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FEBRUARY 13, 2015

Religious Buildings Seized in Eastern Regions of Ukraine

Religious Buildings Seized in Eastern Regions of Ukraine

Armed groups have forcibly taken possession of some Kingdom Halls (houses of worship) belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine. The seized buildings are located in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the eastern part of the country, where a violent conflict has raged for many months. These armed men have targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses because of prejudice and disregard for the Witnesses’ right to freedom of religion and association.

For more than 20 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine have enjoyed freedom of worship. Vasyl Kobel, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at their branch office in Lviv, stated: “We have regularly gathered in our houses of worship for Bible reading and prayer, and we have always endeavored to be a positive influence in the community in which we live. But in recent months, the lives of the Ukrainian people have been adversely affected by the turmoil in the east of the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception; we are also victims of the violence.”

Mr. Kobel spoke on behalf of the 150,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses who live in Ukraine. Thousands of Witnesses have fled the war zone in recent months. But the approximately 17,500 Witnesses who remain in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are trying to carry on their daily activities in the midst of a violent conflict. Because their Kingdom Halls have been seized, thousands of Witnesses have no building in which to gather for worship, and they are forced to meet in cramped conditions in private homes. Other Witnesses must now travel up to two hours each way to attend religious services.

Seizure of Kingdom Halls an Act of Religious Hatred

The seizures of Kingdom Halls are not random acts but are discriminatory attacks against the Witnesses and their religious beliefs. The commander of one group of men declared his intention to “get rid of all Jehovah’s Witnesses” because, in his view, the Orthodox Church is the sole religion permitted in the region. Another commander stated, “It’s all over for Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Despite these threats, Jehovah’s Witnesses are determined to remain active throughout Ukraine.

Although none of the Witnesses have been injured as a result of these seizures, their security and freedom to associate with fellow believers are threatened. In one case, armed men stormed a Kingdom Hall in the town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region during a religious meeting, frightening those in attendance, including elderly men and women, and children. In another case, Witnesses arriving at their Kingdom Hall for a religious service were shocked that the locks had been changed and the building was being used as military barracks.

What Is Being Done to Address the Problem

Mr. Kobel said: “The branch office in Lviv has contacted various government ministries and other officials to inform them of these illegal seizures of property. This puts the government on notice that what occurs in those buildings or acts committed by the illegal tenants of those buildings are out of our control.” Further, the branch office has directed the responsible men in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to do all they can to ensure the safety of individual Witnesses. These men have been reminded that lives are more important than buildings and that no action should be taken that would put the personal safety of any Witness in jeopardy.

Given the unrest, there is currently no legal recourse for the Witnesses to regain possession of their Kingdom Halls. However, despite the difficulties resulting from the seizure of their Kingdom Halls, the Witnesses are determined to continue their religious activities. They look forward to the time when their buildings are returned to them and they may meet once again with fellow believers in the security and comfort of their Kingdom Halls.