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Executive Summary

In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government continues not to recognize the attempted annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and maintains Crimea continues to be part of Ukraine. Occupation forces continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea. The occupation authorities subjected Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, according to human rights and international organizations, especially if the authorities suspected the Tatars of involvement in the Muslim organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. While the Russian government reported 365 religious communities in Crimea had met the deadline for reregistration as officially recognized religious groups, over 1000 communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not done so, according to the OHCHR. Following the occupation authorities’ designation of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist” organization, Mejlis representatives and other Crimean Tatar groups operating in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government established an independent Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC). The RCC, the UGCC and the UOC-KP reported the occupation authorities made it difficult for them to operate in the territory, including by seizing more than a third of the UOC-KP’s churches.

Religious and human rights groups reported Russian media continued to engage in a campaign to create suspicion and fear among religious groups, especially targeting the Crimean Tatar community and the UOC-KP and the UGCC. Muslim religious properties reportedly were vandalized and Muslim leaders said police were slow to investigate.

The U.S. government continued to publicly condemn religious abuses committed by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea, particularly the intimidation of Christian and Muslim congregations through use of Russian Federation laws on extremism. In issuing a statement on September 16 denying the legitimacy of the Russian Duma elections held in Crimea, the U.S. Department of State expressed specific concern about the status of the Crimean Tatar community. Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation but continued to meet with Crimean Muslim and Christian leaders in other parts of the country to demonstrate 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 the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. No recent independent survey provides data on the religious affiliation of the population, although there are an estimated 300,000 Crimean Tatars, who make up 13 percent of the population and are overwhelmingly Muslim. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.

According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there are 2,083 religious organizations (a term including parishes, congregations, theological schools, monasteries, and other constituent parts of a church or religious group) in the ARC and 137 in Sevastopol. The numbers include organizations both with and without legal entity status. Muslims have the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which are affiliated with SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group. The UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the UOC-KP, the RCC, the UAOC, the UGCC, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and Lutherans. There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea 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 and attempted annexation, however, the occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.

Government Practices

The occupation authorities subjected Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, according to human rights and international organizations. In May a member of the Bakhchisaray Mejlis disappeared after he was kidnapped by uniformed men. The former deputy head of the Bakhchisaray office of the Mejlis was confined for several weeks in a psychiatric hospital, as were several other Muslims suspected of affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim organization banned in Russia. The authorities sentenced several Muslim Crimean Tatars to prison for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities and arrested approximately 35 more during the year. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, 365 religious communities had met the deadline established by the occupation authorities for reregistration, while OCHCR reported over 1000 communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not done so. In March the occupation authorities designated the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist” organization and banned Mejlis symbols. In response to what they said was Russian pressure on the Crimean SAMC, Mejlis representatives and other Crimean Tatar groups operating in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government established an independent SAMC. Roman Catholic Church leaders reported continued difficulty in staffing their parishes because of the policies of the occupation. The UGCC reported it was only able to operate under the umbrella of the RCC. The UOC-KP reported the occupation authorities had seized more than a third of its churches and made it difficult for the UOC-KP to lease property. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

On May 24, a group of uniformed men kidnapped Ervin Ibragimov, a member of the Bakhchisaray Mejlis and of the Coordinating Council of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, after stopping his car on a road outside Bakhchisaray. Footage from a closed-circuit television camera showed the men forcing Ibragimov into a car and driving off. According to the Crimea Human Rights Group, the men wore uniforms of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ traffic police. According to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine on May 25, Ibragimov’s father went to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Simferopol to file a complaint and provide the television footage. The FSB officers reportedly refused to file the complaint and told him to send it by mail. Ibragimov had planned to travel to the town of Sudak on May 25 to attend the court hearing of a group of Crimean Tatars charged with holding an unauthorized gathering on May 18 to mark Crimean Tatar Deportation Remembrance Day. On June 1, Ibragimov’s employment record book and passport were found near a bar in Bakhchisaray. Occupation authorities opened an investigation into the case, which remained open at year’s end with no further information on Ibragimov’s whereabouts.

From August to September, according to reports by the media and human rights NGOs, the former deputy head of the Bakhchisaray Mejlis, Ulmi Umerov, was confined to a psychiatric hospital by the occupation authorities following his detention in May.

On December 7, the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine condemned the forced psychiatric examination of Ukrainian citizens, including Vadym Siruk, Mislim Aliyev, Refat Alimov, and Arsen Dzhepparov, all of whom were detained by the occupation authorities on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim organization outlawed in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Siruk and Mislim Aliyev had been arrested in February.

According to media reports, in September the North Caucasus District Military Court sentenced Ruslan Zeytullayev to seven years in prison for his alleged role in organizing a Sevastopol-based group of Hizb ut-Tahrir followers. Ferat Sayfullayev, Rustem Vaitov, and Nuri Primov each received five-year prison terms for their alleged membership in the group. On December 27, Russia’s Supreme Court reportedly overturned Zeytullayev’s verdict and ordered re-examination of his case. The court upheld the prison sentences of Sayfullayev, Vaitov and Primov, who were originally arrested in 2015.

In a December 15 report, Amnesty International estimated at least 19 individuals were under arrest on charges of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The occupation authorities charged the detainees with participation in a “terrorist” group. Amnesty International reported such charges “either appear manifestly unfounded or there are serious doubts regarding the probity of the respective charges, raising serious fair trial concerns.” Civic activists stated any suspected member of the movement could potentially be charged with and convicted of terrorism. .

On February 11, police conducted searches at the homes of Crimean Tatars and arrested Emir-Usein Kuku, Enver Bekirov, for their suspected involvement with the Hizb ut-Tahrir group in Yalta. On December 6, Simferopol’s Kyiv District Court reportedly granted a three month extension of their detention. The court also extended the detention of Teimur Abdullayev, Ayder Saledinov, Rustem Ismailov, Useir Ambullayev, and Emil Dzhemadenov, citing their participation in a Simferopol-based Hizb ut-Tahrir group.

The press reported the authorities in Bakhchysarai, on May 12, conducted searches and arrested Crimea Tatars Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memetov, Rustem Abiltarov, and Enver Mamutov for their suspected affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

On October 12, Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Kurultai (parliament) of the Crimean People Zair Smedlyaev was quoted in the press as reporting FSB forces had raided the homes of Crimean Tatars, some of whom had returned from the Hajj. The FSB detained Ayder Saledinov, together with Teymur Abdullayev, Uzair Abdullayev, Emil Dzhemadenov, and Rustem Ismailov, reportedly on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. All remained in custody at year’s end facing potential prison sentences of up to 10 years.

In February the OHCHR, based on information from the Ministry of Justice of Russia, reported 365 religious communities operating in Crimea had reregistered by the January 1 deadline set by the occupation law enforcement. Over 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered. The OHCHR stated stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation had either prevented or discouraged reregistration of many religious communities. Many members of religious minorities, especially Crimean Tatars, Greek Catholics, and members of the UOC-KP, had reportedly refused Russian citizenship and were unable under occupation law to register a religious community.

The International Federation for Human Rights and the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights condemned what they reported was the persecution of Crimean Tatar Muslims following the Russian authorities’ March 3 designation of the Mejlis as an “extremist organization” and the subsequent ban on Mejlis symbols. According to other human rights groups, authorities had labeled the Mejlis as an extremist organization in order to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars.

Mejlis leaders stated continued Russian pressure on the SAMC meant it no longer represented the views of its worshipers. On November 19, delegates representing the Mejlis and other Crimean Tatar organizations based in the Ukrainian government-controlled territory held the Congress of Crimean Tatar Religious Organizations in Kyiv, voting unanimously to create an independent SAMC. The congress elected Aider Rustemov as its leader.

Human rights groups reported imams at Crimean Tatar mosques, most of which remained unregistered, continued to have to inform occupation authorities each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

According to RCC representatives, the RCC continued to operate in the territory but as a diocese directly under the authority of the Vatican. The RCC continued to have difficulty in staffing parishes, as many of its priests were Polish or Ukrainian, and authorities continued to require them to register as foreign residents, which allowed the priests to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and then required them to stay out of Crimea for 90 days before returning. At the beginning of the year, seven RCC priests reportedly remained on the peninsula.

The UGCC reported it remained unable to operate as an independent church and could only operate as a pastoral district of the RCC.

The media quoted a report by Mufti Said Ismagilov, leader of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, saying armed representatives of the occupation authorities had claimed to have found “extremist literature” at a mosque on Mokrousov Street in Simferopol during raids in January and September, but had actually brought the literature to the site in an attempt to fabricate a criminal case against local Muslims.

According to the OHCHR, the UOC-KP’s refusal to cooperate with the de facto Crimean authorities had led to the seizure and closure of its churches. According to the UOC-KP, only nine of the original 15 UOC-KP churches located in the region remained functioning at the end of the year.

In a February 9 interview with Chornomorska TV, Archbishop Klyment, head of the Crimean Diocese of the UOC-KP, said the Russian authorities had handed over part of the UOC-KP diocesan administration office in Simferopol to a private company, contrary to earlier promises to allow the UOC-KP to retain its presence in the region. He expressed concern the Russian authorities might ban the UOC-KP from the peninsula.

The UOC-KP leadership stated Russian occupation authorities continued to raise rents artificially and to prevent the Church from leasing property. After authorities repeatedly ignored a UOC-KP request to reduce the increased rent for the UOC-KP cathedral building in Simferopol, the occupation-run appellate court in Sevastopol, on June 14, reportedly sanctioned the eviction of the UOC-KP from the cathedral, and ordered the UOC-KP to pay a fine of 500,000 Russian rubles ($8,100).

According to the All-Ukraine Union of Pentecostal Churches, on December 2, occupation authorities in Bakhchysarai warned the local Pentecostal congregation, Voice of Hope, to stop using its church building located on Rakytsky Street, citing alleged violations of construction standards. The church building was located opposite a newly built office of a unit of the FSB. The authorities also demanded the congregation remove from the church’s front entrance a banner with the Biblical quote “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religious and human rights groups reported Russian media continued to engage in a campaign to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, who the media accused of being linked to radical Islamic groups engaged in terrorism. Russian media continued to depict the UOC-KP and UGCC as “fascists” for supporting the Ukrainian government and opposing the Russian occupation.

Crimean Tatars continued to report attacks on religious buildings and institutions. They reported police continued to refuse to investigate such crimes or were slow to do so.

According to the SAMC, on August 27, unidentified individuals threw three Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Pozharske Village, Simferopol District. The building sustained minor damage.

According to media reports, on October 13, a suspected arson attack destroyed several buildings of the UOC-MP monastery in Morozivka Village near Sevastopol. Before the attack unidentified individuals reportedly inscribed, “Down with Sabodan’s heritage! Russian land for the Russians!” on a monastery gate, apparently a reference to the pro-Ukrainian views of the UOC-MP’s late leader, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan. According to UOC-MP Metropolitan Oleksandr, the monastery had remained subordinate to the UOC-MP in Ukraine following the Russian annexation, and monastery monks had received threats preceding the attack on this account.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued to call attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially against Christians and Muslims. U.S. government officials and embassy officers continued to condemn the intimidation of religious congregations, especially those of Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars. In issuing a statement on September 16, denying the legitimacy of the Russian Duma elections held in Crimea, the U.S. Department of State also expressed concern over the status of the Crimean Tatar community.

Embassy and U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officers continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim and Christian leaders whose congregations were affected by the actions of the occupying authorities to discuss their concerns and reassure them of U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

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U.S. Department of State

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