Russia’s crackdown on church leaders in Ukraine continues

By Jack Bethel |
Damaged St. Mitrofanov Church in Lysychansk, Luhansk Region, Ukraine.
Damaged St. Mitrofanov Church in Lysychansk, Luhansk Region, Ukraine. | (State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience)

Church leaders in Russian-occupied Ukraine continue to face crackdowns, with one arrested for “missionary activities” and two others deported to Georgia.

In occupied Luhansk Province, authorities on March 29 charged the Rev. Vladimir Rytikov, 64-year-old leader of the Sorokyne (Krasnodon) Council of Churches Baptist Church in Krasnodon, with “Russians conducting missionary activity” under Russian Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 4, according to rights watchdog Forum 18.

The arrest of Rytikov followed a raid on his Baptist church on Jan. 28, and the charges noted that he was leading that worship meeting. If found guilty, he could be fined between 5,000 to 50,000 Russian rubles (US $53 to US $530).

When Forum 18 asked Col. Sergei Krupa, head of the occupation police in Krasnodon, to give reasons for prosecuting the pastor for a church meeting held at a home, he refused and hung up the phone. 

There was no court hearing scheduled as of April 12.     

Police had also questioned Rytikov on Feb. 2, asking why the church had not been registered and demanding to see church statutes, according to Forum 18.

“I told them that our statute is the gospel,” Rytikov reportedly said.

He told police that the church did not want registration and refused to give information about church members. 

Officers summoned him to the police station on March 25, but he refused. Police told him they summoned him to draw up charges to be presented to a court, and that the church was banned in Luhansk, Rytikov reportedly said.

In the Jan. 28 raid, armed men interrupted the worship service of the church, founded in 1961. 

“They took out two of the elders, Vyacheslav Kollisnichenko and Mikhail Miknus,” local Baptists noted that day on Telegram, reported Forum 18. “They’re recording everything on camera! They’re letting no one out. They’re writing down the passport details of all those present.”

The armed men released the two elders and allowed the worship meeting to end. Officers interrogated Yuliya Vitsenovskaya, owner of the home where the church met, at a local police station. 

Miknus and Oleg Vorotilin, another church leader, faced questioning at the church site before they were released later that day along with Vitsenovskaya, according to Forum 18.

Rytikov was previously fined for leading unregistered worship meetings in 2018 and 2019. He faced charges by Russian occupiers of “extremism” in 2020 after his refusal to stop leading his church.  

In addition, Soviet authorities had jailed Rytikov from 1979 to 1982 for organizing a Christian children’s summer camp. His father, Pavel Rytikov, spent a decade in a Soviet Union jail for exercising his faith.

Meantime, Russian occupiers have deported two Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) priests to Georgia. A Russian occupation forces’ court in Donetsk Region in September 2023 illegally fined the Rev. Khristofor Khrimli and the Rev. Andri Chui of “illegal missionary activity” under Russian law, noted Forum 18. 

Both priests received fines after their arrests in the occupied Donetsk Region in September. Officials transferred them to Russia in October, and then sent Khrimli to Georgia in February and likewise Chui in March. Both priests are now recovering in Ukrainian government-held Ukraine.   

When Forum 18 asked Russian court Bailiff Aleksandr Nikolenko why the priests are not allowed home in Russian-occupied Donetsk Region, he reportedly said, “Because they were ordered to leave the Russian Federation.”

OCU priests such as Khrimli and Chui are suffering ongoing pressure to give allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church.  

Violations in Russia

In Russia, authorities this month levied a hefty fine on an elderly church leader for repeatedly “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces, according to Forum 18. 

The Rev. Viktor Pivovarov, 87-year-old leader of the Holy Intercession and Tikhon Church in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, was charged at Slavyansk City Court in the southern Krasnodar Region on April 8. The fine of 150,000 rubles (US $1,592) equals eight months of an average local pension. 

The archbishop has previously said he is waiting “to be either killed or imprisoned” at the hands of Russian authorities, as previously reported by Christian Daily International. 

He had criticized Russian’s invasion as “satanic,” and soldiers armed with machine guns badly beat his assistant, the Rev. Hieromonk Iona Sigida, during a raid at the church on Oct. 3. Authorities were expected to use money they took from the church during the raid to go toward paying the fine. 

Forum 18 said the court punished Pivovarov under Criminal Code Article 280.3, Part 1, “Public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” He is reportedly the fifth person to receive a criminal conviction for criticizing Russia’s role in the invasion from a faith perspective. 

In July, researcher Dylan Schexnaydre of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said religious minorities had been systematically harassed since the invasion. 

In his report, “Religious Freedom Conditions in the Russian Federation,” Schexnaydre called the harassment the largest crackdown on independent civil society in decades. 

“Public security officials enforce vague, problematic legislation targeting missionary activities, alleged ‘extremism’ and terrorism, ‘undesirable organizations,’ and blasphemy, among others, to oppress religious communities and fine and imprison members for their religious activities,” Schexnaydre wrote.  

On March 1, USCIRF pushed for sanctions to be taken against Russian officials for abusing Freedom of Religious Belief (FoRB) prisoners. 

In a public statement, USCIRF confirmed “hundreds” of FoRB prisoners of conscience imprisoned by Russian authorities. The statement highlighted the brutal death of Ukrainian priest Stepan Podolchak, as reported by Christian Daily International

“Russia’s religious freedom violations continue to reach an unprecedented scale,” said USCIRF Commissioner Susie Gelman. “The U.S. government cannot allow Russia’s brutal crackdown on religious communities, human rights organizations, and other groups working on religious freedom and countering disinformation to succeed.”