Religious communities in Ukraine “will likely be targeted with violence and oppression” should Russia gain control of Ukraine, a federal commission on religious freedom has warned.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it is appalled by the suffering caused by the Russian invasion of its independent neighbor, which entered its fourth week on Wednesday.
“There is a direct relationship between religious freedom violations and the dismantling of civil society in and by Russia,” USCIRF Commissioner James W. Carr said in a statement. “The Russian government uses distortions of religious history to support its claim that Ukrainians have no independent ethnoreligious identity or state tradition,” he said.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which broke with the Russian Orthodox Church and gained recognition from Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019, would be “in jeopardy if Russian control expands” in the nation, Mr. Carr said.
Another USCIRF commissioner, Khizr Khan, said other religious minorities would be at risk should Russia gain a larger territory.
Mr. Khan said the Russians have used “baseless charges of religious extremism and terrorism” to block adherents of those faiths and institutions “that do not conform to its narrow interpretation of ‘traditional’ religion.”
He cited the fate of indigenous Tatar Muslims in Russian-occupied Crimea, who regularly face terrorism charges because of their ethnic and religious identity, according to reports.
Mr. Khan added, “Many of these individuals receive prison sentences of up to 20 years. The Russian government’s aggression toward religious freedom is an indicator that much worse will follow, as we certainly see a risk of this pattern being repeated” should Russia not be turned back in its invasion.
Already, Russian artillery on March 12 damaged a 16th-century monastery revered by Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, the Holy Dormition Svyatogorsk Lavra in eastern Ukraine. Also damaged that day was a mosque in Mariupol, where 80 civilians took shelter, the Associated Press reported.
Russia’s persecution of religious minorities has drawn American criticism over the years. In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated Russia a “country of particular concern” under the terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
Congress established USCIRF as an independent, bipartisan federal government entity to monitor, analyze, and report on religious freedom abroad. The group makes foreign policy recommendations “intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief,” a statement said.