2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Ukraine—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.
On September 10, the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published its Follow-up of the Situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, stating that the “Russian occupation of Crimea has changed the perception of Ukraine’s historical and cultural heritage, both by the state and society.” According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 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 UOC-MP continued to be exempt from these registration requirements. According to the Religion Information Service of Ukraine (RISU), the number of denominations decreased from 43 in 2014 to 20 in 2021. Various sources reported that Russian “authorities” in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 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 July, 74 (compared with 69 through October 2020) Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim religious 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 in retaliation for their opposition to Russia’s occupation by prosecuting them for purported involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. 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.” UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation “authorities “and that they must register their congregations in Crimea as parishes of the Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite, removing all reference to Ukraine in their name. 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 to force it to leave Crimea. On August 23, a judge fined Archimandrite Damian, the head of the St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki Men’s Monastery, for holding a church service on the private land on which the monastery stands, stating such worship constituted “unlawful missionary activities.” 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 portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.” In January, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision accepting for consideration Ukraine’s complaint alleging that Russia was responsible for multiple human rights violations in Crimea between February 27, 2014, and August 26, 2015. The court accepted Ukraine’s allegation of the harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids on places of worship, and confiscation of religious property.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a radio survey in Crimea found 67 percent of those surveyed did not approve of Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said that non-Jehovah’s Witnesses who observed Jehovah’s Witnesses being treated like criminals and accused of terrorism for their faith had increased sympathy for the organization.
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 rights abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials. In a September 5 press statement, the State Department spokesperson stated, “The United States strongly condemns the September 4 detention of the Deputy Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Nariman Dzhelyal and at least 45 other Crimean Tatars by Russian occupation “authorities” in Crimea. We call on the Russian occupation “authorities” to release them immediately. This is the latest in a long line of politically-motivated raids, detentions, and punitive measures against the Mejlis and its leadership, which has been targeted for repression for its opposition to Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, as well as other State Department officials and the Secretary of Energy, participated in the August 23 Crimea Platform Summit, an international gathering of senior officials to discuss the annexing of Crimea, in which human rights was one of five key topics. The Secretary of Energy, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, and a senior official from the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor gave remarks at the summit, whose joint declaration condemned the “continued violations and abuses and systematic undue restrictions of human rights and fundamental freedoms that residents of Crimea face,” including the right to religion or belief. Embassy officials continued to meet with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns about actions taken against their congregations by the occupation “authorities” and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice freely 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, 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 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, Russian occupation “authorities” continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim religious-political group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under Russian Federation law but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation “authorities” continue 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-$670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300-$13,300).
According to the Kyiv-based Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), the Russian government unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned 117 individuals pursuant to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 111 in 2020.
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. Rights groups reported detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year.
According to CHRG, as of December, 79 Crimean residents remained in prison for alleged involvement in Muslim religious organizations that are declared terrorist or extremist in Russia, although they are legal in Ukraine. In most cases, these were individuals accused of belonging to the “illegal” organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, but detainees also included individuals accused of belonging to Tablighi Jamaat and Takfir wal-Hijra. Observers believed these individuals were largely prosecuted in retaliation for their opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Occupation “authorities” placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and banned them from leaving the occupied territory, and two more remained under house arrest. As of November, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 80 Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian Muslims for supposed involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the human right group described as a peaceful transnational Muslim party.
On August 16, the Southern District Military Court in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced Crimean Muslims Ruslan Mesutov and Lenur Halilov to 18 years each in prison, Ruslan Nagayev to 13 years, and Eldar Kantimirov to 12 years in prison for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Authorities” arrested the four men in 2019 in Crimea after searching their homes.
According to the CHRG, on December 1, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court (YuOVS) in Rostov-on-Don extended to March 2022 the detention of Crimean Tatars Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Vladlen Abdulkadyrov, Izzet Abdullayev, Medzhit Abdurakhmanov, Imam Bilial Adilov, Servet Gaziyev, Dzhemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Seyran Murtaz, Erfan Osmanov, Erver Ametov, Osman Arifmemetov, Yashar Muedinov, Ruslan Suleymanov, and Rustem Sheikhaliyev.
In December, the Military Court of Appeal in Vlasikha, Russia upheld the decision of a lower court to hold in custody Crimean Tatars Ernest Ibragimov and Oleg Fedorov until February 2022.
On December 23 the same court upheld a lower court decision to hold in custody Crimean Tatars Raim Ayvazov, Farkhod Bazarov, Remzi Bekirov, Rizu Izetov, Shaban Umerov until February 16, 2022.
On December 23, YuOVS extended the detention period for Crimean Tatar Ismet Ibragimov until April 24, 2022.
According to press reports, on November 25, the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don extended until March 15, 2022 the detention of NGO Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. Crimean Solidarity is a human rights organization that opposes Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The court also extended until March 15 the detention period of Tatars Rustem Seitkhalilov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Asan Yanikov, and Ruslan Suleimanov.
According to Crimean Solidarity, during mass searches of Crimean Tatar homes on August 17, the FSB detained Rustem Murasov, Rustem Tairov, Dzhebbar Bekirov, Zavur Abdullayev, and Raif Fevziyev for their suspected membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Fevziyev was the imam of a mosque in Strohonivka village near Simferopol. According to the Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsperson, occupation “authorities” kept the imam in a damp and overcrowded prison cell containing six beds for eight inmates. One of Fevziyev’s cellmates reportedly suffered from a mental health disorder and posed a threat to the lives of other prisoners. According to the Radio Free Europe-associated news website Krym.Realii, in November, occupation “authorities” subjected the imam to forced psychiatric examination, keeping him in a hospital ward with four convicted murderers. During his detention, Fevziyev reportedly began to feel abdominal pain and could only ease it using medicine provided by his family. In December, Simferopol’s Kyivsky District Court extended his detention until April 11, 2022.
Krym.Realii reported that on December 21, the Leninsky District Court of Simferopol extended the detention of Murasov and Abdullayev until February 10, 2022. Krym.Realii quoted Murasov’s lawyer as saying that occupation “authorities” kept Murasov in a cell infested with rats, mice, and mold. In October, the court extended the detention of Rustem Tairov until January 11, 2022. The news outlet said that for two weeks Tairov suffered tooth pain, but the administration of his pretrial detention center ignored his request for medical assistance.
On July 30, Ukraine’s Consul General in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, described to the Crimea SOS-affiliated QirimInfo news website what he said were the worsening conditions of elderly Tatar prisoners Servet Gaziyev and Dzhemil Gafarov. The Consul General said Russian “authorities” did not provide adequate medical assistance to Gaziyev, who suffered a ministroke on June 28, until September 2. On October 29, Crimean Solidarity quoted lawyer Aider Azamatov as saying that during the year, an ambulance had to be called six times to provide urgent medical aid to Servet Gaziyev during his trial, and the judge insisted that Gaziyev speak Russian rather than Crimean Tatar. According to lawyer Lilya Gemedzhi, prior to his discharge from the hospital on September 25, unspecified individuals threw Gaziyev to the floor, beat him, and shaved his beard.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation “authorities” continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities in Crimea, ostensibly under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation outlawing the group. The OHCHR reported that all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost the right to operate since 2017. As a result, practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses risked retaliation by law enforcement and were subject to detention, house arrest, or travel restrictions. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, four Ukrainian Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving sentences of six years or more, with at least 12 others facing such sentences.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reported that on February 10, “authorities” searched the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses Andriy Rogutsky and Lyudmila Shevchenko, removing Bibles, notebooks, and electronic devices. According to the website jw-russia.org, the items seized at Lyudmyla Shevchenko’s home included a book, “The Sacred Nativity Scene,” that did not belong to her and was not published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She said security officials had planted and then “found” the book. During the search, Andriy Rogutskiy’s wife became ill and required an ambulance. Reportedly, “authorities” did not detain or charge the women.
In March, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, “authorities” carried out 11 armed searches and detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Authorities” charged Taras Kuzio, who was previously charged in 2019, with “financing an extremist organization” and ordered him to remain under house arrest. They also ordered him to have no contact with others involved in the case and prohibited him from using the internet and sending or receiving mail. According to the CHRG, on July 29, “authorities” detained Jehovah’s Witness Petro Zhiltsov, whom they previously interrogated as a witness against Kuzio, and charged him with “organization of the activities of an extremist organization” and “financing of extremist activities.” The charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years. On July 30, “authorities” placed him under house arrest until his trial. On July 29, “authorities” opened a case against Daria Kuzio, the wife of Taras Kuzio, for “organizing of the activities of an extremist organization” and issued a travel restriction. On July 30, “authorities” combined the criminal cases against the Kuzios and Zhiltsov into one case. On August 10,” authorities” detained Sergei Lyulin, connected to Taras Kuzio, and transported him to Simferopol, a 16-hour journey, taping him to the seat of the luggage compartment of a minibus with his arms handcuffed to the ceiling. The court in Simferopol ordered his detention until September 4.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 2, FSB investigators filed charges against Oleksandr Lytvyniuk and Oleksandr Dubovenko for “organizing the activities of an extremist organization.” The charges, which carry a sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment, stemmed from a Zoom conference that “authorities” said was to “attract new members of a banned organization.” On August 5, “authorities” searched at least eight Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes for more than nine hours. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the FSB officers reportedly tried to force their way into one home by turning off the plumbing. Authorities removed individuals’ computers, personal notes that mentioned the Bible, and documents confirming ownership of their residences. They later held Lytvyniuk overnight, placing him under house arrest on August 6. “Authorities” placed Dubovenko, who was not at home during the searches, under house arrest on August 9.
According to Forum 18, Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov remained in prison in the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in Rostov Oblast, Russia – each serving six-year sentences since 2020 – and “authorities” did not allow them to receive letters from their families.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 24, Jehovah’s Witness Artem Shabliy’s trial for “drawing others into the activities of an extremist organization” began. The group stated that in May 2020, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Shabliy.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 22, a court in Sevastopol sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Ihor Schmidt to six years in prison for “organizing extremist activities.” Three other men, Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, and Volodymyr Sakada, arrested with Schmidt in 2020 and also charged with “organizing extremist activities,” remained imprisoned at year’s end.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on March 23, a court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Viktor Stashevsky to six and half years’ imprisonment for “organizing extremist activities” and placed a seven-year restriction on his right to carry out public activities. Addressing the court before sentencing, Stashevsky said all charges against him would be dismissed if he were to stop being a Jehovah’s Witness, saying, “I do not plan to renounce my faith in God. I have been and remain a Jehovah’s Witness.” A judge dismissed his appeal in August.
In a review of the eighth periodic report on Ukraine, released in October, OHCHR cited the significantly limited freedom of religion in territories controlled by armed groups, noting that religious communities there faced selective restrictions. Valeriia Kolomiiets, the country’s Deputy Minister of Justice for European Integration, reported to OHCHR that the Russian Federation continued to violate human rights in the temporarily occupied territories. Specifically noting the systematic persecution of the OCU, she reported that persecution on national and religious grounds was carried out systematically. According to the report, there continued to be 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, because 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 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.
According to Forum 18, Russian “authorities” continued to prosecute and fine individuals in Crimea for conducting missionary activity. Of the nine known prosecutions brought so far during the year, three were against imams and four against members of Sevastopol’s House of the Potter Protestant Church. The NGO stated that by law, “Russians conducting missionary activity” could incur a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67-$670), with the fine for organizations (legal entities) being from 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300-$13,300). “Foreigners conducting missionary activity” could incur a fine of 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400-$670), with the possibility of expulsion from Russia.
On February 11, a judge fined Imam Murtaza Ablyazov the equivalent of approximately two weeks average local wages for conducting missionary activity by leading prayers in a mosque. On January 25, a judge fined Aleksey Smirnov and Ivan Nemchinov after identifying them as Potter Protestant Church leaders based on a social media post by a Church member.
On August 23, a judge fined OCU Archimandrite Damian, the head of the St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki Men’s Monastery, for holding a church service on the private land on which the monastery stands, stating such worship constituted unlawful missionary activities. This ruling followed an August 8 raid on the parish. Archbishop Klyment, Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Crimea, called it “an appalling act of lawlessness. A priest is accused merely of praying to God in his own home.” According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Damian’s lawyer stated he planned to appeal, and said, “Russia is destroying yet another Ukrainian religious and cultural group and is continuing to purge Crimea of all that is Ukrainian.”
Renat Suleimanov, a member of Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat, remained under administrative supervision and on Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service List of Terrorists and Extremists at year’s end. Russia continued to ban the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, although the movement remained legal in Ukraine. In January 2019, a Simferopol court sentenced Suleimanov to four years in prison on extremism-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith. The state released him in December 2020 and ordered him to spend one year under administrative supervision.
On January 14, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision accepting for consideration Ukraine’s complaint alleging that Russia was responsible for multiple human rights violations in Crimea between February 27, 2014, and August 26, 2015. Among the claims accepted was Ukraine’s allegation that the local “authorities” harassed and intimidated religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raided places of worship, and confiscated religious property in violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
On February 16, parliament appealed to international organizations and foreign governments to condemn the occupation of Crimea and to call for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners. It condemned the persecution and harassment of its citizens on ethnic, religious, political, and other grounds in the Russia-occupied area, emphasizing the unacceptability of restricting linguistic, religious, and other rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, in particular, Crimean Tatars.
On February 25, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy released a declaration that stated, “Residents of the peninsula face systematic restrictions of their fundamental freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, religion or belief and association, and the right to peaceful assembly… The Crimean Tatars continue to be unacceptably persecuted, pressured, and [to] have their rights gravely violated. Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and all ethnic and religious communities in the peninsula must be ensured the possibility to maintain and develop their culture, education, identity, and cultural heritage traditions, which are currently threatened by the illegal annexation… The ban on the activities of the Mejlis, a self-governing body of the Crimean Tatars, must be reversed.”
On November 24, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine reported that the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emine Dzhaparova, told the audience attending the Forum of the International Alliance on Freedom of Religion in Brazil that Russia continued to create artificial obstacles to the activities of any religious community that did not belong to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. She said Crimean Tatars had become the most persecuted religious community in occupied Crimea, with more than 120 imprisoned on trumped-up criminal cases. “In the occupied territories of Ukraine, Russia restricts missionary activities under the pretext of fighting so-called extremism. The Russian Federation is trying to stop the activities of all pro-Ukrainian organizations in occupied Crimea – in particular, religious communities of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and Crimean Tatar Muslims.” Dzhaparova said that of the 49 religious communities that operated in Crimea at the beginning of 2014, only five were still operating.
According to Russia’s Ministry of Justice, as of the end of 2020 (the most recent information available), 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, compared with 891 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.
On January 7, Metropolitan Epiphaniy told the Espreso.tv news agency that Russia wanted to eliminate the OCU’s presence in Crimea. In May, RISU reported Metropolitan Klyment of Simferopol and Crimea of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine said that at the beginning of the occupation, 49 Ukrainian Orthodox religious organizations were operating in Crimea, but only six remained. In August, RISU reported that Iryna Verihina, a representative of the Commissioner for the Observance of the Rights of Residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, said that because of Russian repression, only five of 49 OCU religious organizations remained in Crimea, and only four of 22 clergymen.
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 continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. “Authorities” permitted some Polish and Ukrainian RCC priests to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required them 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”. They said “authorities” continued to require them to register their congregations in Crimea as parishes of the Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite, removing all reference to Ukraine in their name, and to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.
According to the pro-Ukraine Voice of Crimea news website, on August 8, representatives of the Center for Combating Extremism, led by police major Vladimir Gorevanov, stormed into a church at the OCU Monastery of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Balky Village, Bilohirsk District. The representatives forced the monastery’s abbot to halt the morning religious service and ordered all its participants to exit to the backyard so “authorities” could document the monastery’s “illegal missionary activity.” On August 23, the Bilohirsk District Court ordered the abbot, Archimandrite Damian, to pay a fine of 15,000 rubles ($200).
On September 10, the Executive Board of UNESCO published its Follow-up of the Situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (Ukraine), pursuant to the decisions and resolutions by the UNESCO Executive Board and the general conferences. According to the document: “Over seven years of occupation… systemic political persecution, physical and psychological pressure, annihilation of the independent media, discrimination on the basis of religion, [and] violation of ownership and language rights forced more than 45,000 Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians to leave the occupied peninsula. The Russian Federation continues to prosecute ethnic and religious communities that refuse to recognize the illegal occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol and seek to preserve their native language, religious, and cultural identity. The Russian occupation of Crimea has changed the perception of Ukraine’s historical and cultural heritage, both by the state and society. Russia has appropriated Ukrainian cultural property on the peninsula, including 4,095 national and local monuments under state protection. Appropriation of monuments is in itself a violation of international law. However, it is equally important that Russia uses such appropriation to implement its comprehensive long-term strategy to strengthen its historical, cultural, and religious dominance over the past, present and future of Crimea.”
The OCU continued to call on the Ukrainian parliament to finalize the approval of a 2020 decision by the Cabinet of Ministers to transfer the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, from the ownership of the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to central government ownership. OCU sources believed this transfer would enable Ukraine to take Russia to international courts over its refusal to allow OCU members to use the premises. According to RISU, on June 28, the Russian-controlled Arbitration Court of Crimea ordered the transfer of the cathedral premises to the use of the Russian Ministry of Property of Crimea. Klyment said he would appeal this decision.
Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all.
On April 20, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol expressed outrage over the desecration of an old Islamic cemetery in Kamyanske village, Leninsky District. Construction equipment scattered human remains while digging a trench though the burial area as part of a pipeline project. Occupation “authorities” had reportedly not taken the cemetery into account when planning the construction. After complaints from local residents, authorities suspended the work to allow the Muslim community to rebury the remains.
According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB continued to encourage residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including expressing support for Crimean Tatars, condemning the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or opposing 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, 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 Jehovah’s Witnesses, a radio survey in Crimea found 67 percent of those surveyed did not approve of Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that respondents, seeing “ordinary citizens” treated like criminals and accused of terrorism for their faith, had increased sympathy for the organization.
On November 2, the Unian.net news website reported “authorities” in Crimea placed under house arrest a suspect who had allegedly painted offensive graffiti on a wall of a Christian church in Leninsky District.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
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 “authorities.” On February 26, on the seventh anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the President released a statement saying, “The United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts.”
Also on February 26, the Secretary of State released a statement saying, “Russian occupation authorities have sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other minority ethnic and religious groups in Crimea. Russian occupation authorities have raided mosques and homes… Russia’s repression has left Crimean residents in a constant state of fear, unable to live their lives freely.”
In a September 5 press statement, the State Department spokesperson stated, “The United States strongly condemns the September 4 detention of the Deputy Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Nariman Dzhelyal and at least 45 other Crimean Tatars by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea. We call on the Russian occupation authorities to release them immediately. This is the latest in a long line of politically-motivated raids, detentions, and punitive measures against the Mejlis and its leadership, which has been targeted for repression for its opposition to Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea.”
U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula due to its occupation by the Russian Federation. U.S. government and embassy officials, however, participated in the August 23 Crimea Platform Summit, an international gathering of senior officials convened to discuss the situation in Crimea, in which human rights was one of five key topics. The Secretary of Energy, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, and a senior official of the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor gave remarks at the summit. In a joint declaration, Crimean Platform Summit participants condemned the “continued violations and abuses and systematic undue restrictions of human rights and fundamental freedoms that residents of Crimea face,” including the right to religion or belief. Participants also pledged in the joint statement “to urge the Russian Federation to ensure that all persons belonging to ethnic and religious communities in the peninsula, including ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, are fully able to enjoy their human rights and given the possibility to maintain and develop their culture, education, identity, and cultural heritage traditions, which are currently severely threatened by the temporary occupation.”
Embassy officials also continued to meet with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns about actions taken against their congregations by the occupation “authorities” and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice freely their religious beliefs.