Beaten and threatened: the 'Donetsk People's Republic' turns on city's priests
Praying for peace can be a dangerous endeavour for Christians in Donetsk, especially if they happen not to follow the Russian Orthodox Church.
The self-declared “People’s Republic”, which controls this Ukrainian city and much of the surrounding region, proclaims Orthodoxy to be its official religion. Inside their occupied headquarters building, leaders of the pro-Russian rebellion display portraits of St Nicholas and the glittering iconography of their faith.
But all other Churches are viewed with deep suspicion. Having turned on journalists, trade unionists and anyone who favours a united Ukraine, the “People’s Republic” has found a new target in the form of priests who do not share its religion.
Father Sergei Kosyak from the Gospel Church traditionally joins a “prayer marathon” after Easter every year. When prayers were being said around a tent in central Donetsk on May 23, however, Fr Kosyak found himself confronted by 15 rebels.
“We were praying for peace in Ukraine - and we had a banner with the Ukrainian flag,” he remembered. “This angered the representatives of the ‘People’s Republic’. They pointed guns at us while some of them took down the tent and threw it into the river.”
The 60 worshippers were forcibly dispersed, leaving Fr Kosyak alone. He went straight to the occupied regional government building, now the headquarters of the “People’s Republic”, to protest in person.
Instead of receiving an apology, however, Fr Kosyak was hauled inside the building and taken to the 10th floor, where in a chilling echo of the organisation that carried out Stalin’s purges, one office door carries the letters “NKVD”.
”I told them it was a meeting to pray for the peace of Ukraine,” said Fr Kosyak. “They said a far-right activist was there with me. I said ‘I don’t care who was there - we are all sinners. My answers angered them, so they started beating me.”
For the next four hours, Fr Kosyak endured interrogation and assault. Five men and one woman took turns to beat him with clubs and whips. A gun was pointed at his head. At one point, they threatened to break the priest’s fingers with a hammer.
”They had all the equipment they needed,” he said. “They had metal and rubber clubs and whips, they had hammers.”
Eventually, he was pushed into another room and told “this is where you will stay”. Then a more senior rebel, who happened to attend a Protestant church, passed by. Apparently shamed by this treatment of a priest, he secured Fr Kosyak’s release.
”I don’t know what would have happened without this man. I believe that he saved me,” he said. The presence of a Ukrainian flag at the prayer meeting triggered the attack, but Fr Kosyak, 38, believes that his religion was “part” of the reason for his ordeal.
”One of the accusations they threw at me was that I’m not an Orthodox priest,” he remembered. “It was a part of what happened to me. But the main reason was a political one: they perceived me as an enemy.”
Four days later, another priest was kidnapped in broad daylight. Father Pawel Witek, a Roman Catholic clergyman from Poland, disappeared at midday on May 27. He was visiting Donetsk to meet the local Dean of his Church.
Fr Witek was forced into the boot of a car and driven to a rebel base, where he was tied up and interrogated. His captors accused him of being a “Polish sniper”, sent by his country’s government to fight the rebellion. He was held overnight before being freed. Fr Witek immediately left Ukraine.
Other cases have carried a more explicit tone of religious persecution. Father Tikhon Kulbaka, from the Greek-Catholic Church, presides over St Andrew’s chapel with about 50 regular worshippers. Since the “People’s Republic” took over Donetsk, he has received a stream of threats.
His phone number and the address of his chapel have appeared on pro-Russian websites. He duly received two text messages reading: “Shut up you fat bitch. If you bark any more you will be found with a slit belly.”
Fr Kulbaka, 43, also favours a united Ukraine, but he believes “beyond any doubt” that his faith explains the threats, noting how the “constitution” of the “People’s Republic” makes Orthodoxy the state religion.
”I’ve read this document myself and it is stated that the dominating religion is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate,” said Fr Kulbaka. “This particular statement contradicts every European and international law about the equality of religions. And the constitution of Ukraine also states that all religions are equal.”
Fr Kulbaka is grimly realistic about what may lie ahead, but determined not to yield. “I think they will do their best to oust us from here,” he said. “But the captain is the last person to leave the ship: we won’t abandon the people who believe in us.”