Through its attempted annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its vigorous support of the separatist paramilitaries in Eastern Ukraine, Russia has violated Ukrainian sovereignty. And as a direct result of these actions, civilians suffered. At least 8,000 people died, another 1.5 million were internally displaced and nearly a million sought refuge outside of their country.
What is less commonly known is that Russia is waging a war against religious diversity and freedom in Ukrainian territories under its control: the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
In Crimea, the occupation authorities ordered religious groups to officially register or lose their legal operating status. The registration process is onerous and expensive, and does not guarantee official recognition. A religious group that is not recognized as such forfeits the right to open bank accounts, own property, invite foreign guests and publish literature.
Russia also has targeted Crimea's religious minorities by persecuting and punishing practitioners of certain religions under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism. These laws set a very low bar for "extremism". A person asserting the superiority of his or her religious beliefs, even if they never used threats or violence, may be charged with and prosecuted for extremism, and their religious texts may be banned.
In Crimea, occupation authorities subjected religious minorities, particularly the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, and its adherents; the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Muslim Tatars to harassment, intimidation, detentions, and beatings. They seized religious property, raided churches and mosques, and pushed a media campaign portraying these groups and their adherents as traitors or extremists.
In Donbass, Russian-backed separatists kidnapped, beat, and threatened Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and participated in anti-Semitic acts. They detained and terrorized religious leaders, and destroyed, vandalized and seized church property. Militants have attacked, beaten, kidnapped, even murdered Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The United States calls on Russia to cease its persecution of religious minorities, and to afford them the respect they deserve: the same respect its constitution grants to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and the Russian Orthodox Church.