The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.
Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious belief and participating in the performance of acts of worship is not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.
The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.
The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.
The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.
The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.
The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.
The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property being used for cultural or sports purposes
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which cannot be appealed.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.
The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.
Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.
On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).
According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.
Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.
On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.
Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”
On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.
Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from unfavored groups.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.
Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.
As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.
On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.
On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.
On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”
On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.
On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”
On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.
On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.
On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.
According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.
Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.
The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.
After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.
Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.
According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.
Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.
Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite Belarusian Orthodox priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in Belarusian Orthodox festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.
On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.
On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.
Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.
According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.
During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”
During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.
Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.
The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.
The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.
Read A Section: Crimea
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),” declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes 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 the territory of Crimea.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, many religious communities were essentially driven out of the peninsula through registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. Only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was exempt from these registration requirements. The Russian government reported there were 907 religious communities registered in Crimea, including in Sevastopol, compared with 891in 2019, representing a drop of more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities suspected the individuals of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, Russia continued to prosecute individuals for some types of worship, including imams leading prayers in their own mosques, as “illegal missionary activity.” Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and that they continued to be required to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. 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 repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
According to the Krym Realii news website, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. In April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremyzivka Village.
The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and called international attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials as well as messaging on social media. In a February press statement, the Secretary stated, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates (the most recent), 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 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 most recent year available), the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the OCU, the RCC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, 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.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the ARC within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under the law of the Russian Federation, but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300 to $13,400).
In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea. In his February speech at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, then-Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko told the UN delegates of the continued large-scale abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms by Russian occupiers, spotlighting discrimination against Ukrainians of various ethnic and religious minority groups, including Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), which has offices in Kyiv, 109 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 89 in 2019.
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.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Occupation authorities placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and two more under house arrest. Russian authorities often accused Muslims of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In June, OHCHR reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 63 citizens of Ukraine for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, 20 of whom had been convicted, including seven individuals who were sentenced in 2019 to prison terms ranging from seven to 19 years.
On September 21, Russian occupation authorities released Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov after he had served nearly one year of his sentence. Occupation authorities had detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don had sentenced him to two and a half years in prison in October 2019. Human rights activists linked the original verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.
In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. Marlen Asanov received 19 years, Memet Belialov 18 years, Timur Ibragimov 17 years, Seyran Saliyev 16 years, Server Mustafayev 14 years, and Server Zakiryayev and Edem Smailov both 13 years. The judge found Ernes Ametov not guilty and released him. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.
According to the CHRG, in December, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended into January 2021 the detention of Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov. Their cases were under judges’ consideration at year’s end. The group was arrested in March 2019 when armed representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches.
On December 8, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. On December 10, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for his fellow activists Osman Arifmemetov and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered the arrest of all three men in 2019 on charges related to “terrorism” for their suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir following searches of their homes. Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to the OHCHR, all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost their right to operate since the Russian Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on the religious group. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement. According to Forum 18, in 2019, a Russian court charged Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov with organizing an “extremist” organization following a raid by Russia’s FSB on eight homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alupka and Yalta. The Russian FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Dzhankoy, in 2018. On March 5, the Yalta City Court initially fined Gerasimov 400,00 rubles ($5400); the Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Filatov to six years imprisonment on extremism-related charges. On May 26, Filatov lost his appeal. On June 4, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” revoked Gerasimov’s fine and sentenced him to six years in prison, matching Filatov’s sentence. Forum 18 stated authorities transferred Filatov and Gerasimov to a prison in Russia during the summer and, as of September 30, had not allowed them to receive letters.
Forum 18 reported authorities transferred Muslim prisoner of conscience Renat Suleimanov to Russia in January and did not allow him to receive letters written in his native Tatar language.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 26, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Artem Shabliy. Reportedly, Shabliy was accused of having “drawn others into the activities of an extremist organization” by discussing the Bible with them.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 1, armed searches on nine Jehovah’s Witness homes in Sevastopol led to the arrests of four men: Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, Volodymyr Sakada, and Ihor Schmidt. All four remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to Forum 18, in November, Svetlana Sakada, the wife of one of the four detained, said her husband was not guilty of extremism-related charges. Forum 18 reported the four faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on “extremism”-related charges, and that another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, was on trial on the same charges.
OHCHR reports consistently found that a pattern of criminalization of affiliation with or sympathy toward Muslim groups banned in the Russian Federation that continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to the report, these cases raised concerns about the right to a fair trial, as the detainees’ hearings often banned cameras, media, and family members from the courtroom. OHCHR reported that Russian courts in Crimea cited the “need to ensure the safety of the participants in the proceedings,” but that the defendants’ lawyers and family members said Russian occupation authorities excluded the public from court hearings to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny, and exert additional pressure on the defendants.
On April 1, “prosecutors” reportedly charged Imam Yusuf Ashirov with conducting “illegal missionary activity” for leading Friday prayers at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque in Alushta. Ashirov denied the charges, explaining to the “deputy prosecutor” that he preached only to other mosque members and that he had “no desire to break the law.” Ashirov stated he suspected the charges against him stemmed from authorities’ attempts to transfer the mosque to the “state.” Similarly, in March, a court in Simferopol reportedly fined Imam Rasim Dervishev for “illegal missionary activity” for leading services. Devishev’s lawyer stated, “It is absurd to require anyone to ask permission to conduct religious rituals,” and he argued that Dervishev had not spoken to anyone outside the mosque about his religious belief. Dervishev paid a fine of between 5,000 and 30,000 rubles ($67 and $400). Reportedly, in April, Imam Dilyaver Khalilov faced similar charges for leading services at a mosque in Zavetnoye. Occupation authorities withdrew charges against Khalilov after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In August, authorities seized Khalilov’s mosque, stating it was not registered as a mosque but rather as a sports complex. The Muslim community had repaired the dilapidated building and registered it as a mosque with the Ukrainian authorities in 2000.
According to the CHRG, in September, occupation authorities charged members of four churches (Catholic, Baptist, and two evangelical) with “illegal missionary activity.”
Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 20 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community on websites or meeting places, compared with 11 such cases the previous year. Sixteen of the cases involved fines of 30,000 rubles ($400, one month’s average local wage), while three defendants received a warning. The remaining case was under review at year’s end. On November 20, a member of one of the fined religious communities told Forum 18, “The prosecutor told us we would get a warning, but when the case came to court, it was a different prosecutor, who demanded that we be fined. We didn’t expect this turn of events.”
According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. A Russian labor camp relocated Tablighi Jamaat Muslim Renat Suleimanov from the camp’s punishment cell to its “strict section.” The camp administration stated he was being punished for a conflict with another prisoner, but Suleimanov’s lawyer stated the accusation was fabricated as an excuse to punish his client. In January 2019, a Simferopol court had jailed Suleimanov for four years on “extremism”-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith.
The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 108 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 891 and 105, respectively, in 2019. The number of religious organizations had dropped by more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Registered religious organizations included the two largest – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.
Human rights groups reported Russian occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.
The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian RCC priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required to leave Crimea for 90 days before returning.
UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and continued to have to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.
According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to place pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to reregister after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) joined the unified OCU, were functioning in 2019-2020, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. At year’s end, three of those were “on the verge of closure.” According to RFE/RL, Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group stated the OCU was one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russia-installed leaders. Describing Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy told RFE/RL, “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed.”
In March, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers placed the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, under state ownership in an attempt to draw international organizations’ support to help defend it from the occupiers. On July 23, Russian occupation authorities ordered Archbishop Klyment, elevated to Metropolitan on August 9, to demolish the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Yevpatoriya or face criminal prosecution. Klyment’s appeal of the order continued through year’s end.
According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB encouraged residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including support for Crimean Tatars, condemnation of the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or the oppression of the OCU.
Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear of certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups that were designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Krym Realii, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. According to the Advet.org news website, in April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremysivka Village.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russia-led forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Muslims and Christians, through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. In a statement on February 26, the Secretary said, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of Crimean citizens. The Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe side event on Crimea, stating, “Russian occupation authorities continue to harass, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and members of civil society, simply for their expressing their opposition to the occupation or for being a member of an ethnic or religious minority group on the peninsula. They sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Crimea, raiding mosques, homes, and workplaces without justification or process and leaving these communities in a state of constant fear.”
Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by Russian occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed pressures on his church in Crimea. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and would press Russian occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.
Read a Section
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On December 15, parliament amended the constitution, adding language stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” The amendment became effective on December 23. There are four tiers of religious groups, all of which may receive state funding and income-tax allocations from members. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court registered seven religious groups and rejected one, while four applications remained pending. The Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the religion law, which some religious and civil society groups considered discriminatory. The Muslim community said authorities continued to refuse to issue permits for cemeteries. Jewish organizations condemned the appointment of a new director of a state-run radio station whom they said had a long record of making anti-Semitic statements; the government’s inclusion of anti-Semitic writers and removal of a Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from a mandatory school reading list; and the bestowal of a high state award to a historian widely viewed as anti-Semitic. They also continued to criticize the proposed House of Fates Holocaust museum as an attempt to obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Senior government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe.”
The Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, one of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim leaders said that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, and there were cases of anti-Muslim discrimination. Members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups again commemorated the attempted “breakout” by German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. They laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators, and some wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage from some government-aligned media. A European Union (EU)-funded survey of residents in the country found 41 percent did not sympathize with Muslims and 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews; 49 percent agreed that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, and 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention. Ten and nine percent, respectively, thought Jews and Muslims were frequent targets of hate speech.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy officials and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives held meetings with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other government agencies, as well as with local Jewish groups and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to discuss restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and the House of Fates Museum concept. In other meetings with the government and with religious leaders, embassy representatives advocated religious freedom and tolerance and discussed provisions of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the embassy highlighted on its website and on social media the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the attendance by the Charge d’Affaires at three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the Church of Scientology (COS), Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. The World Jewish Congress estimates the Jewish population to be between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. Local Jewish organizations estimate approximately 100,000 citizens with Jewish heritage live in the country, primarily in Budapest. Other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worship, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community. On December 15, parliament approved a constitutional amendment, which became effective on December 23, stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious communities. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
A 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force in 2019. The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of the country’s Constitutional Court and the European Court on Human Rights. The law establishes a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retained their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. To become an established church requires approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.
Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to unregistered groups.
To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies for the performance of public service activities.
To qualify for registered church status, a religious group must have received tax allocations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or have operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for listed church status, a religious group must receive tax allocations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.
The law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four tiers of religious groups for the performance of public service activities and support of faith-based activities. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. These agreements may be prolonged.
Religious groups that agree not to seek state or EU funding (including personal income tax allocations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax allocations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also seek the opinion of the national security services.
Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report it to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax allocation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.
The law stipulates the minister responsible for church issues, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious groups with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. The database is publicly accessible at the government’s central webpage, kormany.hu.
The law allows taxpayers to allocate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories, starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy supplementing the 1 percent tax allocations.
According to the law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.
Thirty-two churches have established (previously known as “incorporated”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church; a range of Protestant denominations; a range of Orthodox Christian groups; other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Salvation Army; three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community); and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole Hindu group registered as a church. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups.
By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious groups. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsperson investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
According to the law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious groups must seek permission to offer such services.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.
One hour per week of education in faith and ethics or general ethics is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious groups are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools but may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or general ethics classes.
All religious groups registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious groups may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.
The law also affords all religious groups with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the state may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The state inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to legal standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – or inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.
Assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious groups or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious groups with pending applications for incorporated (changed to “established”) church status prior to the entry into force of a 2019 amendment to the religion law had the possibility to apply under a simplified registration process until January 6. According to the PMO, there were 16 such groups with pending applications, of which 11 reapplied under the simplified process. Of these 11 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected the application of the Church of the Nazarene and registered six groups as listed churches: the Hungarian Baha’i Community, Sim Shalom Progressive Jewish Association, Bet Orim Reform Jewish Community Association, Shalom Church of Biblical Congregations, Church of Evangelical Friendship, and the Hungarian Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist Community. Four other applications remained pending at year’s end. The court also registered the Hungarian Daoist Church as a listed church in a regular procedure based on the number of its members.
Some religious groups stated that while the new registration process constituted progress, it did not restore their full status from before the adoption of the 2011 religion law and the new framework for church recognition by the state. Court decisions regarding the registration process for registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations were available at the central website of the courts, birosag.hu. According to the PMO, no religious groups qualified under registered church status; in order to become a registered church, a group must comply with the requirement of receiving income tax allocations from an average of at least 4,000 persons per year in the previous five years, a period which could only begin in 2019 (the year the current law came into force) or later. The number of established churches remained unchanged.
The tax authority expanded the list of religious groups (including all four tiers) eligible to receive a 1 percent personal income tax allocation from members and stated that those wishing to become eligible in 2021 should request a technical tax identification number by December 31.
The HCLU, an NGO representing some religious groups deregistered in 2011, reported that their clients did not apply for registration because they believed the amended version of the law was still discriminatory. In May, the Constitutional Court rejected HCLU’s petition, filed in 2019, challenging the amended law. The HCLU argued the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state and was therefore unconstitutional. According to the Constitutional Court, state cooperation to achieve community goals and state support for religious activity, although related to the exercise of the freedom of religion, was not a fundamental right under the constitution, and constitutional protection of religious communities was equal, regardless of the legal evaluation of the religious community, the number of its members, or its participation in community activities. The HCLU, which already had a legal case ongoing regarding the previous law at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), argued there that the amended law did not remedy the violations of the prior law. The ECHR case continued at year’s end.
The MHC halved operational state subsidies for the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood’s (MET) educational institutions. MET’s leader Pastor Gabor Ivanyi said the MHC also informed him it would not extend its educational agreement for the next academic year, which endangered the sustainability of MET’s schools, attended by approximately 2,200 mostly Roma children. MHC attributed the funding cuts to budgetary restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what it said was the lack of concrete results achieved by these schools. In December 2019, Ivanyi published an open letter in which he rejected Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s statements that his was a Christian government.
The COS reported that appeals procedures against the Data Protection Authority’s (DPA) seizure of its documents in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza remained pending at various stages at different courts. The DPA investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined it and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($135,000) in 2017. The Church also reported state authorities revoked a Russian-Ukrainian missionary couple’s residence permit in 2019 and expelled a Kazakh missionary from the country in January. The COS appealed both decisions, in which the authorities justified the expulsion of missionaries they deemed a “real, direct, and serious threat to national security.”
The COS stated that the certificate of occupancy for its headquarters in Budapest remained pending at the Csongrad County Government Office, while a court order allowed the COS to continue using the building.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said the problem of insufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained unresolved. OMH also reported the government had not completed its restoration of the state-owned Yakovali Hasan Mosque in Pecs, ongoing since 2018, which prevented the local Muslim community from using the mosque as a place of worship.
In September, MET said the state-owned utility company attempted to disconnect MET’s institutions from the gas network due to nonpayment, endangering the operation of its nursery, college, homeless shelter, and hospital. Pastor Ivanyi stated MET would be able to pay its outstanding bills if the state would compensate it for damages sustained in 2016-2019 stemming from the group’s loss of church status.
According to the PMO, during the 2019-2020 school year, churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 17.1 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 16.7 percent in 2018-19), and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. Churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 10 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 9.7 percent run by incorporated churches in the previous year, and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. There were 222,944 students – 49.3 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by churches and religious organizations, compared with 217,204 in the previous year.
At a school opening ceremony on August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that church-run schools were instrumental in preserving a Christian identity through raising “professionals whose skills are in harmony with faith.” Semjen cited Eurostat figures showing that Hungary’s GDP-to-church-support ratio was the highest in the EU, adding that the number of church-run schools in the country had doubled since 2010. The PMO State Secretary in charge of church issues, Miklos Soltesz, stated on September 4 that the government had allocated 106 billion forints ($357.2 million) to three main churches for kindergarten development projects, with the Catholic Church receiving 67 billion forints ($225.8 million), the Reformed Church 30 billion forints ($101.1 million), and the Evangelical Church 9 billion forints ($30.3 million).
A cartoon by Gabor Papai published by the daily independent Nepszava on April 28 showed the chief medical officer who oversaw the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response looking at Jesus on the cross and saying, “his underlying conditions caused” his death. According to media commenters, the cartoon was intended to criticize the government’s response to the pandemic and, in the critics’ view, the chief medical officer’s attempt to minimize the number of deaths in the country attributable to COVID-19. The cartoon sparked outcry from the Christian Democratic People’s Party and State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians Tristan Azbej, who accused Papai of blasphemy and sued the outlet. Government-aligned media launched what was characterized as a campaign of intimidation against Papai; for example, Szent Korona (Holy Crown) Radio station asked its followers to share his home address, because “there are many who would pay him a visit.”
According to OMH, Muslims serving prison sentences regularly received meals with pork meat or pork fat, despite complaints.
On January 6, state-run Kossuth Radio announced the appointment of Beatrix Siklosi as its new director. Citing what they described as Siklosi’s long record of making and sharing anti-Semitic and racist statements – including posting racist jokes and linking to the anti-Semitic website kuruc.info on social media as well as hosting Holocaust denier David Irving on one of her previous shows – 21 Jewish organizations published a joint open letter on January 27 to the public media organization MTVA’s Chief Executive Officer, Daniel Papp, asking him to terminate Siklosi’s appointment. Papp rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism against Siklosi as unfounded. Chief Rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) Slomo Koves stated that Siklosi’s appointment was “unacceptable,” and Mazsihisz referred to its statement from 2014 condemning Siklosi’s appointment to another position, adding that it maintained its concerns regarding her.
On August 20, the government awarded the Hungarian Order of Merit to historian Erno Raffay, whom media and other historians have criticized for disseminating anti-Semitic views. At a public forum in 2015, Raffay complained about the number of Jews in the country before the Holocaust, stating, they “pushed us out from our positions in science, schools, academy, university, banking, estates, and professions.” European Commission Coordinator on Combatting Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein criticized Raffay in a tweet on August 25 for openly spreading “anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy myths.”
Jewish groups Mazsihisz and EMIH expressed concern about the government’s decision to include writers widely viewed as anti-Semitic, including member of the Arrow Cross Party Jozsef Nyiro and convicted war criminal Albert Wass, while removing Nobel laureate for literature and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz as mandatory reading material in the new national curriculum, which became effective on September 1 in elementary and secondary public schools.
Several Jewish leaders criticized Laszlo Biro, a Jobbik Party member and the opposition parties’ unsuccessful joint candidate in the October 11 by-election in Borsod County, for anti-Semitic and racist statements. Biro’s previous social media comments included referring to Budapest as “Judapest” and complaining about the number of foreign Jews staying at hotels in his district. EMIH Chief Rabbi Koves said that it was worrying that “the parties that support him [Biro] indirectly legitimize anti-Semitism.” Earlier in August, referring to Biro’s comments, Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler said his organization condemned “acts of incitement against any ethnic, religious, or sexual minority.”
During a local council meeting on June 25, Imre Lazlo, mayor of a Budapest district and member of the opposition Democratic Coalition Party, said that “The work [Hitler] had accomplished” prior to becoming Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 “practically brought advancement for Germany, in a spectacular way, after the global recession. What happened afterwards does not really fit into this picture.” On June 26, Laszlo issued a statement to apologize for his remarks, highlighting his Jewish roots and that many of his family members were killed in Nazi death camps.
The opening of the House of Fates, a proposed new Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest, remained pending. The museum concept, which leading Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars criticized as an attempt to obscure the role of the World War II-era Hungarian state and its leader, Miklos Horthy, in the Holocaust, continued to generate criticism. Horthy allied the country with Nazi Germany and deported more than 400,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Chief Rabbi Koves of EMIH, which owned the museum, stated in November that he was working with design firms and historians and predicted the potential opening on or before the 80th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews in 2024.
At year’s end, the government had not shared its final research assessment into heirless and unclaimed property, nor had it yet agreed to requests by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations. In April 2019, the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property.
When speaking about a proposal from a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen investor on how the EU should finance the COVID-19 recovery fund, Prime Minister Orban said in an interview in April that “they really love interest,” which some observers described as a veiled anti-Semitic message. In April, some government-aligned media said that the same investor was “probably” betting against the nation’s currency and responsible for its weakening in the spring.
In a November opinion piece published by progovernment media outlet Origo.hu, Ministerial Commissioner and director of the Petofi Literary Museum Szilard Demeter called the same American financier the “liberal Fuhrer” and wrote that Europe was his “gas chamber,” with “poisonous gas” flowing from the capsule of a “multicultural open society.” Referring to the debate over the EU’s proposed mechanism that conditioned payments from the EU budget on respect for the rule of law, Demeter described Poles and Hungarians as “the new Jews” targeted by “liber-Aryans” who are told they “have a big nose (sic)…stink…and are full of lice.” Mazsihisz, EMIH, the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office, and the International Auschwitz Committee, among others, condemned Demeter’s comments, and all major opposition parties called for his resignation. On November 29, Demeter stated he would retract his article and delete his Facebook page “independently of what I think.” He added, “Those criticizing me are correct in saying that to call someone a Nazi is to relativize, and that making parallels with Nazis can inadvertently cause harm to the memory of the victims.” As of December, government officials continued to defend Demeter’s continued tenure as a ministerial commissioner, stating that he had retracted the piece and apologized.
Government officials continued to make statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Semjen stated the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian basin since 2010, and he pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”
In January, Prime Minister Orban and his wife attended the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Orban posted a photo on Facebook of a guard’s tower with the barbed wire fence in the background and a quote from the Old Testament, “Tell it to your children,” and media published a photo of Orban lighting a candle at the Hungarian memorial to the victims of the Birkenau camp. In a speech at the European Jewish Organization Symposium commemorating the same anniversary, Justice Minister Judit Varga stated that the country had “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” adding, “Manifestations of anti-Semitism are met with a determined response by the state leadership,” and that Hungary was “the most secure country for Jews in Europe.”
At year’s end, the government had provided 216.4 billion forints ($729.2 million) to established churches (compared with 64.8 billion forints – $218.4 million – during 2019), of which 96 percent – 209 billion ($704.3 million) – went to the four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 161.7 billion forints ($554.9 million), the Reformed Church 37.7 billion forints ($127 million), the Evangelical Church 6.8 billion forints ($22.9 million), Mazsihisz two billion forints ($6.7 million), EMIH 534 million forints ($1.8 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 281 million forints ($947,000). The religious groups that received the bulk of the government’s financial support used the funds for such activities as building maintenance; public educational and social services; religious instruction and cultural activities; community programs and investments; employee wages, and faith-based activities for citizens living abroad. The government provided an additional 211.3 million forints ($712,000) to other religious groups.
Jewish groups inaugurated synagogues that had been renovated with state funding. In September, the Lakitelek People’s College, established by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, transferred the ownership of a wellness resort called “Hungarikum Liget,” consisting among other things of a hotel, winery, a riding house, and a footgolf course, to the Szeged-Csanad Catholic archdiocese. The government provided 30 billion forints ($101.1 million) in state support for the project, according to press reports.
In November, the Hungarian Reformed Church elected former Minister of Human Capacities Zoltan Balog as Bishop of the Dunamellek Diocese.
According to statistics the tax authority published on September 9, 114 churches and religious groups received 1 percent personal income tax allocations. In 2019, only the 32 established – or in the previous terminology “incorporated” – churches were eligible for this tax allocation. As in previous years, the churches receiving the most allocations were the Catholic Church, with 708,237 persons contributing 3.9 billion forints ($13.1 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 292,768 persons contributing 1.6 billion forints ($5.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 80,237 persons contributing 478 million forints ($1.6 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 71,470 persons contributing 448 million forints ($1.5 million). Both reform Jewish groups (Sim Shalom and Bet Orim) became eligible to receive 1 percent personal income tax allocations, in addition to the other three established Jewish groups of Mazsihisz, EMIH, and Orthodox. Among the Jewish groups, Mazsihisz received the largest allocation.
In March, the Lutheran Church signed a cooperation agreement with the government to carry out social and educational activities. In July, the Faith Church (a Christian church that belongs to the Pentecostal movement) concluded a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the government. Building on a previous agreement from 2006, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen and church leader Reverend Sandor Nemeth stated at the signing ceremony that the agreement provided legal and financial guarantees for the operation of the church’s institutions.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NGO Action and Protection Foundation, which monitors anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, including one case of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data; however, OMH reported that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, in particular against persons wearing headscarves or who had darker skin and spoke a foreign language. According to OMH, the majority of the population regarded Muslims with suspicion.
An estimated 500 to 600 members of what were widely described as radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups from Hungary and other European countries gathered on February 8 for the “Day of Honor” in Budapest that commemorated the attempted “breakout” of German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of the city by the Soviet Red Army. Dressed in black and carrying flags of their respective far-right movements, they laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators. While police initially banned the event, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court subsequently overturned the ban. Separated by a line of police, some 300 to 500 counterdemonstrators chanted and drummed during the event. According to media, “There were no major conflicts – while there were smaller hassles.” The commemoration was followed by a march along the route of the attempted siege-breakers in which some participants wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage in some government-aligned media. No government officials condemned the event and no charges were brought against the participants.
On March 1, approximately 1,000 people took part in a march in Budapest, organized by the far-right party Mi Hazank and the Betyarsereg and 64 Counties extremist groups, honoring the centennial of World War II-era Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy’s coming to power.
According to OMH, a job interviewer, commenting on a Muslim interviewee whose mother tongue was Hungarian, said he wanted a “Hungarian person,” but instead an “Ali” showed up. The Muslim applicant did not receive a job offer and did not take legal action.
According to an EU-funded survey of Hungarian residents, Combating Anti-Semitism in Central Europe, conducted in December 2019 in local partnership with the Republikon research institute, 10 percent of respondents believed Jews were frequent victims of hate speech, followed by Muslims (9 percent); 41 percent said they did “not sympathize” with Muslims, while 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews. Regarding attitudes and types of hate speech towards Jews, 45 percent of respondents had encountered anti-Semitic stereotypes, 41 percent insults, 35 percent grotesque depictions of Jews, and 27 percent had not encountered any type of hate speech. Forty-nine percent agreed with the statement that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, while 38 percent agreed that, for Jews in the country, Israel was more important than Hungary; 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention in public debates.
An analysis by online research group SentiOne of Hungarian comments on social media between January 1 and April 15 found the second highest share of negative comments (24 percent) were directed against Jews, and 43 percent of those who commented on Jews blamed them for the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February, the Pew Research Center published a survey on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 70 percent of Hungarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among their lowest priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
In March, Mazsihisz reported that vandals severely damaged gravestones in the Jewish cemetery of Kiskunfelegyhaza, southeast of Budapest. Repair costs were estimated at between 300,000 and 2.5 million forints ($1,000-$8,400). Mazsihisz filed a criminal complaint with the police.
Mazsihisz reported that on November 1, vandals smashed three headstones and left human feces on another at a Jewish graveyard in Kecel, south of Budapest.
In June, there were two vandalism cases, one of which concerned a swastika drawn on a poster of a Jewish high school in Budapest, and the other a swastika painted on a public wall in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.
In October, NGOs reported authorities closed the investigation, without filing charges, into an October 2019 attack in Budapest on the Aurora NGO center – run by a Jewish youth organization – by approximately 50 members from Legio Hungaria, a group widely described as neo-Nazi.
On February 2, the general assembly of Mazsihisz adopted a proposal to include Sim Shalom and Bet Orim, the country’s two reform Jewish groups, as associate members.
The Christian-Jewish Council, an informal platform for discussion for Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist Churches and Jewish groups, held events such as joint prayers on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the council organized fewer events than in previous years.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and discussions with the government, including officials from the PMO in charge of church and Jewish issues, the Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and religious freedom, and discussed provisions of the religion law.
The Ambassador and embassy officials also discussed heirless property restitution with the WJRO.
Embassy and Department of State officials, including the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, held discussions with representatives of the Jewish community on anti-Semitism; challenges in promoting tolerance and historical truth in education; the community’s relationship with the government; the House of Fates museum concept; restitution issues; activities of the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center; and Holocaust commemoration. The embassy issued a statement in August that said, “Neo-Nazi or other hate groups should not be tolerated in any society,” which also referenced Legio Hungaria’s October 2019 vandalizing of the Aurora NGO center. In November, the embassy issued a statement condemning an opinion piece that equated debate over EU policy to the Holocaust, noting that there should be no tolerance for Holocaust relativization or minimization.
In January, in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto as well as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Charge d’Affaires participated in three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups. On each occasion, the Charge emphasized the importance of religious freedom with a diverse group of religious leaders, and the embassy amplified that message for a broader audience through its website and social media accounts. Embassy officials also visited the Holocaust Memorial Center to remember those who lost their lives and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to “never again,” and posted about the visit on social media. The embassy maintained regular contact with leaders of various religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the COS, and religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On October 13, the Ambassador gave remarks at an event commemorating Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty – who was imprisoned for opposing both fascism and communism in the country and took refuge in the embassy for 15 years – in which he emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and embassy officials participated in events organized by various Jewish organizations, such as visits to newly inaugurated synagogues in Budapest, to highlight support for the Jewish community and to promote religious tolerance. At all these events, embassy representatives reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.
Read A Section: Ukraine
In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014 and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers Crimea a part of Ukraine.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for “the separation of church and religious organizations from the state.” By law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship. In November and December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgments concerning the ineffective investigation of hate crimes committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine between 2009 and 2013. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report attacks on their followers that went unpunished and detentions of members reportedly for draft evasion. In April, the Ombudsperson’s Office reportedly informed oblast state administrations that the right to alternative service was “of absolute nature” and could not be rejected solely because a conscientious objector had missed the application deadline. According to the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, the government at times continued to try to balance tensions between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) – granted autocephaly by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in 2019 – and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which competed for members and congregations. According to the Orthodox Times and other media, Russia continued to use a disinformation campaign to fuel further conflict between the two churches. Whereas in the past the government of then-President Petro Poroshenko promoted the OCU by encouraging local governments to facilitate parish reregistration from the UOC-MP to the OCU, Serhiy Trofimov, first deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, reportedly discouraged local governments from such reregistration. According to the UOC-MP, on August 6, several dozen people damaged a fence surrounding the house of a local Zolochiv UOC-MP priest; many observers characterized them as representatives of National Corps, a far-right and sometimes violent political organization. The attackers sprayed the fence with graffiti criticizing the parish’s affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that read, “ROC out!” and “Blood is on your hands.” In August, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy ordered a local developer to halt construction of a private clinic in a protected heritage area on the grounds of an historical Jewish cemetery in Lviv, but local authorities did not halt construction, stating it was not taking place on the Jewish cemetery. According to observers, government investigations and prosecution of vandalism against religious sites were generally inconclusive, although the government condemned attacks, including physical attacks, on Jewish pilgrims in Uman and arson and other attacks on synagogues, and police arrested perpetrators.
Media sources, religious freedom activists, the OCU, Muslims, Protestant churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that Russia-backed authorities in the Russia-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) continued to exert pressure on minority religious groups. In the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”), “authorities” continued their ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) upheld a similar ban. Russia-backed “authorities” in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian law preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities. Many religious groups continued to refuse to reregister because they did not recognize the Russia-installed authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk. All but one mosque remained closed in Russia-controlled Donetsk. Russia-led forces continued to use religious buildings of minority religious groups as military facilities. The situation in Russia-occupied Crimea is reported in an appendix following the report on the rest of Ukraine.
The ROC and the UOC-MP continued to label the OCU a “schismatic” group and continued to urge other Orthodox churches not to recognize the OCU. UOC-MP and OCU representatives continued to contest some parish registrations as not reflecting the true will of their congregations. UOC-MP leaders accused the newly formed OCU of seizing churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the OCU responded that parishioners, rather than the OCU, had initiated the transfers of affiliation. The independent National Minorities Rights Monitoring Group (NMRMG) reported four documented violent acts of anti-Semitism during the year, compared with none since 2016. There were again reports of vandalism of Christian monuments; Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries; and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) continued to promote interfaith dialogue and respect for religious diversity.
U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, engaged with officials of the Office of the President, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the importance of fair and transparent treatment of religious groups following the establishment of the OCU, preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and combating increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism. Embassy officials continued to urge government and religious leaders to practice tolerance, restraint, and mutual understanding to ensure respect for all individuals’ religious freedom and preferences. Embassy officials also continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully and through dialogue with government officials, in particular the dispute regarding ongoing construction of parts of the Krakivskyy Market on the site of the Lviv Old Jewish Cemetery. Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims and other religious minorities from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Russia-occupied Crimea. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed the pressures on his Church in Crimea.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 44 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the annual October national survey conducted by the Razumkov Center, an independent public policy think tank, 62.3 percent of respondents identify as Christian Orthodox, compared with 64.9 percent in 2019; 9.6 percent Greek Catholic (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, UGCC), compared with 9.5 percent in 2019; 1.5 percent Protestant, compared with 1.8 in 2019; 1.2 percent Roman Catholic, compared with 1.6 percent in 2019; 0.1 Jewish, compared with 0.1 percent in 2019; and 0.5 percent Muslim, compared with under 0.1 percent in 2019. The survey found another 8.9 percent identify as “simply a Christian,” while 15.2 percent state they do not belong to any religious group, compared with 8 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, in 2019. Small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, followers of other religions, and individuals choosing not to disclose their beliefs constitute the remainder of the respondents. According to the same survey, groups included in the 62.3 percent who identify as Christian Orthodox are as follows: 18.6 percent as members of the new OCU, compared with 13.2 percent in 2019; 13.6 percent the UOC-MP, compared with 10.6 percent in 2019; 2.3 percent Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), compared with 7.7 percent in 2019; 27 percent “just an Orthodox believer,” compared with 30.3 percent in 2019; and 0.7 percent undecided, compared with 3.1 percent in 2019. According to the same poll, most of the self-identified OCU followers are in the western, central, and southern parts of the country. Most UOC-MP followers are in the eastern, central, and western parts of the country. Followers of the UGCC reside primarily in the western oblasts. Most Roman Catholic Church (RCC) followers are in the western and central oblasts.
According to government statistics, followers of the UGCC reside primarily in the western oblasts of Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Most RCC congregations are in Lviv, Khmelnytskyy, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, and Zakarpattya Oblasts, in the western part of the country. According to the government’s estimate released in March 2019, most OCU congregations (formed by the merger of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and part of the UOC-MP) are in the central and western parts of the country, except for Zakarpattya Oblast. Most UOC-MP congregations are also in the central and western parts of the country, excluding Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Ternopil Oblasts.
The Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine is the largest Protestant community. Other Christian groups include Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).
Government agencies and independent think tanks estimate the Muslim population at 500,000, while some Muslim leaders estimate two million. According to government figures, 300,000 of these are Crimean Tatars.
The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) states there are approximately 300,000 persons of Jewish ancestry in the country. According to VAAD, prior to the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation. According to the London-based Institute for Jewish Studies, the country’s Jewish population declined by 94.6 percent from 1970 to 2020.
There are also small numbers of Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong, Baha’is, and adherents of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including worship. By law, the government may restrict this right only in the “interests of protecting public order, the health and morality of the population, or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.” The constitution provides for the “separation of church and religious organizations from the state” and stipulates, “No religion shall be recognized by the state as mandatory.”
By law, the objective of religious policy is to “restore full-fledged dialogue between representatives of various social, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.” By law, the production and dissemination of Nazi symbols and propaganda of totalitarian regimes are banned and considered a crime.
Religious organizations include congregations, theological schools, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and administrations of religious associations consisting of religious organizations. To register and obtain legal-entity status, an organization must register either with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, which replaced the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport during the year, the government agency responsible for religious affairs, or with regional government authorities, depending upon the nature of the organization. Religious centers, administrations, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and religious schools register with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. Religious congregations register with the regional authorities where they are present. While these religious congregations may form the constituent units of a nationwide religious organization, the nationwide organization does not register on a national basis and may not obtain recognition as a legal entity; rather, the constituent units register individually and obtain legal-entity status. 2019 amendments to the laws on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations and on state registration of legal entities, natural persons, and civic organizations direct regional governments’ religious affairs departments to enter religious organizations into the State Register of Legal Entities database, in addition to registering their statutes. They require all religious organizations to update and reregister their statutes by January 31, 2020. The amendments also specify reregistration requirements for organizations that wish to change their affiliation, particularly UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. The amended law requires a quorum, as defined by each congregation and usually comprising two-thirds or three-fourths of a religious organization’s members, to decide on a change of affiliation. The law also requires a vote by two-thirds of those present to authorize such a decision. The law bans any transfer of an organization’s property until the affiliation change is finalized.
2019 amendments to the laws on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations and on state registration of legal entities, natural persons, and civic organizations direct regional governments’ religious affairs departments to enter religious organizations into the State Register of Legal Entities database, in addition to registering their statutes. They require all religious organizations to update and reregister their statutes by January 31, 2020. The amendments also specify reregistration requirements for organizations that wish to change their affiliation, particularly UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. The amended law requires a quorum, as defined by each congregation and usually comprising two-thirds or three-fourths of a religious organization’s members, to decide on a change of affiliation. The law also requires a vote by two-thirds of those present to authorize such a decision. The law bans any transfer of an organization’s property until the affiliation change is finalized.
To be eligible for registration, a religious congregation must comprise at least 10 adult members and submit to the registration authorities its statute (charter), certified copies of the resolution that created it and was adopted by founding members, and a document confirming its right to own or use premises.
Registered religious groups wishing to acquire nonprofit status, which many do for banking purposes, must register with tax authorities.
Without legal-entity status, a religious group may not own property, conduct banking activities, be eligible for utility bill discounts, join civic or advisory boards of government agencies, or establish periodicals, nongovernmental pension funds, officially accredited schools, publishing, agricultural and other companies, or companies manufacturing religious items. Religious groups without legal-entity status may meet and worship and may also publish and distribute religious materials. In accordance with the stipulation against national registration, only a registered constituent unit of a nationwide religious organization may own property or conduct business activities, either for itself or on behalf of the nationwide organization. The law grants property tax exemptions to religious organizations and considers them nonprofit organizations.
The law requires commanders of military units to allow their subordinates to participate in religious services but bans the creation of religious organizations in military institutions and military units. The Ministry of Defense defines selection criteria for clergy to become chaplains, the status of chaplains in the chain of command, and their rights and duties in the armed forces, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service. By law, UOC-MP priests are prohibited from serving as chaplains on bases or in conflict zones, ostensibly due to concerns about their affiliation with Russia through the Moscow Patriarchate.
The law gives prison chaplains access to both pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates. It also protects the confidentiality of confessions heard by prison chaplains, prohibits the use of information received during confession as evidence in legal proceedings, and does not allow the interrogation of clerics, interpreters, or other persons about matters associated with the confidentiality of confession.
According to the constitution, organizers must notify local authorities in advance of any type of planned public gathering, and authorities may challenge the legality of the planned event. According to a 2016 Constitutional Court decision, religious organizations need only inform local authorities of their intention to hold a public gathering and need not apply for permission or notify authorities within a specific period in advance of the event.
Government regulations on identity documents allow religious head coverings in passport and other identification photographs.
The law allows religious groups to establish theological schools to train clergy and other religious workers as well as to seek state accreditation through the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance for their curriculum. The law states theological schools shall function based on their own statutes.
Government agencies authorized to monitor religious organizations include the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and all other “central bodies of the executive government.”
Only registered religious groups may seek restitution of communal property confiscated by the former Communist regime. Religious groups must apply to regional authorities for property restitution. The law states authorities should complete their consideration of a restitution claim within a month.
The law prohibits religious instruction as part of the mandatory public school curriculum and states public school training “shall be free from interference by political parties, civic, and religious organizations.” Public schools include ethics of faith or similar faith-related courses as optional parts of the curricula. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish-focused curriculums are offered as part of the ethics of faith curriculum in public schools.
The law provides for antidiscrimination screening of draft legislation and government regulations, including for discrimination based on religion. The law requires the legal department of each respective agency responsible for verifying the draft legislation to conduct screening in accordance with instructions developed by the Cabinet of Ministers to ensure the draft legislation does not contain discriminatory language and to require changes if it does. Religious groups may participate in screening draft legislation at the invitation of the respective agency.
The law allows alternative nonmilitary service for conscientious objectors. The law also allows government officials to deny a conscript’s application for alternative service due to missing the application deadline. The law does not exempt the clergy from military mobilization.
The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights (“Ombudsperson”) is constitutionally required to release an annual report to parliament containing a section on religious freedom.
The law restricts the activities of foreign-based religious groups and defines the permissible activities of noncitizen clergy, preachers, teachers, and other representatives of foreign-based religious organizations. By law, foreign religious workers may “preach, administer religious ordinances, or practice other canonical activities,” but they may do so only for the religious organization that invited them and with the approval of the government body that registered the statute of the organization. Missionary activity is included under permissible activities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since 2015, the government has exercised the right of derogation from its obligations under the ICCPR with regard to the portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the control of Russia-led forces, including the ICCPR provisions pertaining to religious freedom.
On November 12 and December 17, the ECHR issued judgments concerning the ineffective investigation of hate crimes committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine between 2009-2013 in the cases Zagubnya and Tabachkova v. Ukraine, Migoryanu and Others v. Ukraine, Kornilova v. Ukraine, and Tretiak v. Ukraine. The court held that there were violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken in conjunction with Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and it ordered the government to pay the victims 21,200 euros ($26,000) in total compensation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses called on the government to fully implement the four ECHR rulings to ensure effective investigation of the hate crimes committed against their group and their places of worship, and to prosecute the perpetrators of those religiously motivated attacks. They estimated that during 2016-19 there were 54 such attacks, but none of the attackers had been convicted of a religiously motivated offense. Jehovah’s Witnesses also urged the government to address the “endemic” problem of ECHR judgments “falling beyond the scope of the individual cases.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 2, Oleh Rybak repeatedly struck 71-year-old Witness Monica Shushko on the neck and back, calling her a derogatory term for Jehovah’ Witnesses, in Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast. Local police reportedly did not investigate the case, and Rybak remained unpunished.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 15, an individual in Kyiv threatened Nina Potapova with a gun, demanding that she stop her religious activity. Potapova filed a crime report but received no response from the police.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 7, Ruslan Panasenko pushed Olena Mazur and Danyila Ponomariova out of his house in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, after learning they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also kicked each of the women in the thigh. Although Panasenko reportedly admitted in court that his actions were provoked by his lack of interest in the victims’ preaching and that he wanted to “shoot” all Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Kramatorsk City Court described his actions as motivated by “sudden personal hostility” to the victims. The court sentenced Panasenko to 200 hours of community service under charges of “minor bodily injury” and did not qualify the assault as a religiously motivated offense.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 26, a Poltava resident punched Olena and Valentyna Melandovych in the face when they tried to share their religious beliefs. The victims reportedly filed a crime report, but law-enforcement authorities did not detain or prosecute the attacker.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objection was not uniformly recognized. While courts and the Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsperson protected the right of Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, some military enlistment officials “arbitrarily” detained young Witnesses to call them up for military duty or denied them the right to alternative service. At times, district and oblast state administration officials denied Witnesses access to alternative civilian service. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses were reportedly detained for days facing criminal prosecution for “draft evasion,” in some cases because they had missed the application deadline to apply for alternative service as conscientious objectors. On April 23, the Ombudsperson’s Office reportedly informed the oblast state administrations that the right to alternative service was “of absolute nature,” and thus could not be limited by any deadlines. It criticized the practice of not providing alternative civilian service to a conscientious objector solely due to a missed application deadline.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year some local state administrations rejected applications for alternative civilian service, stating the applicants had missed the deadline for submission of their applications. The following conscientious objectors reportedly received such refusals: Tymofii Zdorovenko (Oleksandria; March), Pavlo Kuts (Avdiivka; June), Nazar Duda (Lviv; October), Ihor Romanov (Bratske; October), Oleksii Haran (Cherkasy; October), Mykyta Kamin (Kyiv; November), Dmytro Tyshkovets (Volodymyrets; November) and Davyd Terendii (Lviv; November).
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on December 10, the Ternopil District Administrative Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness Ihor Zherebetskyi’s conscription into military service was unjustified because he had applied for alternative service.
On November 17, military enlistment officers reportedly detained Jehovah’s Witness Oles Tytokhod at his home, threatened him with prosecution for draft evasion, and escorted him to two local military registration enlistment offices. He was released after a 10-day detention.
On October 28, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Matvii Pikalov to the Lviv Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office and detained him for three days without cause.
On October 21, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Ivan Nikitin to the Khmelnytsky Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office, although he had been granted permission for alternative service. He was released after a nine-hour detention following his lawyer’s intervention.
On October 6, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Nazar Duda to the Lviv Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office, forging a statement on his behalf that he agreed to serve in the military. Duda was detained for three days, despite his statement that he was a conscientious objector. Duda was released after his relatives reported his detention to a prosecutor and his lawyer filed a complaint.
On October 16, military enlistment officers reportedly tried to deliver a conscription notice to Jehovah’s Witness Dmytro Tyshkovets, who had previously applied for alternative service. When Tyshkovets refused to receive the notice, stating that he was a conscientious objector, the officers accused him of draft evasion and referred the case to the police. Police opened an investigation, which continued through year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on September 10, the Brody District State Administration rejected Vladyslav Prystupa’s application for alternative civilian service, saying he was not baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. On February 13, the Yuzhnoukrainsk City Council refused Bohdan Boyko’s application for alternative civilian service, stating he was not a baptized Jehovah’s Witness. Authorities reportedly charged him with draft evasion and, on August 25, rejected Boyko’s second application.
Following the election of President Zelenskyy in 2019, the government restructured the bodies governing religious affairs. On February 26, the administration appointed Olena Bogdan, a sociology professor, as head of the newly formed State Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience, an entity subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. Then-Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky selected Bogdan, stating he “was looking for the most independent person,” adding, “I was looking for an agnostic because the person must implement a well-balanced policy of the government in that area.” Observers characterized this nomination as the administration’s signaling it would adopt a more neutral stance on religious issues than had former President Poroshenko, who promoted the OCU. Bogdan’s predecessor, Andriy Yurash, had led the Department for Nationalities and Religions. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy said the State Service would pursue the implementation of policy developed by the ministry. In a February 19 interview with the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, Bogdan said the Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience would focus on the following priorities: monitoring, raising public awareness, promoting unity in diversity through dialogue, and streamlining and increasing transparency of registration of religious organizations.
In September, the Cabinet of Ministers created a new Department for Religions and Ethnic Minorities in its Secretariat, led by Yurash. This department served as a liaison between the Cabinet of Ministers and religious groups.
According to the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, the government at times continued to struggle to manage tensions between the OCU and the UOC-MP, which competed for members and parishes. The Orthodox Times, self-characterized as an independent news and information portal, stated that Russia continued to use a disinformation campaign to fuel further conflict between the two churches. According to sources, the UOC-MP continued to question the legitimacy of the OCU and said the OCU was “stealing” its property. The OCU said the UOC-MP was legally challenging the reregistration of parishes from the UOC-MP to the OCU. The Moscow Patriarchate also created its own webpage, In Defense of the Unity of the Russian Church, dedicated to amplifying ROC criticism of the OCU and to favoring the UOC-MP. OCU officials criticized first deputy head of the Office of the President Serhiy Trofimov, who oversaw regional policy, as favoring the UOC-MP by “hampering” the reregistration of former UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. On November 4, President Zelenskyy reassigned Trofimov to the role of presidential advisor. In an April 10 interview with the online news site Glavcom, Trofimov stated the government had not ordered and would never seek to halt the reregistration of UOC-MP congregations joining the OCU. He said that in response to “many” UOC-MP-reported instances of “unlawful” reregistration and “pressure,” the Office of the President directed the oblast state administrations to ensure compliance with the law. Trofimov also condemned attempts by UOC-MP opponents to label the UOC-MP as the “Moscow Church.”
On April 19, the Constitutional Court began to review a petition by a group of members of parliament questioning the constitutionality of the 2018 amendments to the law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations. The amendments required the UOC-MP, formally registered as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), to rename itself to reflect its affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate (Russian Orthodox Church). The lawsuit and a 2019 Supreme Court ruling in a separate suit by the UOC-MP Metropolitan Administration against the amendments that suspended the government’s implementation of the amendments prevented the government from enforcing the name change requirement for 267 UOC-MP religious organizations. The organizations were a third party in the lawsuit filed by the UOC-MP Metropolitan Administration.
In an April 10 interview with Glavcom, Serhiy Trofimov described the renaming requirement as “pressure” on the UOC-MP. On November 24, head of the State Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience Bogdan told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency the State Service would comply with any Constitutional Court ruling on the renaming requirement.
Some Jewish community representatives and the Israeli Ambassador criticized decisions by some parliamentarians and government authorities to commemorate and honor 20th century Ukrainian figures and organizations who were also associated with anti-Semitism and the killing of thousands of Jews and Poles during World War II.
On September 4, the Lviv City Council transferred for permanent use by the UGCC a plot of land that included the St. George’s Cathedral and the cathedral gardens. The UGCC thanked the Lviv authorities for their “courageous restoration of historical justice” in returning the main shrine of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics. On April 29, the Odesa City Council transferred to the RCC ownership of a plot of land in the city surrounding the Church’s Assumption Cathedral.
On January 31, media reported the State Migration Service (SMS) and armed police officers profiled individuals in the vicinity of the mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center, one of Kyiv’s largest mosques, during Friday prayers and checked the registration documents of those they identified as worshippers. The mosque belongs to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (Umma). According to Said Ismagilov, Mufti of Umma, authorities detained 25 persons who did not have their passports with them. The SMS stated that during its inspection, it identified 15 foreigners who were violating the immigration law. It also said it “treats religious and ethnic minorities with respect.” According to SMS officials, the identification inspection was part of its efforts to detect illegal migrants, and police were involved to protect SMS officers. Umma reported the SMS inspected documents of individuals arriving and departing the mosque courtyard. The SMS and police officers did not enter the mosque to conduct their inspection. On February 1, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport posted a statement saying the timing and venue of the inspection raised both ethical and legal questions. The ministry assured the Muslim community of the government’s support. It also called on the SMS to cooperate and said it was willing to facilitate SMS dialogue with religious organizations. On February 7, Muslim community representatives held a protest near the SMS offices. They said the “shameful” and “humiliating” inspection in front of a mosque on a Friday, a sacred day of worship, was an expression of a “biased and xenophobic attitude” toward Muslims.
According to the Kolomyya Jewish community, on February 11, Mykhailo Bank, chief of the Strategic Investigations Department of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast police, requested that the Orthodox Jewish community provide police with its members’ names, addresses, and phone numbers, citing a need to counter “ethnic” and “transnational crime groups.” The head of the city’s Jewish community declined the request. According to United Jewish Community of Ukraine (UJCU), German and Azerbaijani ethnic groups received the same registration requests. The National Police chief launched an investigation and apologized to the Jewish community. Forty members of parliament sent a letter to the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior demanding Bank’s resignation. On May 15, following an investigation of the matter, the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed Bank.
According to media, on July 10, the Zolochiv Municipal Council, Lviv Oblast, announced local UOC-MP supporters would not be allowed to build a church in the town because “many” UOC-MP representatives had supported Russia’s war against Ukraine. The council requested that parliament ban the UOC-MP nationwide and asked law enforcement agencies to halt what it described as “illegal” construction. On July 14, a gathering of local residents initiated by the municipal government adopted a resolution supporting the council’s decision. In a Facebook post on July 13, Lviv Oblast State Administration chairman Maksym Kozytsky admitted that while the UOC-MP congregation had the right to unregistered worship in the home of a local UOC-MP priest, it was “immoral” to build a Moscow-affiliated church in Lviv Oblast. Members of this congregation reportedly had held religious services on private property because, they said, local government was hostile towards the UOC-MP congregation in Zolochiv. On July 13, Radio Svoboda quoted the chief of the Religions and Nationalities Department of the Oblast State Administration as saying that the owner of the property had the right to build a church on her land.
According to the UOC-MP, tensions in Zolochiv escalated on August 6 when several dozen representatives of the group National Corps damaged a fence surrounding the house of the local UOC-MP priest. The attackers sprayed the fence with graffiti criticizing the parish’s affiliation with the ROC that read, “ROC out!” and “Blood is on your hands.” On September 28, two unidentified persons threw paint on the walls of a trailer installed at the site and reportedly threatened the priest, stating he would “burn” if he did not leave the town. The Lviv branch of the National Corps posted video footage of the August 6 vandalism on its website, blaming the “church of occupiers” (UOC-MP) for conducting “unlawful and undeclared” religious services. The statement described the UOC-MP as a “hostile entity” that “has no place on Ukrainian soil.” On August 15 and September 28, unidentified individuals spray-painted a store rented by a local UOC-MP member with the words, “Sponsor of the ROC.” According to the media, in September, police opened a criminal investigation of a UOC-MP complaint that the Zolochiv mayor and several other local officials were inciting religious hatred.
In Zhydychyn village, Volyn Oblast, UOC-MP members built a makeshift church after part of the congregation voted to transfer the affiliation of a permanent parish church from UOC-MP to OCU. In 2019, UOC-MP parish priest Volodymyr Geleta reportedly fired shots during a dispute over the affiliation of the permanent building.
Law enforcement authorities again reported no progress in the investigation of allegations that the Kyiv Islamic Cultural Center of the Umma possessed materials promoting “violence, racial, interethnic, or religious hatred.” The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the Kyiv City procuracy searched the center in May 2018. A lawyer for Umma described the search as an attempt to undermine Umma’s reputation and called the charges baseless.
On January 22, the Kyiv Sixth Appellate Court upheld a request by UOC-MP Bishop Gedeon (given name, Yuriy Kharon) to renew his Ukrainian citizenship. In March, the bishop returned to Ukraine. In 2019, the government barred the dual Ukraine-U.S. citizen’s return to Ukraine from the United States by stripping him of Ukrainian citizenship. The SMS said the decision was based on the SBU recommendations and the fact that Gedeon had falsified information on his citizenship application, stating Gedeon said he had lost his passport when he had it in his possession. Gedeon described the ban as retaliation for criticizing the government’s “pressure” on the UOC-MP during his meetings with members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, pursuant to a 2019 judgment by the ECHR, on July 29, the Kryvyi Rih City Council granted Jehovah’s Witnesses a plot of land for construction of a Kingdom Hall. On November 11, the city council refused to allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to design the Kingdom Hall, stating that such permission would violate a zoning plan. Jehovah’s Witnesses requested that the council adjust the plan. The request was under consideration at year’s end.
During the year, the Church of Jesus Christ worked on plans to construct a temple in Kyiv. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld an appeal by representatives of the Church filed against the Kyiv City Council for the council’s refusal to reinstate a lease on land to build a house of worship. The city government subsequently respected the Supreme Court’s decision, reinstating full rights to the land.
Small religious groups stated local authorities continued to discriminate with regard to allocating land for religious buildings in Sumy, Mykolayiv, and Ternopil Oblasts, and the city of Kyiv. Roman Catholics, OCU members, UGCC members, Jews, and Muslims continued to report cases of discrimination. UGCC representatives said local authorities in Bila Tserkva were still unwilling to allocate land for a UGCC church at year’s end.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), on August 28, in a move to contain the spread of COVID-19, the government closed the country’s borders for the month of September and extended domestic quarantine regulations by two months. Some observers noted the border closure prevented thousands of Hasidic Jews from traveling to Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah on September 18-20 at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Uman mayor Oleksander Tsebriy made several disparaging remarks about the annual Hasidic pilgrimage. Observers said the escalation of negative rhetoric was likely a strategic decision of his reelection campaign, which he subsequently lost. In addition to his social media activities encouraging the cancellation of the pilgrimage because, he said, of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsebriy camped outside President Zelenskyy’s Kyiv office in August to demand he cancel the event. Tsebriy stated his own polling found that “94 percent of Uman’s residents were against the traditional pilgrimage of Rosh Hashanah, although they have nothing against the pilgrims themselves.” Some members of the Jewish community suggested that the mayor opposed the annual Hasidic pilgrimage in general and that his efforts to restrict the pilgrimage were not based on concerns of COVID-19 but rather hostility towards Jewish pilgrims.
Kyiv’s Muslim community said the local government, which allocates land for cemeteries, had still not acted on the community’s request in 2017 for additional free land in Kyiv for Islamic burials, which was their legal right. Muslim community leaders said they were running out of land for burials. Consequently, some Muslim families living in Kyiv reportedly had to bury their relatives in other cities.
All major religious organizations continued to appeal to the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims. According to observers, the government made little progress on unresolved restitution issues during the year. Representatives of some organizations said they experienced continued problems and delays reclaiming property seized by the former Communist regime. They said a review of claims often took far longer than the month prescribed by law. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups stated a number of factors continued to complicate the restitution process, including intercommunity competition for particular properties, current use of some properties by state institutions, the designation of some properties as historic landmarks, local governments disputing jurisdictional boundaries, and previous transfers of some properties to private ownership. Religious groups continued to report local officials taking sides in property restitution disputes, such as the case of the Lviv City government’s continued denial of RCC requests for restitution of several properties turned over to the UGCC.
Muslim community leaders again expressed concern over the continued lack of resolution of restitution claims involving historic mosques in Mykolaiv, in the southern part of the country. The Soviet-era government had seized the property and it remained publicly owned at year’s end.
The government continued to take no action in response to previous requests from religious communities to impose a moratorium on the privatization of religious buildings confiscated by the then-Soviet government, according to civil society activists and religious organizations.
Jewish community leaders continued to report illegal construction on the site of the old Jewish cemetery in Uman, where businesspersons had purchased old houses bordering the cemetery to demolish them and build hotels for Jewish pilgrims. According to news reports, developers had reportedly made deals with local government officials to obtain building permits. Local officials stated it was impossible to ban digging on privately-owned land and that Uman had been a densely populated residential area since Soviet times.
The Jewish community continued to express concern about the ongoing operation of the Krakivskyy Market on the grounds of an historical Jewish cemetery in Lviv. On August 26, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy ordered a local developer to halt construction of a private clinic at the protected site. Despite the ministry’s order, Lviv authorities did not halt the construction. According to some Lviv authorities, the construction was not on the Jewish cemetery part of the land. According to Jewish community representatives, they feared the Lviv government would sell more of the public land to private groups, which could lead to further concerns about protecting the cemetery. The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) urged the government to halt permanently the construction of a multistory commercial building on the cemetery grounds, separate from the clinic, that had been ordered suspended in 2017.
The UCSJ and civic activists continued to express concern over the possible continuation of construction of a high-rise building at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Lviv. In 2016, a court suspended the project after human remains were reportedly found and removed from the site. In the past, the UCSJ had requested the remains be reburied on the site, but as of year’s end, the remains had not been returned to the site. Lviv authorities denied the construction had unearthed any remains.
On November 16, the Lviv Appellate Court revoked the Lviv City Council’s decision to provide land to a developer for the construction of an office building at the site of a synagogue destroyed at Syanska Street in Lviv during the Nazi occupation. In 2019, the developer had halted construction at the Lviv city government’s order, following protests by heritage-protection activists. Jewish community representatives said they were cautiously optimistic the construction over the destroyed synagogue would not occur.
Jewish community leaders said they continued to experience difficulties with the Ternopil Municipal and District governments with regard to property restitution. The Ternopil District Council continued to reject requests from the local Jewish community to return a prayer house confiscated during the Soviet era.
Some Jewish leaders and human rights activists continued to state their concerns about what they considered impunity for hate crimes, including acts of anti-Semitism, and about the government’s long delays in completing investigations of these crimes. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the lack of proper punishment for hate crimes “has long been a major problem, exacerbated by Article 161 of the Criminal Code (on incitement to enmity, religious, racial and other discrimination, etc.), which is notoriously difficult to prove and therefore most often avoided by the police and prosecutors.” Some Jewish leaders said law enforcement authorities often charged anti-Semitic actors, if apprehended, with hooliganism or vandalism instead of a hate crime in what they assessed as the country’s attempt to downplay the level of anti-Semitism.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 30, September 12, 21, and 27, October 17, and December 12 and 27, unidentified individuals wrote the word “sect” on the fence surrounding a Kingdom Hall in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Volyn Oblast. Police instituted criminal proceedings regarding only one of the seven incidents. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on November 16, unidentified individuals set fire to a sign saying “Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses” on the wall of the house of worship on Romen Rollan Street, in Kyiv. Police initially refused to open an investigation, but the investigative judge ordered them to do so. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 20 and 25, unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi symbols and the word “sect” on the walls of a Kingdom Hall in Skadovsk, Zaporizhya Oblast. Police refused to institute criminal proceedings, but the investigative judge ordered them to start an investigation. The case remained pending at year’s end.
On July 29, President Zelenskyy met via video conference with the privately funded Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) Supervisory Board to discuss the construction of the future museum and memorial honoring Holocaust victims. During the meeting, Zelenskyy stressed the importance of commemorating the country’s Holocaust victims and supported the BYHMC, stating, “It would be very good if this project were brought to life and we built history together with you.” President Zelenskyy appointed Presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak to lead a planning committee to implement the project, which called for a smaller government museum to open by the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in 2021; the larger BYHMC memorial and museum were slated to open in 2025 or 2026. On September 29, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy and the BYHMC signed a memorandum of cooperation. According to media, the BYHMC project drew controversy, including reports that BYHMC artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovsky may have been involved in child abuse in filming his multidisciplinary project, DAU. There were also media reports that the BYHMC’s planned construction could disturb historical Jewish and Orthodox burial grounds at the site of the massacre.
On December 13-20, the Lviv Sholom Aleichem Jewish Culture Society, supported by the government’s Ukrainian Cultural Foundation and the Lviv City Council, hosted the “Yiddish and Intercultural Dialogue Days” festival. A conference on historical heritage preservation was one of its main events.
In his address to the nation on January 22, the Day of Unity, President Zelenskyy called on all Ukrainians to respect persons of all ethnic minorities and religions, saying as a Ukrainian, he respected “the rights of representatives of all national minorities and all religions.”
In a September 9 Jerusalem Post interview, President Zelenskyy said, “We strongly condemn anti-Semitic attacks of any kind. Anti-Semitism is a poison that has no place in Ukraine.”
On October 22, the Lviv District Administrative Court overturned an SMS decision to deny refugee status to Elena Polushkina, who had sought refuge from religious persecution in Russia. The court ordered the SMS to grant Polushkina refugee status. The SMS appealed the ruling. On July 20, the Eighth Appellate Administrative Court in Lviv ordered the SMS to grant refugee status to Sevara Makhambayeva, who had sought refuge because of religious persecution in Uzbekistan.
Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
During the year, the conflict in eastern Ukraine continued, with parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the control of Russia-installed authorities in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”). According to press reports, religious groups not approved by Russia continued to face restrictions, especially religious groups that were legal in Ukraine but illegal in Russia, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the independent Muslim congregation Hizb ut-Tahir, whose members continued to face arrest, detention, and harassment. Similarly, the OCU, which competed for worshippers with the UOC-MP, continued to cite unfair treatment and persecution.
Sources reported that Russia-supported authorities in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to detain and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as leaders of other religious groups. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the “LPR” continued to ban the group as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” in the “DPR” upheld a similar ban. According to Protestant and Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, many of their members fled these areas to escape oppressive conditions and to seek greater religious freedom in government-controlled territory.
According to the OHCHR, a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration. Many religious groups continued to refuse to reregister because they did not recognize the Russia-installed authorities in the “DPR” and “LPR.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the group had limited access to information on the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the “DPR” and “LPR” during the year. They said that since 2014, “LPR” and “DPR” proxy authorities had seized 14 Kingdom Halls in Russia-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Jehovah’s Witnesses did not know if any of these 14 Kingdom Halls or any additional halls were confiscated during the year.
“LPR” authorities continued to deny the reregistration applications of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists groups, in accordance with a 2018 law by “LPR” authorities that required religious communities, with the exception of the UOC-MP, who were recognized “within the framework of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” to reregister with the “authorities,” and citing a 2015 decree that banned mass events while the area was under martial law. According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, in December 2019, “LPR Minister” Dmitry Sidorov said there were195 religious organizations registered by “LPR” authorities. Of these 195 organizations, 188 belonged to the UOC-MP, four were Muslim, and there was one each of Old Believers, Jews, and Roman Catholics. According to Forum 18, Inna Sheryayeva, the head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Sport and Youth “Ministry” in Luhansk, declined to disclose whether more religious communities had their registration approved since December 2019. Similarly, officials of the registration department of the Justice “Ministry,” the entity tasked with registering religious communities, declined to disclose which communities had been allowed to register and which had been refused.
“LPR” authorities continued to deny the reregistration applications of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists groups, in accordance with a 2018 law by “LPR” authorities that required religious communities, with the exception of the UOC-MP, who were recognized “within the framework of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” to reregister with the “authorities,” and citing a 2015 decree that banned mass events while the area was under martial law. According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, in December 2019, “LPR Minister” Dmitry Sidorov said there were195 religious organizations registered by “LPR” authorities. Of these 195 organizations, 188 belonged to the UOC-MP, four were Muslim, and there was one each of Old Believers, Jews, and Roman Catholics. According to Forum 18, Inna Sheryayeva, the head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Sport and Youth “Ministry” in Luhansk, declined to disclose whether more religious communities had their registration approved since December 2019. Similarly, officials of the registration department of the Justice “Ministry,” the entity tasked with registering religious communities, declined to disclose which communities had been allowed to register and which had been refused.
Religious leaders continued to say their registration denials represented a complete ban on their religious activities, since without reregistration, religious groups were not able to hold services, even in believers’ homes. According to “LPR” authorities, to be eligible for registration, a “local religious organization” must have at least 30 adult members, while a “centralized religious organization” must be composed of at least five such local organizations. These requirements effectively disqualified some smaller religious associations. The law also required Christian Orthodox congregations to register as part of a “diocese recognized by the Orthodox Churches around the world within the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” thereby forcing several remaining OCU parishes to conduct any activities underground.
According to Forum 18, at the end of 2019 and continuing during the year, local “LPR” authorities cut off water, electricity, and gas supplies to unregistered places of worship, citing their inability as unofficial organizations to have utility contracts.
According to Forum 18, “LPR” authorities continued to threaten Baptist Union pastors to stop meeting for worship or risk punishment. “State Security” officers of the “LPR” continued to threaten Baptist pastor Volodymyr Rytikov with charges of extremism for continuing to lead worship services without “official” permission. On January 28, Forum 18 reported that “LPR” State Security Ministry representatives took Rytikov from his home and instructed his wife “not to tell anyone.” They brought him to the ministry branch office and questioned him about his intention to continue conducting unregistered services and distribute “extremist” literature, including the Gospel of John. “Prosecutors” also continued their investigation of OCU priest Anatoliy Nazarenko on similar extremism charges through year’s end. “LPR” authorities continued to ban many religious leaders from outside their territory from reaching their congregations, according to Forum 18.
“LPR” authorities continued to ban many religious leaders from outside their territory from reaching their congregations, according to Forum 18.
The “DPR’s” worship and religious associations’ law continued to ban all religious organizations that did not meet a March 1, 2019 registration deadline and to require previously registered religious groups to reregister. The law gives the “Ministry of Culture” powers to monitor the registration of religious associations in the region and to abolish such groups on various grounds. Any newly created religious association not seeking legal entity status must submit written notification to “DPR” authorities detailing its function, location, administration, and the names and home addresses of its members. The “authorities” have 10 days either to put the group on the register of religious groups or to cancel its legal status. The “authorities” have a month to examine the application documents of a religious association seeking legal status. In either case, they may conduct a “state religious expert evaluation” of the documents, which could take up to six months, or deny a registration request on several grounds, including that application materials lack required information or that the group was previously banned. All religious organizations and religious groups must notify “authorities” annually of their continued viability. The “law” allows the UOC-MP to undergo a simplified “legalization” procedure without reregistration and “state religious expert evaluation.”
According to Forum 18, “DPR” authorities denied registration to almost all religious communities, apart from the UOC-MP.
According to religious organizations and civil society activists, “DPR” authorities continued to harass Protestant congregations attempting to host public religious events, even if such groups possessed a “DPR” registration. “DPR” authorities charged that the United States might be funding such events, and they publicly labeled congregations “American agents.” Protestant leaders and religious experts attributed such activities by the Russia-led “DPR” (and “LPR” ) to attempts to undermine a strong prewar presence of Protestants in the region.
According to Forum 18, on January 19, “security forces” raided an unidentified Protestant community during worship, took church leaders to the police station for interrogation, and released them after two hours. “DPR” “Human Rights Ombudsperson” Darya Morozova told Forum 18 on February 10 that she was unaware of any raids on religious organizations and that there had been no written appeals to her office.
“DPR” “Human Rights Ombudsperson” Darya Morozova told Forum 18 on February 10 that she was unaware of any raids on religious organizations and that there had been no written appeals to her office. “DPR” authorities continued to use seized places of worship for their own purposes. According to Forum 18, the “authorities” used a former Donetsk Church of Jesus Christ building as a registry office and the former Makeyevka New Life Baptist Church as a Red Guard district registry office.
“DPR” authorities continued to use seized places of worship for their own purposes. According to Forum 18, the “authorities” used a former Donetsk Church of Jesus Christ building as a registry office and the former Makeyevka New Life Baptist Church as a Red Guard district registry office.
According to media reports, all but one mosque remained closed in the “DPR.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NMRMG reported an increase in anti-Semitic violence, with four such suspected cases reported during the year. Prior to these incidents, the last recorded anti-Semitic violence against individuals occurred in 2016. During the year, the NMRMG recorded eight cases of anti-Semitic vandalism, including the attempted arson of a synagogue in Kherson and the toppling of a menorah in Kyiv, compared with 14 incidents in 2019. According to the NMRMG, COVID-19 related measures encouraging citizens to stay home likely contributed to both the decrease in anti-Semitic vandalism and the increase in violent attacks. Two of the four violent attacks occurred in Uman, where tensions erupted between Uman residents and Hasidic Jews who were making a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.
The UJCU reported 49 cases of anti-Semitism during the year, compared with 56 cases in 2019. The difference in the count of anti-Semitic acts between the NMRMG and the UJCU was due to variations in methodologies: NMRMG said it counted vandalism only on Jewish property, such as synagogues, cemeteries, or memorials, while the UJCU included a wider range of incidents, such as a Jewish student’s dormitory being vandalized with swastikas as well as verbal disputes involving anti-Jewish epithets.
According to media reports, on February 25, an inebriated individual broke into a synagogue in Vinnytsia and assaulted a congregant after shouting about “beating up the [epithet].” According to a Facebook post by Eduard Dolinsky, the director of Ukraine’s Jewish Committee, police said the man, a resident of the nearby town of Yampil, “attacked Igor Braverman, a well-known journalist and a member of the community, tried to strangle him, twisting his hands. . .spat upon the portrait of the Hafetz Haim, and crushed it.” (The Hafetz Haim was an influential rabbi who died in 1933.) According to Dolinsky, police detained the alleged attacker but did not take him into custody. An ambulance took Braverman to a hospital; he did not suffer serious injuries, according to Dolinsky. The watchdog group Monitoring Antisemitism Worldwide said the Ministry of Internal Affairs was handling the case as a hate crime. According to the local rabbi, upon his release, the man apologized to Jewish community leaders.
In January, media reported conflicting accounts of a physical altercation between Hasidic Jews and residents of Uman, in Cherkasy Oblast. According to some media reports, four Hasidim were hospitalized after a mob beat them in a “pogrom-style attack.” However, the Rabbi Nachman International Charitable Foundation, which owns the Tomb of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, stated that the conflict was exclusively domestic in nature and did not relate to interethnic hatred issues, anti-Semitism, or biased attitudes of Uman residents towards Hasidic pilgrims. According to the national police, no one sought medical help or submitted official statements to them. On January 11, city officials hosted a meeting between “local activists” and representatives of Hasidic pilgrims. On January 12, the mayor of Uman, police, and SBU officials also had a meeting with Jewish representatives and agreed that police guards would help protect the pilgrimage site, that the local government and Jewish community would work together to install more security cameras around the entire pilgrimage area, and that all sides would maintain regular contact to prevent future such incidents. The city government said that the incident had “no ethnic or religious basis whatsoever.” Then-Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Dmytro Kuleba instructed his social media followers to “always treat the ‘shocking’ emotional headlines with triple caution.”
There were two violent anti-Semitic attacks in Uman, in Cherkasy Oblast, during the Hasidic pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman. The annual pilgrimage to Uman attracted approximately 3,000 Hasidic Jews, compared with more than 30,000 in 2019. According to Michael Tkatch, the head of the UJCU, on August 31, an individual approached an Orthodox Jewish man in a supermarket in Uman, hit him in the face and caused him to bleed, and then fled the scene with a friend. Police identified the offenders and opened a criminal case. According to media, on October 18, two teenage Hasidic Israeli citizens were attacked behind the grave of Rabbi Nachman. One, a 15-year-old, was stabbed, and the other victim managed to run away. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the attack on the teenagers. The attacker, a man in his early twenties, was identified and charged with hooliganism, punishable by three to seven years’ imprisonment. On November 12, the Cherkasy Oblast Prosecutor’s Office announced that the Uman City and District Court had convicted the attacker of hooliganism and ordered him to pay a fine of 17,000 hryvnas ($600), but he was not sentenced to prison
According to media, on July 28, a man armed with an axe tried to enter a synagogue in Mariupol. A security guard sustained a broken arm while successfully fending off the attacker. Law enforcement authorities identified the attacker and a Mariupol court sanctioned his arrest, but he fled to Russia. In August, Russian authorities detained him and put him in a pretrial detention center in Rostov-on-Don. On the Mariupol Jewish Community Facebook page, Mariupol Chief Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cohen expressed his gratitude to law enforcement agencies for their “hard work” in apprehending the perpetrator.
On May 10, the SBU and police reported the detention of two suspects who, on April 20, threw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in Kherson, causing minor damage to the building. According to the SBU, the perpetrators, who supported Nazi ideology, carried out the attack to mark Hitler’s birthday. During a visit to the synagogue on June 27, President Zelenskyy and the Chief Rabbi of Kherson, Yossef Itshak Wolff, personally thanked chiefs of regional police and SBU departments for detaining the two suspects. The President said the government would protect all citizens regardless of their nationality or religion. Police took the suspects into custody and charged them with arson. Their expected court date was February 2021.
According to the UJCU, on October 14, two unidentified individuals raised a large banner in front of President Zelenskyy’s office reading “Jewish President Zelenskyy” and condemning the country’s “occupation and robbery” by “the Dnipro Jewish clan of Vova Zelenskyy.” Michael Tkach, UJCU executive director, said the banner was an act of incitement and called on authorities to punish those responsible for it. Police opened an investigation, which continued through year’s end.
According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, on December 10, a man filmed himself toppling a Hanukkah menorah in Kyiv while shouting “To Ukrainians the power, Jews to the graves.” Local media identified him as Andrey Rachkov, who posted a video of his actions on Facebook with the caption, “How to treat foreigners who are engaged in usurpation of power, occupation of territories, genocide.” A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
According to media, in January, a monument to the victims of the Holocaust was found defaced in Kryvyi Rih, located in the central part of the country. The suspect pled guilty to dishonoring the memorial and was sentenced to three years in prison and one year of probation.
Media reported in January the posting by a department head and economics professor at Lviv Polytechnic University of photographs of President Zelenskyy and former Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, who are both Jewish, in Israel. The professor stated they were serving Israel rather than Ukraine, saying, “Their dominance in Ukraine is a problem created mainly by Ukrainians themselves.” Dolinsky, of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, posted on Facebook that the text was “like a page out of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’” referencing an anti-Semitic diatribe purportedly produced by the Russian secret police in the early 20th century.
In March, law enforcement agencies brought a case to court alleging an individual had painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs on a Holocaust memorial in Holovanivsk, Kirovohrad Oblast, in September 2019. The suspect was charged with incitement of ethnic and religious hatred and desecration of a burial site.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 59 percent of Ukrainian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
The ROC, including the UOC-MP, continued to describe the OCU as a “schismatic” group, despite its recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Church of Greece, the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, and the Church of Cyprus. The ROC continued to urge other Orthodox churches not to recognize the OCU. UOC-MP and OCU representatives continued to contest some parish registrations as not reflecting the true will of its congregation.
On September 4, OCU Primate Metropolitan Epiphaniy stated that after the change of government, the UOC-MP, “often with support of certain officials,” began to actively oppose the process of congregations transitioning from the UOC-MP to the OCU. He stated that the UOC-MP had filed lawsuits to challenge “almost every” such transition. He said in most cases courts “acted fairly,” but former members of UOC-MP congregations seeking to join the OCU had “fears,” which some observers believed referred to the expected lawsuits. The Metropolitan called on the government to help protect congregations wishing to join the OCU. The UOC-MP rejected the charge of government support.
On December 15, the website Suspilne.media quoted OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy as saying five UOC-MP congregations joined the OCU during the year. The Religious Information Service of Ukraine estimated that as of February, 541 (4.5 percent) of 12,122 UOC-MP congregations had joined the OCU since its creation in 2018. Most of those parishes were in the western and central oblasts. UOC-MP representatives, however, often contested parish reregistrations, stating some local government officials allowed individuals unaffiliated with the UOC-MP to vote in meetings to change the affiliation of local parishes to the OCU. UOC-MP representatives again said such officials also helped OCU supporters take possession of disputed UOC-MP church buildings before the change of affiliation was officially registered. OCU representatives accused the UOC-MP of contesting legitimate changes of parish affiliation, including through numerous lawsuits. They said these suits were part of the UOC-MP’s strategy to discourage OCU followers from joining the new Church. According to the government and the OCU, the UOC-MP often falsely described eligible voters at such congregation meetings as “unaffiliated” with the parish, saying they rarely or never participated in religious services. These lawsuits remained unresolved through year’s end.
According to the UOC-MP, some local authorities continued to transfer parish affiliations from the UOC-MP to the OCU against the will of parishioners. Media reports indicated that some UOC-MP priests refused to follow the will of parishioners to change affiliation. Social media posts by Right Sector, commonly characterized as a violent radical group, stated that at the request of the OCU, it continued to visit Orthodox churches disputed between the UOC-MP and OCU to “facilitate” changes in affiliation. In an interview on church reregistration, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy stated, “We want them to continue to be peaceful, calm, and voluntary. . .We do not need confrontation.”
According to the Chernivtsi regional police, on May 4, officers intervened to stop a violent church-ownership dispute between UOC-MP and OCU members in Zadubrivka Village. On the day the priest leading a local UOC-MP congregation died of COVID-19, OCU supporters armed with sticks and pepper spray tried to break the door lock and seize the church guarded by several UOC-MP parishioners, according to UOC-MP sources. The sources also stated that attackers beat several UOC-MP members and sprayed noxious gas at them. Two UOC-MP parishioners sustained injuries and received medical assistance at a local hospital. Before approaching the church, the OCU supporters, led by an OCU priest, cut off electricity to the neighborhood and felled a tree across a village street to hamper the arrival of police vehicles and UOC-MP supporters at the scene. Police opened an investigation but made no arrests or charges by year’s end. OCU parishioners stated that UOC-MP members had been using force to prevent them from entering the church, despite a 2019 local government decision to transfer ownership of the church to a local OCU parish. The majority of village residents had voted for the transfer, according to the OCU. On May 5, chairman of the Chernivtsi Oblast State Administration Serhiy Osachuk issued a statement calling on the two sides to resolve their differences peacefully and to comply with a future court verdict on their dispute. There was no verdict by year’s end.
The All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), as well as the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA), continued to meet regularly to discuss issues affecting the country, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the religious situation in the temporarily occupied territories, and peacemaking. AUCCRO is an interfaith organization representing more than 90 percent of all religious groups in Ukraine, including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, All-Ukraine Baptist Union, Ukrainian Church of Evangelical Pentecostal Christians, Ukrainian Union Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church, Ukrainian Lutheran Church, Ukrainian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Ukrainian Diocese, Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, Ukrainian Bible Society, and Trans-Carpathian Reformed Church. The council rotates its chairmanship.
On September 8-9, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine sponsored the second annual Kyiv Jewish Forum to highlight the global fight against anti-Semitism. The conference featured speeches from prominent Jewish leaders from around the world, including President Zelenskyy; Benny Gantz, Alternate Prime Minister of Israel; the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom; and Natan Sharansky, human rights activist. Panel discussions included the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the legacy of Babyn Yar, and Jewish leadership in the fight against COVID-19.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. government officials continued to meet with officials of the Office of the President, Ministries of Culture, Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, political parties, and local officials to engage on issues of religious freedom. They continued to discuss the importance of fair and transparent treatment of religious groups following the establishment of the OCU, the preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and combating increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism. In meetings with government officials at both the national and local levels, the Charge d’Affaires called for unequivocal condemnation and swift prosecution of anti-Semitic acts. The Charge d’Affaires also urged government officials to increase their efforts to ensure the preservation of historic religious sites and called for the government to protect the right of all religious groups to freely practice their religions according to their beliefs.
In January, the Secretary of State visited Kyiv and met with OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy. After the meeting, the Secretary tweeted that he was “impressed by [Metropolitan Epiphaniy’s] efforts to ensure the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is open to all believers. The U.S. will always champion the right of all people to worship freely.”
The embassy continued to engage with leaders of the AUCCRO, which represents most religious groups in the country, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country and religious persecution in the Russia-occupied territories. The meetings were an occasion for Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders to express their concerns about the state of religious freedom in the country and the status of religion in the temporarily occupied territories of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and to hear views on how the United States could further help to promote religious freedom.
The embassy continued to engage with Jewish religious leaders and organizations to discuss issues of anti-Semitism and to promote Holocaust memorial efforts. In January, the Charge d’Affaires spoke to an audience of Holocaust survivors, family members, and other members of the diplomatic community at the official Ukrainian Holocaust memorial event “Six Million Hearts.” In her speech, she reiterated U.S. government support for Jewish Ukrainians in their fight for equality, tolerance, and acceptance within society, and she committed to always protect the most vulnerable members of religious communities from violence and hatred. Embassy officials also participated in the annual commemorations of the 1941 Babyn Yar massacre to honor the victims and to emphasize the importance of preserving the memory of that tragedy.
The embassy continued to meet with representatives from the Jewish community and assist in its efforts to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage. One of the most prominent cases was the continued construction of a private clinic on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Lviv. The Charge d’Affaires wrote letters to both the Lviv mayor and the Ministry of Culture expressing her concern about the construction.
Although embassy officials had no access to Russia-controlled or occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the embassy continued its outreach to religious representatives from these areas and on several occasions publicly condemned Russia’s continued measures to impede the exercise of religious freedom there. Embassy officials met with Crimean Tatars, both internally displaced persons and those who had come to mainland Ukraine, including lawyers, family members of political prisoners, and representatives of the Crimean Tatar community residing in Kherson and Kyiv Oblasts. Embassy officials continued to denounce the persecution of Crimean Tatars and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as the continued harassment of officials of the OCU seeking to operate in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials participated in Hanukkah and other Jewish holiday events and Holocaust commemorations, during which they emphasized the importance of religious dialogue and equality and encouraged efforts to combat anti-Semitism and preserve cultural heritage.
The embassy continued to use social media to reiterate U.S. government support for religious freedom, including the rights of religious minorities. The embassy regularly supported religious freedom through social media responses to anti-Semitic incidents across the country and to the systematic mistreatment of religious minorities in Crimea and the Russia-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine with a regular reminder of “#CrimeaisUkraine.”
Read a Section