2017 Report on International Religious Freedom - Ukraine (Crimea)

In February 2014 Russian military forces occupied Crimea. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262, adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers Crimea still to be a part of Ukraine.

In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government continues not to recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and maintains Crimea continues to be part of Ukraine. Occupation forces continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

The head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses died of a heart attack following a court hearing on charges of conducting illegal missionary activities. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims faced charges for the same offense. According to human rights and international organizations, occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, especially if the authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. On August 31, Russian court bailiffs injured Archbishop Kliment, head of the Crimean Diocese of the UOC-KP, when they raided the UOC-KP cathedral and diocesan administration office in Simferopol and seized parts of the property. The Russian government reported there were 812 religious communities registered in Crimea, a number that had dropped by over 1,000 since occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stringent Russian legal requirements continued to prevent or discourage groups from reregistering, while individuals who refused Russian citizenship remained unable under occupation law to register their communities. The OHCHR reported local authorities in June deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea. The UGCC and the UOC-KP reported occupation authorities continued to make it difficult for them to operate in the territory. Local authorities reportedly told a Jehovah’s Witness he would not be able to participate in alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion.

Religious and human rights groups reported continued efforts by Russian media to create suspicion and fear among religious groups, accusing the Crimean Tatar community of links to Islamic groups designated by the Russian Federation as terrorists, and attempting to discredit the UOC-KP and the UGCC as “fascists.” Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all.

The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces. U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities, and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The Crimean peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine estimates, the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, at 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.

According to the most recent information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014, the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the UOC-KP, RCC, UAOC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.

There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the Russian occupation began.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.

GOVERNMENT PRACTICES

Summary Paragraph: The head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses died of a heart attack following a court hearing on charges of conducting illegal missionary activities. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims faced charges for the same offense. The occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, according to human rights and international organizations. Occupation authorities sentenced several Muslim Crimean Tatars to prison for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir and detained dozens more throughout the year. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, there were 812 registered religious communities in the region, more than 1,000 fewer than were registered under Ukrainian law in 2014, the last year for which figures were available from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities, while many religious minorities refusing Russian citizenship remained unable under occupation law to register their communities. The OHCHR reported local occupation authorities in June deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea. Greek Catholic leaders continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of the occupation. The UGCC reported it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the RCC. The UOC-KP reported continued seizures of its churches and the injury of UOC-KP Archbishop Kliment on August 31 when Russian bailiffs raided the main UOC-KP cathedral in Simferopol in Russia-occupied Crimea and seized religious property. Local authorities reportedly told a Jehovah’s Witness he could not participate in alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion. Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The investigation of Ervin Ibragimov’s kidnapping continued with no new information on his whereabouts at year’s end. In May 2016 unidentified uniformed men kidnapped Ibragimov, a Muslim and member of the Bakhchisarai Mejlis and of the Coordinating Council of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, after stopping his car on the side of the road. In June Ibragimov’s employment record book and passport were found near a bar in Bakhchisarai.

The NGO Crimean Human Rights Group reported the death of the head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Vitaly Arsenyuk, by a heart attack on June 27 following a hearing before a “justice of the peace” on charges of “unlawfully conducting missionary activities.”

On September 10, Akhtem Chiygoz, deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, was sentenced to eight years in jail in connection with what both the Ukrainian government and civil society organizations considered unfounded charges related to a demonstration that took place before Russia’s occupation began. Both Chiygoz and Mejlis representative Ilmi Umerov were released October 25 following negotiations by the Turkish government. The details of their release were not publicly known.

Forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. For example, according to a human rights NGO, on January 12, occupation authorities forcibly subjected Zevri Abseitov, detained on charges of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim political organization outlawed in Russia but legal in Ukraine, to psychiatric evaluation and confinement without apparent medical need.

In late April a court in Rostov, Russia changed the verdict for Ruslan Zeyitullayev, replacing his six-year prison sentence with twelve-years’ imprisonment on terrorism charges for his alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In April, May, and July he held hunger strikes, demanding Russian authorities stop ethnically and religiously motivated persecution of Crimean Tatars. On July 27, Russia’s Supreme Court rejected Zeyitullayev’s appeal and increased his prison term to 15 years.

During an offsite hearing in Simferopol on December 4, Russia’s Rostov District Military Court prolonged the detentions of Muslims Aliyev, Emir-Useyn Kuku,

Vadym Siruk, Enver Bekirov, Arsen Dzheparov and Refat Alimov until May 2018. The court cited their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Yalta.

On October 11, police detained six Crimean Tatars − Timur Ibragimov, Marlen Asanov, Server Zekiryayev, Ernest Mametov, Seyran Saliyev, and Memet Belyalov − for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. The press quoted their lawyer, Mammet Mambetov, as stating that police had beaten some of them while they were in custody. According to media reports, on December 5 and 7, Simferopol’s Kyivsky District Court extended their detention until March 2018. Russian media portrayed the Crimean Tatars detained on October 11 and subjected to searches in Bakhchisarai in January as “extremists.” The Crimean Tatar Resource Center, an NGO based in Kyiv, issued a statement following the October 11 arrests asserting such “systemic criminal acts” by the occupation authorities were an abuse of freedom of religion, were politically motivated, and “aimed at inciting ethnic and religious hatred.” Occupation authorities also detained another nine Crimean Tatars − Asan Ismailov, Amet Suleymanov, Eldar Ishnazarov, Ernest Ibragimov, Refat Asanov, Eskender Lyumanov, Ilnur Asanov, Rudem Nedjiev, and Ruslan Bilyalov − who were present at homes searched on October 11, and had tried to document and spread information about the searches. On October 12, the Bakhchisarai District Court imposed fines of 10,000 to 20,000 Russian rubles ($170 to $350) on each of the nine detainees for “organizing the simultaneous mass presence and movement of persons in public places, which caused violations of public order.”

Eight Crimean Tatars − Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memetov, Rustem Abiltarov, Ayder Saledinov, Teymur Abdullayev, Uzair Abdullayev, Emil Dzhemadenov, and Rustem Ismailov − all detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2016 on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, remained in custody at year’s end facing potential prison sentences of up to 10 years. According to media reports, on December 8, the Crimean Supreme Court extended the detention of Saledinov, Dzhemadenov, Ismailov, and Teymur and Uzair Abdullayev until February 2018. In February Ismailov and Saledinov were reportedly forced to undergo psychiatric examination.

In October the NGO Memorial released its annual report, which included a list of political prisoners in Russia. The report named three Crimean political prisoners who continued to be imprisoned in Russia for their participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yury Primov, Ferat Saifullayev, and Ruslan Zeitullayev were detained in Sevastopol in 2015 and charged with participation in or organizing activities for a terrorist group as designated by Russian law.

On August 31, Russian court bailiffs twisted the arm of Archbishop Kliment, head of the Crimean Diocese of the UOC-KP, when they raided the UOC-KP cathedral and diocesan administration office in Simferopol. The archbishop was transported by ambulance to hospital for treatment. The bailiffs cited a 2016 decision by Crimea’s “arbitration court” to revoke a lease agreement for the property, evict the UOC-KP from the cathedral, and pay a fine of 500,000 Russian rubles ($8,600). They restricted access to portions of the property and seized the cross, church utensils, icons, porcelain, and crystal tableware donated to the church, as well as carpets.

According to the OHCHR, following an April decision by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, local authorities deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea on June 1. The OHCHR report stated the ban “affected the right to freedom of religion of an estimated 8,000 believers in the region.”

Based on information provided by the Ministry of Justice of Russia, the OHCHR reported 722 religious communities were registered with the local authorities in Crimea and 96 in Sevastopol as of September 4. These included the two largest religious organizations – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC) – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there were 2,083 religious organizations (a term including parishes, congregations, theological schools, monasteries, and other constituent parts of a church or religious group) in the ARC and 137 in Sevastopol. The numbers included organizations both with and without legal entity status. Muslim religious organizations constituted the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which were affiliated with the SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group.

The OHCHR report on the most recent number of registered religious communities indicated more than 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities. In addition, many members of religious minorities, especially Crimean Tatars and members of the UOC-KP, continued to refuse Russian citizenship and remained unable under occupation law to register a religious community.

According to human rights groups, the authorities continued to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars, who are Muslim, following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.”

Human rights groups reported the occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 2, police “stormed into” a Kingdom Hall in Dzhankoy during a prayer service and, citing the Russian Supreme Court’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses activity, searched the building and locked it to prevent future religious gatherings at the site. Occupation authorities continued to occupy the building at year’s end.

According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, occupation authorities brought administrative charges against 13 individuals, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims, for illegal “missionary activity,” although some were attending religious meetings of the religious group to which they belonged. The punishments generally involved fines of approximately 10 days’ wages, according to Forum 18. Occupation authorities brought an additional 14 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community.

On February 9, a “justice of the peace” of the Bakhchisarai District fined Arsen Ganiev for “missionary activity conducted at an unauthorized location” for distributing calendars, leaflets, and a book about the forthcoming celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.

On February 18, a “justice of the peace” of Yalta District sentenced Hryhoriy Stasyuk, local leader of the Church of Christians of Seventh-day Adventists in Yalta. He was fined 30,000 Russian rubles ($520) for the absence of a signboard with the full name of the organization at the entrance to the premises in which the church held its services.

On May 11, a “justice of the peace” of the Bakhchisarai District imposed a fine of 30,000 Russian rubles ($520) on Nikolay Blyshchik, a pastor of the local evangelical Revival Church, for the absence of a signboard with the full name of the organization at the entrance to the premises where the church services were conducted.

The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. The RCC stated it faced continued difficulty in staffing parishes, as occupation authorities continued to require its Polish and Ukrainian priests, the majority, to register as foreign residents. As such, the priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and then were required to remain out of Crimea for 90 days before returning.

According to the UGCC, it could still only operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC and was prohibited from operating independently.

According to the UOC-KP, Russian occupation authorities intensified pressure on the UOC-KP Crimean diocese in a bid to force the UOC-KP to leave the region. Only eight of the 15 UOC-KP churches located in Crimea prior to the Russian occupation remained functioning at the end of the year.

According to media reports, Russian authorities sanctioned the destruction of a historic Islamic cemetery in Gurzuf to prepare the site for construction of a children’s camp building. The construction began in January and continued, although workers had unearthed human remains. In November Russian media reported that occupation authorities would give the site protected heritage status.

According to the All-Ukraine Union of Pentecostal Churches, occupation authorities in Bakhchisarai forced the local Pentecostal congregation Voice of Hope to move out of its building located opposite a newly built FSB facility. Occupation authorities cited violations of construction standards. The congregation resumed worship in a different building.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia website, on June 9, officials of the Bakhchisarai District’s Military Registration and Enlistment Office told a local Jehovah’s Witness he would not be able to perform alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion. The office reportedly served the conscript a summons requiring him to present documents showing his “change of faith” and warning him that authorities would prosecute him for rejecting their demand.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media articles and commentary continued attempts to discredit the UOC-KP and the UGCC, depicting the groups as “fascists” for supporting the Ukrainian government and opposing the Russian occupation. For example, on June 4, the Russian news website Life.ru posted a lengthy analysis of the “history” of the UOC-KP, purportedly showing how “Nazi supporters” dominated the UOC-KP both in the past and in the present.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Christians and Muslims. U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of minority religious congregations, including Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars.

Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to hold meetings in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. They discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by the occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In meetings with U.S. officials on December 11 and 12, representatives from the UOC-KP, UOC-MP, Pentecostal Church, UGCC, Baptist Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, and Muslim communities expressed concerns regarding continued harassment, intimidation, and property confiscation by occupation authorities. Embassy officials said the United States would continue to support religious freedom in the peninsula and press the occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.