DECEMBER 13, 2016
People living in the eastern regions of Ukraine daily confront situations that disrupt their lives and foster uncertainty and fear. The conflict in the region also brings a heightened sense of anxiety to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not only the prevailing insecurity but also the religious discrimination that is alarming. Armed men have seized control of some of the Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls (houses of worship). They have told the Witnesses that the Orthodox religion is the only approved religion and that they intend to “uproot Jehovah’s Witnesses” from the eastern regions of Ukraine.
Seizures of Kingdom Halls
Between June 2014 and November 2016, groups of armed men have forcibly seized 18 Kingdom Halls, either for use as barracks or for other uses to support their cause. While most of these seizures of property took place when the conflict was growing in 2014, Kingdom Halls have also been seized recently.
On the morning of July 22, 2016, a group of Witnesses in Horlivka were gathered for worship in the Kingdom Hall at 105-A Vitchyzniana Street when armed men entered the building and ordered everyone to leave immediately. The men ransacked the building and removed all of the furniture and equipment. This same building had been seized on November 29, 2014, but was soon abandoned. The Witnesses had resumed using their house of worship for religious meetings until it was seized again, on July 22.
Three days later, armed men entered another Kingdom Hall in Horlivka, located at 9 Simferopolska Street. The men took everything from the building, even the radiators, and removed the exterior fence. The congregations that formerly met at the building have had to make other arrangements to gather for worship.
Persisting in Meeting Together for Worship
Some congregations that were forced out of their Kingdom Hall meet for worship in small groups to avoid undue attention from armed groups. Other Witnesses travel to Kingdom Halls outside the conflict zone for their religious meetings, coping with poor transportation and additional expense. Those who cannot travel because of age or poor health listen to their religious meetings by telephone.
The effort required to gather together is compounded by the hostilities and other hardships. Illia Kobel, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, stated: “Like their neighbors, Witnesses living close to the buffer zone are emotionally exhausted because of the frequent shootings and explosions. They face economic difficulties caused by rising prices and low income. Despite the challenges, the Witnesses persist in meeting together for worship with fellow believers.”
The Witnesses Return to Some Kingdom Halls
Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that they can once again use six of the seized buildings as places of worship. Although the buildings suffered damage, local Witnesses worked together to repair them to make them suitable for religious meetings. A seventh building was so severely damaged that it is not yet usable.
A congregation forced from its Kingdom Hall in the Luhansk region in September 2014 was able to worship in the building again about a year later. An elder in the congregation, Anatoliy Danko, expressed the feelings of many when he said: “At moments like this, we appreciate that our congregation is our family. After a long separation, we came back to our home.”
Neutrality Amid Conflict
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for their political neutrality—they do not take sides in any conflict. Witnesses living in the eastern regions of Ukraine are no different. They look forward to the time when they can live peacefully with their families and neighbors and freely practice their religion without hindrance.