Crimea and religious freedom

Originally posted in Russian on Maksym Vasin's Blog


Besides the difficulties with citizenship and relationships with mainland Ukraine, many problems in Crimea may arise in delicate areas such as faith.

According to official statistics, in the beginning of 2014 in Crimea (Ukraine), there were 2083 religious organizations, among which 674 have the right to engage in religious activities without registering as a legal entity. Another 137 registered religious organizations are in Sevastopol city.

However, the right of religious freedom in Crimea is under threat after Russian occupation.

This is not solely due to the lawlessness of the self-proclaimed government, which distinguished itself by kidnapping the priest chaplain Fr. Mykola Kvych in Sevastopol, followed by a search of his property and an eight-hour interrogation; an inventory of one of the Orthodox temples of the Kyiv Patriarchate; and threats directed against other Ukrainian priests and their families. 

It is known that three Greek Catholic and two Orthodox priests of the Kyiv Patriarchate have already left Crimea. All clergy of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and Kyiv Patriarchate were forced to take their families out of the Crimean peninsula. Due to all kinds of difficulties and threats, some pastors of Evangelical Churches and some Roman Catholic clergy have already left the peninsula. Immediately after the Russian occupation, anti-Semitism increased in Simferopol, manifesting as threats against Jews inscribed by vandals on the walls of a synagogue.

In addition to this, Russian legislation will be a problem for the Crimean people.

Compare the basic positions of the laws concerning religious freedom and religious associations in Ukraine and Russia.

Rights concerning religious freedom



All religions, faiths and religious organizations are equal (Article 5 of the Law)

Special role belongs to Orthodoxy. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are recognized religions (preamble of the Law)

Notifying the government of the establishment of a religious community is not obligatory (Article 8)

Religious groups may act without registering. But citizens who form a religious group with the intent to further develop it into a religious organization as a legal entity must notify the local authorities at the very beginning (Article 7)

A religious community can be registered by a minimum of ten citizens who have reached the age of 18 (Article 14)

A local religious organization may be founded by a minimum of ten Russian citizens who have reached the age of 18, who reside in the same locality, who are united in a religious group, with confirmation issued by local authorities of its existence in the territory for at least 15 years, or confirmation of joining the structure of a centralized religious organization of the same faith, issued by that organization.

Fee for registering a religious organization as a legal entity is not required.

A fee is required for the official registration of religious organization or changes in its charter (Article 11): for the creation of a legal entity, 4000 rubles (~USD 100); for state registration of changes in the charter or liquidation of the legal entity, 800 rubles (~USD 20).

Ukrainian legislation does not use the concept of extremism. Instead, liability is incurred for a specific infringement by a specific person.

Extremist activities are grounds for the liquidation of a religious organization and legal prohibition of the activities of religious group or organization (Article 14, paragraph 2)


These few examples demonstrate the desire of the Russian authorities to keep the religious sphere under strict control. This is especially apparent in the Federal Law of Russia ‘On Countering Extremist Activities’ and related laws, according to which religious organizations, their literature, and even internet resources may be prohibited.

The requirement concerning 15 years of service for religious organization is discriminatory against the current Crimean communities, because those which were registered after 1998 cannot be independent religious communities any longer. From the standpoint of Russian law, they will have to either cease to exist as legal entity or become a part of one of the existing centralized Russian religious associations.

By the way, it was recently reported that the Russian Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists was instructed to absorb all the communities of Christian Baptists in Crimea. Other denominations probably received the same orders.

The situation is vividly illustrated by the Crimean Tatars allowing Christians to use their mosques for prayers and services if they sense a threat to their temples or if the temples are taken away from them in the next wave of ‘nationalization.’ Moreover, not the Mejlis, but the press secretary of the Kyiv Patriarchate announced  this proposal as a possible means of ensuring the rights of believers in Crimea.
On top of everything else, last year President Putin inserted rather contradictory changes to the Criminal Code of Russia and to the Code of Administrative Violations, aimed at countering insult to the religious beliefs and feelings of the citizens. Taking into account the preamble of the Russian law on religious freedom, it is not hard to understand whose feelings will be defended first.

Still, we want to believe that religious freedom and peaceful interfaith relations in Crimea will be preserved in spite of migration, financial, and other difficulties. In my opinion, intensive international monitoring by the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe of fundamental human rights on the Crimean peninsula can contribute to it.
Author: Maksym Vasin, lawyer

Translated by Karolina Omelchenko, edited by Robin Rohrback
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Understanding a More Religious and Assertive Russia

By Mark Tooley

In his widely analyzed March 18 speech to the Russian Parliament, Putin cited the baptism of Vladimir the Great over 1000 years ago in Crimea as the seminal event binding Ukraine and Russia. That baptism is considered the birth of Russian Orthodoxy. Orthodox faith has been key to Moscow’s historic self conceived role as defender of all Russians, of Slavs, and of Orthodox, wherever they are.

Putin has formed a close association with Russian Orthodoxy, as Russian rulers typically have across centuries. He is smart to do so, as Russia has experienced somewhat of a spiritual revival. Although regular church goers remain a small minority, strong majorities of Russians now identify as Orthodox. Orthodoxy is widely and understandably seen as the spiritual remedy to the cavernous spiritual vacuum left by over 70 disastrous, often murderous years of Bolshevism.

Resurgent religious traditionalism has fueled Russia’s new law against sexual orientation proselytism to minors and its new anti-abortion law. Both laws also respond to Russia’s demographic struggle with plunging birth rates and monstrously high abortion rates that date to Soviet rule. Some American religious conservatives have looked to Russian religious leaders as allies in international cooperation on pro-family causes.

It remains to be seen whether geopolitical tensions over Putin’s moves in Russia temper this alliance. A few liberal commentators have predictably denounced it as toxic. A few conservative commentators have cautioned against saber rattling against Russia, whose religious revival they hope might counter Western secularism. A realistic perspective should welcome Christian vitality in Russia while recognizing it won’t necessarily mitigate and may in fact reinforce Russia as a strategic competitor with the West. East-West rivalry predates Soviet Communism by a millennium.

Historically Moscow politically and religiously has understood itself as the “third Rome” and the natural successor to Constantinople as protector of Orthodox civilization. The formal schism between Eastern and Western churches a thousand years ago created an unhealed civilizational divide. Western powers have periodically sought Russian alliance against common foes. But just as often Western powers have warred with or at least sought to contain Russia.

The “great game” of which Rudyard Kipling wrote described Britain’s ongoing designs to keep Czarist Russia away from South Asia and warm water ports. Britain’s one major hot war with Russia was ironically in Crimea. In countering Russia, Britain sometimes sided with the Turks against Slavic people’s struggling against Ottoman rule. Gladstone the arch Anglican famously urged British help instead for East European Christians resisting oppressive Muslim rule, while the arch realist Disraeli shrewdly focused instead on British interests in containing Russia.

Britain and France of course, 100 years ago this year, aligned with Russia against Germany, Austria and the Ottomans.  World War I, among its other horrors, replaced Czarist Christian Russia with Bolshevik atheism, mass murder and gulags. Excepting World War II, Russia and the West were again adversaries for 70 years. The Yeltsin era after the Soviet collapse briefly, perhaps superficially brought Russia into political commonality with the West. Putin’s more assertive and authoritarian understanding of Russian nationhood, which he sometimes frosts with religious rhetoric, which might even be sincere, has once again returned Russia into a strategic adversary for the West.

Among Putin’s political emoluments are renewed claims of Moscow as protector for Russian, Slavic and Orthodox people wherever. Hence, Putin sided with the Serbs over Kosovo, putatively with Syria’s Christians and their purported Alawite protectors, with dissident regions in Georgia and Ukraine. His self-identity as counterweight to the West also has aligned him with Iran’s Shiite regime.

In his adopted role as Great Russian Nationalist Putin is not a Stalin or a Hitler but a modern czar resuming old understandings and habits. The “great game” of the 19th century has resumed, with no fewer chess pieces on the board. This game seems archaic, and Secretary Kerry has mocked Putin as a 19th Century figure retro in our own time.

The other once great imperial game players have long since dissolved their empires and exchanged territorial acquisition for democratic market economics. They have also subsumed themselves under the American economic and military umbrella, a subordinate role that does not interest Putin.

Putin’s church, in keeping with its history, is largely supportive of his version of a revived Russia. The Patriarch in Moscow, unlike many pseudo pacifist Western church prelates, does not recoil from blessing even Russia’s nuclear arsenal as instrumental to his nation’s security. Such nationalist loyalties by a bishop seem retrograde and even scary to many Western elites, who dream of a post nation state world.

One shrill liberal religion columnist has bewailed Russian religious and nationalist revival as commensurate with America’s Tea Party, which is the worst kind of insult for a leftist. Some religiously conservative Americans are tempted to minimize Russian authoritarianism and expansionism in homage to renewed Russian religiosity, in contrast with the West’s accelerating Kulturkampf against traditional Christianity.

The challenge is to view an increasingly religious Russia on several interlocking levels that range from ennobling to pernicious to banal. Americans of all ideological stripes more typically prefer clear villains and heroes. Churchill famously proposed that Russia is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Religious moralists, especially American, cringe from acknowledging the intrinsic, pervasive nature of self interest much less national interest. But they will need to try, as it relates to Russia, and to America.


Mark Tooley, President, Institute on Religion and Democracy.    

1023 15 St, NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2620

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Church in Samarkand, Uzbekistan raided

In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, police raided the service of an unregistered Baptist church after a school official reported that the daughter of a church member was distributing Christian literature and invitations to church to her classmates. This girl’s father had already been charged with illegal religious activity in 2010 and 2012. The service raided by the police was attended by 25 people, including 12 children.

The Uzbek constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, but a law passed in 1998 allows only registered religious organizations to conduct religious activity, and limits the number of religious organizations allowed to register. At the moment there are 2225 religious organizations registered in Uzbekistan, of which 2051 are Muslim, and 159 are Christian. Those illegally engaging in religious propaganda, import and distribution of religious literature, and organizing religious education are subject to criminal charges.

Please pray for believers in Uzbekistan as they follow Jesus in increasingly difficult circumstances. Pray for courage and creativity for them in sharing their faith and for strength in persecution.

Original story (in Russian):


Harvest Church liquidated in St. Petersburg, Russia 

The decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of March 5, 2014 on the Dissolution of a Local Religious Organization, the Harvest Church of Christians of Evangelical Pentecostals [(ECC(n)], for not possessing a license for educational activities will be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

The decision will be ready to the full extent in approximately 2-3 weeks. Now we have only the end result – dissolution.

On November 14, 2013, the St. Petersburg City Court ruled on the dissolution of a local religious organization, the Harvest Church of Christians of Evangelical Pentecostals, numbering about two hundred parishioners. The court's decision was appealed to the Judicial Board on Civil Cases of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. However, on March 5, 2014 the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, and the decision to dissolve the church remained unchanged. The interests of the church were represented by attorneys Anatoly Pchelintsev and Sergei Chugunov of the Slavic Legal Center.

The St. Petersburg City Court and the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the Church carries out educational activities without possessing a license for this, and carries out general educational services that are not part of the charter of the church.

Church community leaders and human rights activists do not agree with the ruling and argue that the church did not carry out educational activities; rather, they only provided space for activities with children who were enrolled in "external studies."

According to the attorneys, the implementation by the church of educational activities without a license and activities not provided for in the church charter was not established as a fact by the court proceedings. The courts misinterpreted the substantive law, they gave their own interpretation of the concept of educational activities, which does not meet the definition of education contained in the Education Act. 

"I am deeply disappointed by this ruling of the Supreme Court," said honorable lawyer of Russia, senior partner of the Law Offices of the Slavic Legal Center, Anatoly Pchelintsev, "In my opinion, it is unjust. The ruling of the St. Petersburg Court, and then by the Supreme Court are disproportionate to the act committed. There's an entire arsenal of measures in the prosecution's response that could have been used in this situation. For example, the prosecutor could have issued a warning or caution, initiated administrative proceedings or compelled the religious organization to restore the violated rights of the affected persons, given the existence of any. But for unknown reasons, the prosecution did not take these measures, rather, they immediately demanded the dissolution of a congregation that had not committed any serious offenses.”

“It is very unfortunate, but we again must appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. I am certain that the ruling of that court will be in favor of the church, although in Europe, they will again perceive us as a primitive society that is incapable of sorting out the basic issues. In any case, we're going to stand up for the church."



Letter of gratitude from Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev

Peace to you, my family, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ! I bow low to Jesus in your hearts!

I extol the glory of God and express my deep gratitude to Him for your prayers for me, for your financial assistance, for all the ways you supported me. While in prison, there was not a moment that I did not feel the shelter, mercy and protection of our Lord, Who was always with me and Who made powerful use of me in my imprisonment.

You were given by God, my dear ones, in my prayers of gratitude to God for you I ask you to forgive me that I do not call you each by name, for you are many—an entire world—and it is impossible to list each of you by name, but our loving Lord knows each one of you by name! May God shower blessings on all of you, on your concerns, on those close to you; may the Lord fill your hearts completely with His grace and his heavenly joy!

If here on Earth I am not able to hug you, then in Heaven I will embrace each of you, for we shall have all of Eternity at our disposal. Now, from the depths of my heart, with love and exuberance I tell you all:

Thank you for your love for Jesus! How wonderful that it unites us all in one Body, in His Church! What a marvelous and ineffable happiness to belong to Jesus! What a great joy overwhelms us because He is with us, with each of us! I love and bless you all, my dear ones, with the love of Jesus Christ!

Very yours truly,
Pastor BK - Bakhytzhan Karimovich Kashkumbaev.