Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary Paragraph: There was a report of a grenade thrown at Jewish pilgrims on a pilgrimage in Uman; authorities later arrested a suspect. Other religious groups and the Right Sector political movement disrupted UOC-MP prayer services; in some cases, individuals described as radical nationalists physically assaulted parishioners. A number of primarily smaller religious groups and churches established a new organization to represent them. UOC-MP leaders stated the UOC-KP continued to seize churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the UOC-KP said parishioners initiated the transfers of affiliation and not the UOC-KP. The Right Sector political movement intervened at disputed religious properties on behalf of the UOC-KP and the UGCC. The Jewish community expressed its continued concern about the continuing existence of Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market and construction on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery. Nationalists staged a march to honor a World War II nationalist leader at which participants chanted anti-Semitic slogans. There continued to be reports of vandalism at Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries, as well as reports of vandalism directed against Christian monuments and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. Several religious figures and government officials reported suspicions that Russia had sponsored some anti-Semitic incidents and other religious vandalism as part of its efforts to destabilize Ukraine; in some cases, the Ukrainian government presented evidence. The AUCCRO and the newly created AUCRA worked to promote interfaith dialogue and religious diversity.
Chabad Rabbi Mendel Deitsch died in April from injuries he sustained in 2016 when four individuals attacked him at a train station in Zhytomyr. Authorities arrested the four suspects after the attack; the case continued at year’s end.
According to the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group (NMRMG), an NGO supported by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, no anti-Semitic violence was recorded during the year, compared with one case in 2016, one case in 2015, four cases in 2014, and four in 2013. The NMRMG reported that on March 30, a group of teenagers singled out and taunted a rabbi at the Most City Mall in Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk). One of the teenagers shoved the rabbi with his shoulder, and the rabbi’s kippah fell to the floor. The teenagers shouted insults and threats, such as “you should all be killed” and “kikes get out of here.” The conflict did not evolve beyond a heated verbal argument; no physical violence was involved beyond the shoving. Police opened an investigation.
According to police, on September 21, three individuals threw a hand grenade at Jewish pilgrims in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, causing minor injury to a 13-year-old boy. According to an unconfirmed media report, a drunken person living in a nearby apartment building incidentally dropped the hand grenade on the roof a private metal garage used by several pilgrims as inexpensive accommodation. Police detained the three individuals in early October and linked them to two former members of parliament who had fled to Russia in 2014. According the government officials, the main motive of the three individuals was to smear the country’s reputation. The same individuals reportedly threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Lviv on June 30, causing minor damage to its wall. Officials reported the same individuals had defaced the wall of the Central Synagogue in Chernivtsi with anti-Semitic graffiti in November 2016, and in December 2016 had attacked worshippers and desecrated a synagogue near the grave of Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, in Uman. Police also accused them of politically motivated attacks on several sites with no apparent religious significance, including the U.S. embassy. The NMRMG expressed doubt that the attackers had committed all those offenses. The suspects continued to remain under investigation.
On September 6, supporters of the Svoboda Party and its Sokil youth wing verbally and physically assaulted UOC-MP members who tried to stop their protest against construction of a UOC-MP church in Mykolayiv. The protestors accused congregation members of supporting Russian aggression against the country and damaged a gate and wooden formwork at the construction site. An elderly UOC-MP parishioner was reportedly hospitalized with a concussion and torn ligaments. Another parish member, whom the attackers reportedly tried to strangle, was also taken to a hospital. Police detained several of the protestors but soon released them. On August 26, unidentified individuals burned construction materials at the site. One of the attackers reportedly claimed responsibility for burning the materials and threatened parish members with another arson attack if they continued building the church. According to the UOC-MP, representatives of the two opposition groups had previously assaulted construction workers to prevent them from digging the foundation of the church.
On July 2, several dozen members of a local UOC-MP parish led by their priest disrupted a baptism ceremony conducted by Baptist Union members at a lake near Hrudky village, Volyn Oblast. They demanded the followers of the Baptist group not “desecrate the lake” and hold such ceremonies elsewhere. Some UOC-MP representatives reportedly pushed Baptist Union member Yaroslav Kot as he tried to videotape the incident. According to the Baptist Union, the Hrudky village council chairman and the local police did nothing to resolve the dispute.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 18 cases of physical assaults. In one case, they said a woman in Kyiv carried out 15 attacks, as well as threatened murder and damaged property. The Witnesses reported police did not investigate these attacks.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on June 21, Oleh Nikitshyn verbally and physically assaulted and tried to strangle his coworker, Jehovah’s Witness Yuriy Vorobei, and calling him a “saint” and “Stundist,” a derogatory reference to Vorobie’s membership in a minority Christian group. An eyewitness intervened and stopped the attack. Despite verifiable signs of physical trauma, law enforcement officials did not press charges.
On May 23, the mayor of Kolomyia in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast instructed members of the city council who had requested the government evict a UOC-MP congregation from the city’s historic Annunciation Church not to use force against the congregation. The mayor instead suggested local activists should try to “convince” the parish members to leave the UOC-MP. On June 4, a group of Greek Catholic priests, accompanied by members of the Right Sector and Black Hundred groups, disrupted a UOC-MP prayer service in the church, accusing the worshipers of “serving the Russian aggressor” and insisting the parishioners leave the UOC-MP. In a statement issued on June 6, the UGCC Kolomyia and Chernivtsi Diocese publicly distanced itself from the June 4 events, describing them as a local community initiative. The UGCC also said it would not relinquish its rights to the church, which the Soviet regime confiscated from the UGCC in the 1940s and later transferred to the UOC-MP in 1991. In response, the UOC-MP stated it would take the case to court, stating the 16th century church was originally built as an Orthodox church. On June 29, the Kolomyia City and District Court upheld a UOC-MP complaint against the local police for refusing to investigate the June 4 incident. During the proceedings, opponents of the UOC-MP shouted insults at parish representatives in the courtroom and physically assaulted UOC-MP priest Vitaliy Dimnych when he prevented the opposition from seizing parish documents from a lawyer for the UOC-MP congregation. On October 4, the Ivano-Frankivsk District Administrative Court declared illegal a decision by the Kolomiya municipal police chief to seal the church entrance. On October 17, UGCC followers reportedly removed locks from the church entrance, taking control of the church. On October 22, UGCC followers, including their priest, Mykola Medynsky, verbally and physically assaulted UOC-MP members who tried to hold a prayer service in the church courtyard. Medynsky called UOC-MP parishioners “Moscow’s pigs,” and reportedly pushed and punched some of them. The UOC-MP criticized local police for their reluctance to intervene. On October 26, UGCC leader Major Archbishop Svyatoslav condemned the use of force and urged participants in the dispute to respect the rule of law. He also attributed the confrontation to the municipal government’s “inconsistent” position regarding the Annunciation Church.
Jehovah’s Witnesses expressed concern over the failure of law enforcement agencies to prosecute those who assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses, including attacks in Stryzhavka in 2013, Mykolayiv, Melitopol, Komyshaka, and Odesa in 2014, and Kyiv, Kamyanka, Lviv, Pryvillya, and Uman in 2016.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 2, an individual chanted an anti-Semitic slur and smashed mobile displays with Jehovah’s Witnesses’ materials in Poltava. He also threatened the two missionaries who were displaying the materials. The victims photographed the attacker and his car, but police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, saying it was not a crime.
On July 3, a man attacked two Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries in Cherkasy, breaking a window of a nearby shop and forcing them to flee. Other Witnesses stopped the attacker. Police did not respond to three emergency calls from the victims, saying that no patrols were available at the time. Law enforcement authorities did not open an investigation.
There were no further developments in the police investigation of the 2015 killing of Roman Nikolayev, rector of the UOC-MP St. Tetyana’s parish in Kyiv.
On September 19, local government officials in Sumy Oblast stated they would not permit the UOC-MP to hold its annual march in Sumy city on October 14, stating the procession could cause a “confrontation.” Despite the ban, the UOC-MP held the march, which transpired without incident.
According to media estimates, more than 100,000 persons attended Protestant church-hosted Thanksgiving Day events to “thank God for His abundant blessings” in central Kyiv on September 17. Well-known Christian evangelists addressed the crowd.
On July 27, the UOC-MP celebrated St. Volodymyr’s feast day with a procession in Kyiv, which transpired without incident in contrast to the previous year, when nationalist groups harassed marchers and tried to prevent individuals in various locales from joining the procession. Police estimated there were 15,000 participants.
The following day, the UOC-KP held its annual procession in Kyiv to mark St. Volodymyr’s feast day. Police reported no incidents; media reported an estimated 4,000 individuals participated in the event.
According to the Ternopil Oblast State Administration, on July 15-16, more than 100,000 persons participated without incident in the UGCC annual national pilgrimage to the Zarvanytsya Icon of the Mother of God.
In September and October the annual Jewish New Year pilgrimages to the Uman burial site of Rabbi Nachman took place. According to media reports, more than 30,000 pilgrims visited Uman during the year. Media also reported Jewish pilgrims visited other burial sites of spiritual leaders in Belz, Medzhybizh, Berdychiv, and Hadyach, all without any significant difficulties.
According to the Ministry of Culture, the UOC-MP had 12,328 congregations throughout the country, while the UOC-KP had 5,114 and the UAOC had 1,195.
On January 26, a number of mainly smaller religious groups and churches, in conjunction with the NGO Ukrainian Association of Religious Experts, established the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) for the stated purpose of promoting the country’s spiritual revival, interfaith dialogue, and interaction between religious organizations and the government. AUCRA’s membership included the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (Umma), Religious Association of Progressive Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the National Spiritual Association of Bahai of Ukraine, Association of Sons and Daughters of Native Ukrainian National Faith, Center of the Krishna Consciousness Communities in Ukraine, and the Apostolic Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Several AUCRA members said they were blocked from membership in the AUCCRO, which requires unanimous approval for new members.
The UOC-MP continued to make public statements saying that the UOC-KP was “emboldened” by police inaction and by support from groups, such as the Right Sector, to continue its efforts to seize UOC-MP church buildings. According to the UOC-MP, local authorities continued to transfer parish jurisdictions from the UOC-MP to the UOC-KP against the will of the parishioners.
Posts on the Right Sector website repeated previous statements by the group stating that, at the request of the UOC-KP, it would continue to visit sites disputed between the UOC-MP and UOC-KP to “facilitate” a change of jurisdiction.
Following the UOC-MP and Right Sector statements, the UOC-KP repeated its previous statements, rejecting accusations about its involvement in the seizures of UOC-MP churches and saying these were legitimate transfers to UOC-KP jurisdiction initiated by parishioners. The UOC-KP stated it would continue to act according to the law, but also would continue to accept into its jurisdiction any UOC-MP clergy and laity requesting UOC-KP affiliation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported local religious communities continued to be denied zoning permits to build Kingdom Halls in 12 cities, towns, and villages.
The Jewish community continued to express its concern about the continuing operation of the Krakivskiy Market on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Lviv. The UCSJ expressed concern over the construction of a multi-story building on the cemetery grounds.
The UCSJ and civic activists also expressed concern over the possible continuation of construction of a high-rise building at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto in Lviv. Although the project was suspended after human remains were reportedly found and removed from the soil at the construction site in 2016, the remains had not been returned to the site by year’s end.
Nationalists associated with the Svoboda Party conducted a march in Kyiv on New Year’s Day to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera. Bandera was a leader of the 1930s and 1940s nationalist movement, whose members fought alongside Nazi soldiers against the Soviets in the first years of World War II, and some of whom were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. According to media and NGO accounts, thousands of individuals reportedly attended the event, with some chanting “Jews out” in German (“Juden raus”). Government officials condemned the march, and Jewish community leaders called on authorities to prosecute those chanting such slogans for hate speech. As of the end of the year, authorities filed no charges.
According to the UOC-MP, on September 29 unidentified individuals claiming affiliation with the National Corps Party in Malyn, Zhytomyr Oblast, posted leaflets calling for the removal of UOC-MP priests from the region and describing them as “the Kremlin’s agents of influence.” A local UOC-MP priest stated a local UOC-KP priest’s aggressive rhetoric may have influenced the activists and could be behind the incident.
In April the Ternopil Oblast Right Sector branch initiated an outdoor advertising campaign describing UOC-MP clerics as “invaders” on billboards throughout the region.
On February 21, unidentified vandals smashed a window of the Nativity of Christ Church of the UGCC in Kozyatyn, Vinnytsya Oblast.
On April 24, unknown individuals burglarized the St. Demetrious Church of the UOC-MP in Odesa, damaging icons and stealing donations.
On July 17, unidentified individuals damaged a statue of the Mother of God affiliated with the RCC located in a public square in Lviv. According to media reports, earlier this year unknown vandals damaged two more statues of the Mother of God in the city.
According to media sources, in July unidentified individuals defaced a statue of the Mother of God with a tar-like substance near a UAOC church in Lutsk. Authorities discovered the vandalism on July 25.
In August unidentified individuals cut down and burned a cross at Polonyna Runa Mountain in Transcarpathia Oblast. Police detained three suspects, who remained under investigation at year’s end.
On August 16, unidentified individuals destroyed a cross on the side of the road near the entrance to Odesa.
On October 2, unidentified individuals destroyed a cross and damaged a tombstone on the grave of Archbishop Oleksanr Petrovsky, revered by the Orthodox Church as a holy martyr, at a cemetery in Kharkiv.
In October unknown individuals defaced a street mural of Pope John Paul II in Kyiv with a swastika and anti-Polish graffiti.
On October 16, unknown individuals broke a cross and destroyed several sculptures at the outdoor Stations of the Cross of Lviv.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 30 new incidents of vandalism against Kingdom Halls during the year, compared with 21 incidents of vandalism, including three arson attacks, in 2016. Incidents included an attack in January on a Kingdom Hall in Shpola, Cherkasy Oblast.
The NMRMG reported 24 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism during the year, compared with 19 in 2016 and 22 in 2015.
On February 26, a group of Right Sector activists held a ceremony to erect a memorial cross at the old Jewish cemetery in Kolomyia. They said buried at the site were members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a World War II pro-independence paramilitary group that fought against the Soviets, sometimes in collaboration with the Germans, but later fought against the Germans and also against Polish communists. The local Jewish community stated there were no Christian graves in the cemetery, and described the incident as a provocation. Although several Greek Catholic priests had participated in the ceremony, the UGCC Kolomiya and Chernivtsi Diocese issued an official statement saying the diocesan administration had “neither organized, received an invitation, nor delegated its priests” to attend the event. The statement went on to say, “some priests, guided by their personal beliefs, were present at the event for a joint prayer to commemorate victims of the communist regime.” The local government stated it had not sanctioned the event.
The case against three suspects who had vandalized a local synagogue and cemetery and attempted to set fire to the ohel, a structure covering the grave of Chief Rabbi Gillel Boruch Liechtenstein, continued after a long delay in Kolomyia, Ivano Frankivsk Oblast. The Jewish community stated the delay was because of the court’s “unwillingness” to handle the case. The hearing continued at year’s end.
There continued to be reports of vandalism of Holocaust memorials and Jewish religious monuments, including in Cherkasy, Chernivtsi, Kyiv, Lviv, Nikopol, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Poltava, Rivne, and Ternopil Oblasts. Police investigations into these incidents continued at year’s end.
According to media reports, on April 18, the Kostopil District State Administration, Rivne Oblast urged law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to justice perpetrators who in mid-April painted a swastika on a Holocaust memorial near the town. Local college students removed the graffiti and an investigation into the incident continued at year’s end.
On January 13, arsonists damaged a Jewish cemetery in Kolomiya, where similar attacks occurred in 2015. A police investigation continued at year’s end.
According to media sources, on June 9, unidentified individuals painted swastikas on the wall of a Jewish community center in Odesa. According the NMRMG, workers of the center did not rule out that the incident could be a pro-Russian provocation.
On June 21, unidentified individuals defaced the Three Synagogues Memorial in central Lviv with a swastika and the inscription “White Power.” The mayor called the incident “unacceptable” and appealed to police and the security services to find and punish the perpetrators. According to the NMRMG, on July 13, a witness saw three young men painting a swastika at on the memorial. He prevented them from escaping and called the police. Police then detained the vandals and forced them to remove the graffiti.
On June 30, unidentified individuals painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a Lviv synagogue.
According to media reports, in late August unidentified individuals either toppled or destroyed some 20 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery in Svalyava. A local rabbi urged authorities to investigate the desecration. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On December 13, unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi graffiti on a Hanukah menorah in central Kyiv. On December 17, unidentified persons spilled a blood-like substance on the same menorah. The Kyiv mayor condemned the acts and police investigated both incidents as acts of hooliganism. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On December 25, the words “death to kikes” appeared on the exterior wall of Hesed Shpira charity, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Uzhhorod. The individuals responsible for the graffiti had not been identified at year’s end.
According to media reports, unidentified individuals wrote anti-Semitic graffiti on three Jewish institutions in Odesa at the end of December. On December 25, the words “Toasting the Holocaust” appeared on the gate of Odesa’s Holocaust museum. In another incident, unidentified individuals wrote “Jews out, Ukraine for Ukrainians” on Brodsky Synagogue’s exterior face. An anti-Semitic symbol also appeared on a gate near the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center. In all three incidents, a Wolfsangel, a Nazi symbol, figured prominently at the center of the graffiti. A police investigation continued at year’s end.
Authorities continued to investigate the 2016 acts of vandalism against the Israeli flag in Babyn Yar, the ohel on the grave of Rabbi Aryeh Leib in Shpola, and desecration of the Holocaust monument in Uzhhorod.
Police investigations continued into the 2016 arson attacks on UOC-MP churches in Kyiv, including the Transfiguration Church, the Saint Agapitus Church, and the Church of Saint Petro Mohyla. Additionally, the arson and vandalism attack on the UGCC church in Ternopil remained under investigation at year’s end.