baptist Churches." The Ministry claimed that the Baptist Union "with its headquarters in Kiev" had refused to submit to compulsory state registration locally.
Pastor Igor Bandura, first deputy head of Ukraine's Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that he has seen no document confirming the ban. "We've seen no court document or other legal order," he told Forum 18 on Aug. 2. "Our churches mostly still function, though officials have forcibly closed some, including the one in Molodogvardeisk," which officials closed in June and fined its leaders.
The Ministry website showed what it claimed was a letter from the regional Baptist leader Gennady Shulzhenko (who is based in the Ukrainian government-controlled part of Luhansk Region) describing the local religion law adopted the previous month as "unacceptable for believers" and declaring "Our land will be liberated!" adding: "Together we will resolve the armed conflict and cleanse the seized territories of Ukraine!" Pastor Bandura insisted the letter was forged.
Other churches have been closed in June and July. In one instance, armed men – two of them wearing masks - broke into the youth center of the Baptist Union church in the village of Gorodyshche where a medical clinic had begun. Patients were sent away, the doctors were forced to write statements and the equipment was confiscated, including an ocular diagnostic kit, cardiograph and ultrasound.
A longer version of this article can be found on the Forum 18 website.
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