(Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s Symposium, International Law in the Face of Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine: The View from Lviv.)

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has brought immeasurable pain and hardship to its people, with hundreds of thousands losing their lives. Human rights and freedoms are blatantly disregarded in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, with religious freedom being systematically violated. The devastation extends to historic cities and vital civilian infrastructure, sparking the biggest migration crisis in Europe since the end of World War II, but it goes beyond the brutal violence. This is a conflict with profound religious significance at its core.

Russia’s aggression has brought about significant changes in Ukrainian society, affecting the economy, social dynamics, national identity, future aspirations, and moral perspectives on good and evil. This has influenced approaches and priorities in many aspects of life, including the religious sphere. Has this new situation altered the essence of religious freedom? If so, which specific areas have been impacted the most?

On Feb. 24, 2022, martial law was declared in Ukraine. The government invoked derogation from important articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, notably Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion). This derogation notice was later extended multiple times. Other international legal norms, such as the protection of religious freedom in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, continue to apply.

However, within Ukraine, there is no question of any changes in the fundamental understanding of religious freedom. The government’s derogations did not impact individual freedoms, which are integral to the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under modern international law. Each of these freedoms is inherently personal, meaning their exercise depends on the individual choice of every citizen in society, with state assurances for their implementation. Existing domestic legislation in Ukraine fully guarantees these freedoms, and the current shifts in the country due to the war should not impede the realization of citizens’ personal rights, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Ukrainian Religious Institutions During War

Nevertheless, there has been a significant shift in attitudes towards institutionalized forms of religiosity and their societal impact during times of war, signifying a fundamental transformation. Over the past few years, religious organizations have emerged as a significant pillar of society, showcasing a well-defined and diverse structure. Their influence has garnered substantial trust among citizens, while also exerting both stabilizing and destabilizing impacts on the political and social landscape of society.

Foreign religious organizations influencing events in Ukraine present a long-standing and recurring concern. Various denominations have been involved at different periods, but since 2014, the focus has been on the impact of Russian-based religious organizations and those affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. This particular group has openly backed the invasion and spread chauvinistic notions of the Russian world concept, intensifying the discussion of their influence in the region.

In the period between 2014 and 2018, Ukrainian religious leaders undertook efforts to obtain a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or a special decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is recognized as the representative and spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Tomos officially recognized and established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it autocephaly (self-governorship). This event marked a pivotal moment in the nation’s agenda. Systematic efforts to achieve self-sufficiency sparked debates about potential political interference by Russia in the process.

However, the granting of the Tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 not only altered the standing of the Ukrainian church within global Orthodoxy, but also triggered seismic shifts in the religious landscape of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Orthodoxy, historically characterized by multiple jurisdictions, has transitioned towards a more unified structure following the establishment of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This consolidation resulted from the merger of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, both of which were oriented towards national advancement and uniting pro-Ukrainian believers. They played a key role in promoting the idea of autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy, seeking independence from Moscow. Additionally, they effectively promoted Ukrainian identity within the Orthodox community.

Simultaneously, religious institutions have faced more challenges from different Orthodox jurisdictions and individuals of other denominations. The concern over how this imbalance may unfold and whether it could potentially result in a breach of the principle of equality among religious organizations as safeguarded by Ukrainian legislation has become pressing.

This raises the question of whether the adherence to the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as guaranteed by international law, could potentially deteriorate, impacting not only individuals but also religious organizations.

The Impact of Ukraine’s New Laws

International efforts in the realm of freedom of conscience, thought, and religion aim to advocate for the idea that every religious denomination, whether it be an established traditional church or a newly formed unconventional group, deserves the right to religious freedom. Put simply, all religious denominations should be able to operate without unjustified restrictions or persecution, even if they are minority groups. However, practical challenges tend to arise in complex social contexts. The prevalent reality in most Central and Eastern European countries is the emergence of competing alternative jurisdictions within the same confession or denomination. While the existence of these alternative jurisdictions may be dialectically influenced, they can also serve as significant destabilizing factors in the internal affairs of these countries.

Conceptually, alterations in the religious landscape following the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine did not impact the extent of rights and freedoms afforded to religious organizations as guaranteed by Ukrainian law.

However, immediately following the granting of the Tomos, there was a swift process of extensive amendments to Ukraine’s existing legislation concerning freedom of conscience and religious organizations. While the foundational principles remained intact, shifts in the socio-political landscape necessitated reforms in how individual religious organizations operate in Ukraine and the formation of organizational structures.

In 2018, changes were made to the 1991 law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations in Ukraine. These amendments mandated that religious organizations and associations with foreign affiliations must rename themselves to indicate their connection to foreign entities (governing centers). The objective of the amendments was to require religious organizations with a “governing center” in a country designated by law as a state that “committed military aggression against Ukraine and temporarily occupied Ukraine’s territory” to use the full title of the foreign religious organization in its name. This directly impacted entities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) due to their ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Additionally, a separate set of amendments modified regulations for state registration of religious organizations with the status of a legal entity. This law specifies reregistration requirements for any organizations that wish to change their affiliation, particularly Ukrainian Orthodox Church parishes seeking to join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The law bans any transfer of an organization’s property until the affiliation change is finalized. These changes aimed to address any potential conflicts related to the indeterminacy of the jurisdiction of religious organizations that may arise following the granting of the Tomos.

Currently, it is important to acknowledge that, despite some limited implementation, the effectiveness of these changes has not met expectations. The law regarding registration, while frequently utilized, has not been without conflicts. The implementation of the law concerning governing centers faced immediate obstacles due to appeals to various judicial bodies. Subsequently, after the Constitutional Court of Ukraine deemed the complex application mechanism under the existing legislation constitutional, progress was able to continue.

Assessing the effectiveness and influence of these legislative measures on the practice of rights and freedoms by religious organizations is a challenging task. However, it appears likely that these laws will face challenges in both Ukrainian and international courts. Overall, these laws primarily focused on the Orthodox community and did not significantly affect the operations of other religious organizations or their ability to practice freedom of religion.

Systematic Violations of Religious Freedom due to Russia’s Aggression

The situation took a drastic turn in February 2022 following Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Every religious organization in Ukraine has experienced persistent violations of their rights and freedoms as guaranteed by international law.

Ukrainian citizens are being denied the right to freely practice their religion in areas occupied by the Russian Federation. Despite international humanitarian law requiring the occupying power to uphold the existing laws of the country, the Russian Federation enforces its own laws in the occupied territories. Entire religious communities in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine have faced repression, including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Protestant churches, Muslim communities, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious minorities.

The right to worship and gather for religious purposes, as well as the ability to establish and maintain places of worship, has been violated across Ukraine. Religious buildings across the country have been severely damaged or completely destroyed. International humanitarian law prohibits directing hostile acts against “historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples,” or use of objects “in support of the military effort.” But since the start of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, at least 630 religious sites have been confirmed as destroyed by the State Service for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience, which is the central executive body in this domain in Ukraine. This information has been reported to UNESCO as part of the preliminary assessment of the damage to cultural sites.

Notably, when it comes to the devastation of religious buildings, it is religious minority groups that bear the brunt of persecution in the occupied regions.

The landscape within Orthodoxy has undergone significant shifts as well. The onset of full-scale aggression has prompted discussions about the presence of institutions associated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This church not only propagates chauvinistic ideologies but also promotes narratives that claim infringement on Ukrainian territories and values, as evidenced by recent documents from the World Russian People’s Council that, during its meeting of late March 2024, adopted a document stating that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a “Holy War.”

Given this situation, the question of prohibiting structures linked to the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged in Ukraine’s political discourse. Yet as of now, it remains a theoretical idea rather than a tangible practice.

Historically, Ukraine has embraced religious diversity as a fundamental societal value, coupled with an egalitarian approach towards religious entities. Following independence, no religious organization was prohibited or favored as dominant, reflecting a tradition of inclusivity and equality within the country. Today, the potential imposition of limitations on the operations of specific religious groups affiliated with religious organizations with a governing center in the country that committed military aggression against Ukraine is characterized by a sense of uncertainty. Until legislative changes currently under consideration by the Parliament are implemented and a clear understanding of the practical implications emerges, the ambiguity surrounding the process remains evident.

Despite the at times ambiguous situation in Ukraine’s religious environment during the war, the established religious landscape of the country remained unaffected by the very fact of mass migration triggered by Russia’s aggression. But the occupation and internal displacement of citizens emerged as significant factors of change. While the number of believers may have fluctuated, the count of religious organizations has remained consistent. There is limited information or predictions regarding the religious landscape in this context, highlighting the need to explore the implications of mass migration on faith and religious practices moving forward.

Looking towards the future, a compelling aspect to consider is the anticipated return of individuals who have migrated. Will post-war Ukrainian society embrace openness and inclusivity, welcoming back those who have been exposed to different values and viewpoints during their time away? Despite not sharing the collective experience of the war with fellow citizens, will these returnees feel disconnected or estranged from their homeland? These questions underscore the complex dynamics that may unfold as Ukraine transitions into a post-war era, where the reintegration of returning migrants and the evolving societal fabric will shape the nation’s path forward.

IMAGE: A woman lights candles on Easter Eve, the Holy Saturday, at the St Volodymyr’s Cathedral on May 4, 2024 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Danylo Antoniuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)