DECEMBER 13, 2017
The ongoing conflict in some areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, now in its fourth year, has been causing deteriorating living conditions and hardship for most residents. For Jehovah’s Witnesses living in these areas, the distress is compounded by growing religious intolerance. Local authorities apparently are influenced by the recent court decisions in Russia banning the worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses there. Copying the pattern set in Russia, some local authorities are employing illegal methods to incriminate the Witnesses living in the areas under their control and are threatening their religious freedom.
Following the tactics of Russia’s prosecutors, authorities in these regions have resorted to fabricating evidence to make accusations against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic placed on the Republican Extremist Material List two articles from past issues of the Witnesses’ religious magazines. The Witnesses were not notified of the court proceedings, nor have they been able to obtain a copy of the immediately enforceable decision in order to appeal it.
In August 2017, prosecutors’ offices in Novoazovsk and Debaltsevo issued warning letters to the local Witnesses, directing them not to distribute their religious magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!, without first obtaining a permit. In this way the authorities obstruct distribution even of religious materials not declared extremist and threaten to hold congregation elders liable for any distribution of the Witnesses’ literature. A similar warning was later issued to Witnesses in the city of Makeyevka.
On August 4, 2017, special antiterror units, together with soldiers and police, interrupted the religious services of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alchevsk and Luhansk, claiming that there had been a bomb threat. After evacuating the worshippers from the buildings, the officers checked the documents of everyone in attendance. *
In Alchevsk the officers video recorded their inspection of the building, purportedly in search of a bomb. The search turned up a small quantity of the Witnesses’ religious literature and then “found” anti-LPR * propaganda pamphlets that the officers had smuggled in and planted.
Groundless Accusations Made to Justify Barring Religious Activity
Several weeks after the Kingdom Hall raids, authorities in Luhansk groundlessly portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as enemies of the State. On August 28, 2017, the Deputy Minister of State Security of the LPR, Oleksandr Basov, made an official statement vilifying Jehovah’s Witnesses. He referred to the propaganda materials planted and “found” in the Alchevsk Kingdom Hall as proof for his allegation that the Witnesses support groups that are considered terrorist in the Luhansk territory.
The spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, Ivan Riher, stated: “Any material of the type described by Deputy Minister Basov as ‘found’ in the Kingdom Hall was certainly planted there by the same group that discovered it. Perhaps, as alleged, literature of this sort was distributed in Alchevsk—but it most certainly was not distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are neutrals, as proved by the hundreds of Witnesses now imprisoned worldwide for conscientious objection to military service. None of Jehovah’s Witnesses have fought on either side of this conflict in Ukraine.” *
Increasing Pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses
A number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the region report that authorities have stopped them from sharing their beliefs with others and have warned them not to continue, though no one has yet been charged by the police. Many of the Witnesses also report that the Security Service has called them in to meet with officers. During the meetings the Witnesses are interrogated, intimidated, and put under pressure to reveal the names of those organizing their religious activity. The local authorities have also raided and interfered with their worship services.
The escalating religious discrimination and pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses in some territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is more than harassment—it is religious persecution and a threat to religious freedom. Jehovah’s Witnesses are increasingly cautious and are seeking legal remedies so that they may continue their peaceful religious activity.
^ par. 7 In Alchevsk, two elders were interrogated all day. They explained that throughout the conflict, the congregation has been holding their worship services without disturbance in their Kingdom Hall, which is located near the commandants’ office. However, one elder was fined 5,000 rubles ($83, U.S.) for organizing a mass meeting during wartime and 3,000 rubles ($48, U.S.) for violating fire regulations in the Kingdom Hall.
^ par. 8 The LPR, or Luhansk People’s Republic, controls certain territories in the Luhansk region.
^ par. 11 In the summer of 2014, the president of Ukraine decreed a partial military mobilization in response to the conflict in the Donestsk and Luhansk regions. Vitaliy Shalaiko, a former soldier in the Ukrainian army and now one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, responded to his summons by stating that he is a conscientious objector. On June 23, 2015, the High Specialized Court of Ukraine for Civil and Criminal Cases upheld his right to abstain from military service even during mobilization. Thousands of other Witnesses in Ukraine have taken the same stand.