Read a Section: Crimea


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 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. Occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

On July 12, Human Right Watch reported religious activists in Crimea were among victims of torture by FSB agents. The Russian government reported there were 891 religious communities registered in Crimea, including Sevastopol, compared with 831 in 2018, a number that dropped by over 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, Jehovah’s Witnesses, OCU members, and Muslim Crimean Tatars. Occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but is legal in Ukraine. According to Forum 18, administrative court hearings imposed by Russia on Crimeans for “missionary activity” were comparable with the previous year. There were 24 prosecutions for such activity, compared with 23 in 2018, 17 of which ended in convictions with a monetary fine. Greek Catholic leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities. The UGCC said it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. 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 links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

On November 6, the website Crimea-news reported that unidentified individuals destroyed crosses at a cemetery in Feodosia. According to Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev, in November unidentified individuals destroyed a tombstone at a Muslim cemetery in Petrivka Village, in Krasnogvardiysk District.

The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. 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, Christian, and Jewish 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.

The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to the 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, at 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.

According to the 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 Roman Catholic Church, UAOC, 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 Russian occupation began; no updates have been available since the occupation began in 2014. According to the 2001 census, the most recent, there are 1196 Karaites in Ukraine; 671 of them lived in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

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, however, occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.

Government Practices

In December the UN General Assembly issued a resolution condemning the Russian occupation authorities for “ongoing pressure exerted upon religious minority communities, including through frequent police raids, undue registration requirements that have affected legal status and property rights and threats against and persecution of those belonging to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Protestant Church, mosques and Muslim religious schools, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and condemning also the baseless prosecution of dozens of peaceful Muslims for allegedly belonging to Islamic organizations” The United Nations also condemned the “baseless prosecution of dozens of peaceful Muslims for allegedly belonging to Islamic organizations.” Such prosecutions were primarily of Muslims occupation authorities said were members of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia, but legal in Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG) with offices in Kyiv, 86 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea as of September 7. Thirty-four of them had received prison sentences.

Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. charged the detainees with participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Krym Realii news website quoted human rights attorney Edem Semedlyaev, stating that that the three detainees had been placed in a psychiatric hospital for forced examinations due to their refusal to plead guilty to terrorism charges. Krym Realii is an independent news service focusing on human rights issues in Crimea.

According to the NGO Krymska Solidarnist, on April 15, armed FSB representatives detained Imam Rustem Abilev on charges of extremism during a raid of his mosque and home in Shturmove Village near Sevastopol. On June 7, occupation authorities changed his pretrial detention to house arrest. On October 10 the Balaklava District Court ordered him to pay a fine of 100,000 Russian rubles ($1,600).

On December 5, a Russian military court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Enver Seytosmanov, another prisoner in the 2015 Sevastopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case, to 17 years in a maximum security penal colony for managing a “terrorist” organization. Seytsomanov said authorities applied physical and psychological pressure to force him into giving false testimony. His lawyer said the occupation authorities toughened the charge against Seytosmanov, stating he was an organizer rather than a participant in a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell.

According to Krym Realii, on October 2, the North Caucuses Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov to two-and-a-half-years in prison. Human rights activists linked the verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea. Occupation authorities detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in the 2016 Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case – Ernes Ametov, Marlen Asanov, Seyran Saliyev, Memet Belialov, Timur Ibragimov, Server Zakiryayev, Server Mustafayev, and Edem Smailov – continued pretrial detention in Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don until August. According to Krymska Solidarnist, on August 26 the North Caucasus District Military Court extended until February 13, 2020 the detention of Ametov, Asanov, Saliyev, Belyalov, Ibragimov, Zekiryayev, Mustafayev, and Smailov for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on July 11 the Russian Supreme Court altered the sentences of other defendants in the Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case, reducing Enver Mamutov’s maximum-security prison term from 17 years to 16 years and nine months; Remzi Memetov, Zevri Abseitov, and Rustem Abiltarov each receiving reduced sentences of eight years and nine months; and Ruslan Abiltarov, Remzi Memetov, and Zevri Abseitov each receiving reduced nine-year prison sentences. Krym Realii reported that the prisoners began serving their sentences in Russia’s Stavropol Krai in Russia. Their lawyer, Rustem Kyamilev, said the Kochubeyevskoye Prison administration’s decision to place Abseitov in an isolation cell upon his arrival was unlawful and arbitrary, although Kyamile attributed the move to the fact Abseitov had been “convicted of a serious crime.”

According to Krym Realii, on November 12, the Southern District Military court sentenced defendants Muslim Aliyev to 19 years, Іnver Bekirov to 18 years, Emir Usein Kuku and Vadim Siruk to 12 years, Refat Alimov to eight years, and Arsen Dzhepparov to seven years in a maximum security prison for their supposed involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir in Yalta. The suspects were arrested in a series of armed raids in February 2016 by Russian occupation authorities.

Krym Realii reported that on June 18, the North Caucasus District Military Court convicted five detainees arrested in October 2016 in Simferopol for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The court found them guilty of organizing or participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and sentenced them to high security prison terms of 17 years for Teymur Abdullaev, 14 years for Rustem Ismailov, and 13 years for Uzeir Abdullaev. Aider Saledinov and Emil Dzhemadenov each received 12-year sentences.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on March 27 armed representatives of the FSB, 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. Krymska Solidarnist reported that on March 27 and 28, courts in Simferopol ordered the arrest of the following detainees: 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.

On March 28, Russian authorities detained and beat Krymska Solidarnist activists Remzi Bekirov, Osman Arifmemetov, and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov in Rostov-on-Don following searches at their homes in Crimea for suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered their arrest on charges related to “terrorism.” Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.

According to a July 12 Human Rights Watch report, on April 16, FSB agents detained Raim Aivazov on the Russian-imposed “border” with Ukraine and “forced him to incriminate himself and others under torture.” According to Aivazov’s independent lawyer, Maria Eismont, who visited the detainee before his second pretrial custody hearing in May, Aivazov told her that three FSB agents had forced him into a car at the crossing check point and drove to a nearby forest. They then kicked him and forced him to his knees. One put a gun to Aivazov’s head as the others fired shots next to him, threatening to kill him and dump his body in a pond. The agents told him the only way he could save his life was by “cooperating” with them. They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol, where “officials” wrote up a detention report stating he was detained at 1:30 p.m. on April 17 in the office of an FSB investigator. The report made no mention of Aivazov having been seized at the crossing point. The investigator provided a state-appointed lawyer who advised Aivazov it was in his “best interest” to sign documents the investigator presented him. Aivazov signed a confession stating he was a member of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, along with the recently arrested men.”

Krym Realii reported that on November 11, the Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol extended until February 15, 2020 the arrest of Tatar Muslims Bilyal Adilov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Farkhod Bazarov, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, and Raim Aivazov on charges of “extremism.” On November 12, the Kyivsky District Court extended until February 15, 2020 the detention of Tatar Muslims Remzi Bekirov, Enver Ametov, Osman Arifmemetov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Riza Izetov, Alim Karimov, and Erfan Osmanov.

In December the Crimean Human Rights Group estimated the total number of Crimean residents imprisoned for their participation in “extremist” Muslim groups had reached 65.

An OHCHR report covering November 2018 to February 2019 found that, consistent with previous OHCHR findings, the pattern of criminalization of affiliation to or sympathy towards religious Muslim groups, banned in the Russian Federation, continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to an OHCHR quarterly report issued in September, since the beginning of the Russian occupation, at least 33 Crimean residents were arrested for alleged ties with radical Muslim groups. OHCHR reported four of them were convicted in the absence of “any credible evidence that the defendants called for the use of force, violated public order, or engaged in any unlawful activity in Crimea.”

According to CHRG, on December 24, Inna Semenets, magistrate of the Evpatoriya Judicial District, fined the Karaite Jewish religious community for failing to place an identifying sign on the building of a religious organization.

In December Crimean magistrates reviewed at least five cases pertaining to “illegal missionary activity.” During the year, 30 of these cases were reviewed, and the magistrates imposed an administrative penalty, fines of 5,000 to 30,000 Russian rubles ($80-$480), and a warning in at least 18 cases. According to Forum 18, the cases involved Protestants, Muslims, adherents of the Society of Krishna Consciousness, Falun Gong, as well as groups with unspecified affiliations.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, local authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under the 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Forum 18 reported that on September 6, the Dzhankoy District Court began the trial of Jehovah’s Witness Sergei Filatov on extremism-related charges. The FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, in Dzhankoy in 2018.

According to Forum 18, on March 15, the FSB opened a criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses Artem Gerasimov and Taras Kuzio in Yalta, accusing them of conducting religious services in defiance of the occupation authorities’ ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “extremist” activity. Occupation authorities made both of them sign a pledge not to leave the area. Five days later, the FSB raided eight Jehovah’s Witness family homes in and around the city. According to Forum 18, on June 4, the FSB opened a criminal case against Jehovah’s Witness Viktor Stashevsky in Sevastopol. The FSB required him to sign a pledge not to leave the city. That same day, FSB officers raided at least nine local homes. Another raid occurred on July 7.

According to Forum 18, administrative court hearings under Russian law imposed on Crimea for “missionary activity” were “at the same rate” compared with the previous year. There were 24 prosecutions for such activity, compared with 23 in 2018, 17 of which ended in convictions with some type of monetary fine. Many of those prosecuted had been sharing their faith on the street or holding worship at unapproved venues. According to Forum 18, 17 Russian citizens were fined approximately 5 days’ average local wages. Six Ukrainian citizens were given higher fines of up to nearly two months’ average local wages. Forum 18 stated these six cases, in addition to the case of another Ukrainian who was prosecuted, appear to be the first use in Crimea of a Russian Administrative Code on “foreigners conducting missionary activity” that is “specifically aimed at non-Russians.”

Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 11 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community. Four of those cases involved fines of 30,000 Russian rubles ($480) (one month’s average local wage), and two defendants received a warning. The other five cases involved no punishment.

According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued the 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. On January 22, the Supreme Court of Crimea found Crimean Tatars Renat Suleymanov guilty of organizing an “extremist” group, and Talyat Andurakhmanov, Seiran Mustafayev and Arsen Kubedinov, whom the FSB had detained in 2017, guilty of membership in “extremist” groups because of their affiliation with Tabligh Jamaat. The court sentenced Suleymanov to four years in prison. Andurakhmanov, Mustafayev, and Kubedinov each received two-and-a-half-year suspended sentences. Forum 18 reported that the FSB initiated the case “based on secret recordings of meetings in mosques, testimony from unidentified witnesses, and books seized from the men’s homes.” On May 18, occupation authorities transferred Suleymanov to a prison in Russia.

Krymska Solidarnist reported that on October 11, masked law enforcement officials in an armored vehicle arrived at a mosque in Kurtsy Village, stating they had to inspect “electricity meters and mosque documents.” Following Friday prayers, the officials questioned members of the congregation. The Simferopol-based organization Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol, which started collaborating with occupation authorities in 2014, justified the visit, stating that “in violation of the law,” the congregation had not officially registered and was not led by an imam appointed by the directorate. According to the directorate, the mosque had not provided information on the contents of its sermons, as required by law.

The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 891 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 105 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 831 and 69, respectively, in 2018. These included the two largest religious organizations – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC) – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there were 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 included organizations both with and without legal entity status. Muslim religious organizations constituted the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which were affiliated with the SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group.

According to a 2018 OHCHR report, religious communities indicated more than 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities.

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

The Roman Catholic Church reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church 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 representatives said it could still only operate as a part of the pastoral district of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued 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 register as independent following the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, were functioning at the end of the year, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. The CHRG reported that on June 28, Crimea’s “Arbitration Court” terminated a pre-annexation lease agreement between the local government and OCU for Saints Volodymyr and Olga Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration. The “court” ordered the congregation to return the premises to Crimea’s “Ministry of Property and Land Relations.” Before issuing the ruling, occupation authorities had removed a section of the church roof, citing the need to repair it; as a result, rainwater flooded part of the premises. According to the NGO Krym-SOS, on April 12, the Crimean branch of Russia’s Justice Ministry turned down OCU Archbishop Klyment’s request to register his Simferopol-based St. Volodymyr of Kyiv and Olga parish as an independent Orthodox congregation. In October according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the UN Human Rights Committee invoked the UN Charter to halt the eviction of the congregation. Congregation members reported they had been effectively evicted, with no access to the church building due to a series of bureaucratic administrative rulings.

On March 3, police in Simferopol briefly detained Archbishop Klyment as he was boarding a bus to visit Ukrainian political prisoner Pavlo Hryb, who was held in Rostov-on-Don. The Russian government released Hryb during a prisoner swap in September. The archbishop said the incident was part of the occupation authorities’ continuing efforts to deny him access to Hryb.

On September 5, Ukraine’s Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons denounced the occupation authorities’ plans to lay a pipeline through an ancient Muslim cemetery in Kirovske District. Workers unearthed human remains at the site during preparatory excavations for the project. After receiving complaints from the Muslim community, authorities suspended the excavations to allow reburial of the remains.

On November 6, the website reported that unidentified individuals had destroyed crosses at a cemetery in Feodosia.

According to Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev, in November unidentified individuals destroyed a tombstone at a Muslim cemetery in Petrivka Village, in Krasnohvardiysk District.

Krym Realii news website, in May unidentified individuals destroyed newly installed slabs etched with the names of 64 fallen Soviet Army soldiers, including 57 Crimean Tatars, at a World War II memorial in Orlovka Village, in Sevastopol.

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Christians and Muslims. U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of minority religious congregations, including Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars. On March 4, the embassy wrote, “We remain deeply concerned about Archbishop Klyment’s detention in Crimea yesterday. Despite his subsequent release, this kind of harassment is unacceptable. We expect Russia to respect freedom of religion and stop detaining innocent Ukrainians in Crimea.” On July 25, the embassy wrote, “We are concerned by media reports of looting of the Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral in Simferopol, Ukraine. Residents of Crimea deserve to be able to worship freely, without intimidation, if they so choose. We call upon Russia to end its occupation of Crimea.”

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, Christian, and Jewish leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by the occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and press the occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.

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