Speech by Dr. Maksym Vasin, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Freedom, during the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, held on January 29, 2024, in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Senate Office Building.
First, I want to thank the United States for your vital support of Ukraine in its struggle for independence, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and religious pluralism. Ukraine wants to be a part of the free Western world. However, Russia tries to prevent this by committing genocide against the people of Ukraine.
I have personally witnessed the dramatic change in human rights and religious freedom in the Ukrainian territories that have come under Russian control. I was born and raised in the city of Donetsk, where I could enjoy religious freedom along with members of many religious minorities.
However, after 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, fear and hopelessness prevailed in my hometown. Most churches, except for the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, were forced to close. Most believers from religious minorities were forced to flee Russian repression to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. Only a few religious communities remained underground.
Members of my family survived Russian repression, arbitrary searches, and inhuman cruelty, because of their evangelical faith and Ukrainian identity. As a result, they were also forced to leave their home and flee religious persecution. Russia has provoked the most significant migration and humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
Unfortunately, to this day, Russia continues to kill civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure in Ukraine using ballistic missiles and attack drones. Russia is also destroying Ukraine's historical and cultural heritage, museums, and places of worship. According to the Ukrainian Institute for Religious Freedom, at least 630 religious sites have been destroyed, damaged, or looted in Ukraine as a result of the Russian full-scale invasion. The destruction of evangelical churches is widespread – more than 200 in total.
At the same time, Russian occupational authorities commit the most brutal persecution of all religious communities that try to preserve their Ukrainian identity and refuse to come under the control of Russian religious centers. Russian officials illegally arrest, abduct, and imprison Ukrainian priests, pastors, imams, and other local religious leaders. They are subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman treatment by the Russian military. You can read more about this in the "Faith under Fire" report prepared by Mission Eurasia and the Institute for Religious Freedom.
However, Russia is trying to hide its atrocities against Ukrainian religious communities. To do this, Russian propaganda spreads distorted information that Ukraine allegedly restricts religious freedom and bans churches. This is not true! The Ukrainian government has not banned any church, and the draft law on breaking ties with Russian religious centers has not yet been adopted. It is still being discussed in the Ukrainian parliament following democratic procedures. Instead, Russia systematically uses religion and the Orthodox Church in its war against Ukraine and to justify its invasion. The main goal of Russian propaganda is to deprive Ukraine of international support.
Therefore, I recommend you not to trust a single word of Russian propaganda. Please continue to support the people of Ukraine in their struggle for freedom and democracy. I call on the U.S. Congress to pass wartime support for Ukraine, because Ukraine's victory is a guarantee of peace not only in Europe but also for the United States.
Photo credit: Brown Photography