Christian churches are being threatened with firing squads and pastors held hostage by rebels as violence escalates eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
According to the Institute for Religious Freedom in Kiev, numerous human rights violations and persecution against believers have occurred over the summer--but are largely overlooked by the media.
Earlier this year, gunmen, under the command of rebel leader Igor Girkin, captured four men from Transfiguration Evangelical Church in Sloviansk, Donetsk. The town's deputy prosecutor, who managed to escape from DPR detention, said the men had been tortured and then shot. A Ukrainian government advisor revealed that the men had been buried in a mass grave.
The IRF reports that numerous churches in Donetsk also had their buildings looted and occupied by pro-Russian militants.
In June, armed guards stormed into Word of Life Evangelical Church in Torez, Donetsk. "They ordered us to take the furniture and get out, insisting that these churches are sects and they will be destroyed. The people in the building were threatened with a firing squad if they made a fuss about the incident," pastor Segiv Kosiak told IRF.
In July the Donetsk Christian University was seized, with militants declaring, "Due to the military situation in the city, the Donetsk Christian University will be made available to military units of the DNR, including all property, equipment, and other supplies and those who do not obey will face court-martial."
Another Word of Life Church in Donetsk had its building taken over by the rebels on August 13. Pastor Leonid Padun wrote on his blog the following day: "There are no words to express the pain and sorrow! For over twenty years we have invested [our] hearts, our finances into the church building, and now we are deprived of the opportunity to gather for prayer and worship to God."
Although a ceasefire was agreed on September 5, rebels have resumed attacks on Donetsk airport, killing a Red Cross aid worker was by a shelling in Donetsk. Disturbingly, Several incidents are recorded of church pastors and parishioners being kidnapped and detained for short periods before being released with warnings - as if the primary purpose of the exercise is to instill fear, reveals ChristianToday.
In September Padun wrote to his church: "I believe that these times of suffering will make us stronger in faith, refining us, changing our character, and making us more like Christ. [...] God has so much good in store for the Church, for our city and our country!"
According to Oleksandr Zaiets, head of the IRF, Christians are distrusted and feared by rebel forces, believing them to be sympathetic with Western powers.
"Leaders of the separatist movement in Donbas [...] accept evangelical churches as those which are supposedly financed by the West for spying and closely cooperate with the US and the EU."
Many Ukrainian churches joined together during the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, which began in November last year, and have also supported the Ukranian government.
"They suggest that believers who do not belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, are unreliable persons in light of the Orthodox idea of Russian World and related with it doctrine of Eurasianism," Zaiets says.
"This religious and geopolitical idea was proclaimed by the head of Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow a few years ago," he adds.