Crimea religious communities face persecution, legal restrictions

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, religious groups there — aside from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — are facing persecution, and restrictions on their ministries.

Religious communities in Crimea face an uncertain legal framework and are unsure of what laws must be observed. Catholics, Muslims and Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyiv Patriarchate are all facing persecution from local authorities, and anticipate that they may have to go underground next year.

"The so-called ‘Crimean government’ issued a new law under which all religious organizations, by the end of the year, must go through a process of re-registration,” explained the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, at an October 23 press conference.

“The requirements are very complicated. But even if we fulfilled all the requirements, no-one would be able to guarantee the existence of our Greek Catholic community in Crimea any longer.”

It is thus possible that in January 2015 the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church will find itself outside the law, with its parishes and other property subject to confiscation.

Among the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests continuing to serve in Crimea is Fr Bohdan Kosteskiy. He celebrates Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian, and says he can't abandon his believers now, because “the priest is a sign of hope for them.”

In September, Fr. Kosteskiy was detained, along with a group of his parishioners, by “unknown police forces”.

They were released after a few days in captivity. He was also briefly detained in March, three days before Crimea's official annexation, by pro-Russian forces.

The legal uncertainty accompanying the process of re-registration makes continued ministry difficult for the Church.

"The re-registering means accepting the annexation of Crimea as a legal fact; but to ignore this process would place the community outside the law, and be the actual start of an underground sector,” said Alexander Dobroyer, director of the European Institute of Social Communications.

Until lately, nine Roman Catholic priests worked in Crimea, but two were recently forced to leave the peninsula. Like the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, the Roman Catholics in Crimea have halted plans for the construction of new parishes.

"We do not recognize the annexation of Crimea, because the Church is outside of politics,” said Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol.

“There are processes that do not depend on us; but we must re-register our communities under the new Russian legislation in order to stay among our people. This puts deep fear in us.”