Eurasia Political Update
One of the biggest developments in Eurasia in the last two months is the split between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) on October 11th. Shortly after the fall of the USSR, in 1992, a large segment of the UOC, which had previously been under the ROC, declared autocephaly, forming the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC KP), while the rest of the UOC remained under the Moscow Patriarchate. However, over the years, Ukraine has increasingly felt that Russia was using the ROC to influence its affairs and as a means of preserving its territorial interests. Earlier this year the UOC KP, with the support of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, appealed to Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, for his blessing for the UOC to gain autocephaly. Despite tremendous pressure from Russia to refuse, Archbishop Bartholomew granted the request.
It’s not yet clear how the schism will play out. Individual UOC MP parishes have the right to vote on whether they will join the UOC KP or will choose to remain part of the newly-titled Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Filaret of the UOC KP has stated that the goal is to have a single unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, however the church does not wish to cause division or violence. The UOC KP does not plan to seize UOC MP church property, as that could give Moscow an excuse to take action “to protect the rights of Russian Orthodox believers,” just as it seized Crimea in order to “protect the rights of ethnic Russians.”
Following the split, the Orthodox churches in Belarus and most other former Soviet republics stated that they wish to remain under the authority of the ROC MP, however the situation in Moldova is a bit more complex, with a significant minority of Orthodox believers belonging to the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, which is under neighboring Romania’s authority. The Bessarabian church only gained legal recognition in Moldova in 2002 after a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights. The split in the Moldovan church reflects division in Moldovan society between those who want to remain closely allied with Russia and the former Soviet Union, and those who want to strengthen ties with Romania and the European Union.
Immediately after separatists took control of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine in 2014, forming the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR, respectively), they began seizing the property of evangelical churches, arresting, intimidating, and in some cases even torturing and killing church leaders. Although there have not been any recent reports of physical torture, there have been several cases in recent months of evangelical churches and property seized in DPR and LPR. LPR took the additional step in February 2018 of requiring all religious organizations, other than the ROC, to undergo a re-registration process. Russia took similar measures after annexing the Crimea, and a significant portion of Evangelical churches and other religious minorities were unable to re-register under the new system. LPR took the Russian model a step farther, and declared in October after the re-registration deadline had passed, that not a single Evangelical church had succeeded in fulfilling registration requirements. This decision to refuse churches the right to register effectively outlaws the practice of Evangelical Christianity in the LPR, taking away their physical property and putting believers at risk of fines and arrests even for meetings in private homes. The information gathered through the re-registration process could also potentially be used for further persecution and harassment in the future. This declaration follows a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in LPR in February 2018, similar to one passed in Russia in April 2017, a ban on the Baptist Union in LPR in July 2018, and a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in DPR in September 2018.
On November 11th, elections were held in LPR and DPR, where acting head Denis Pushillin (former organizer of a notorious Russian pyramid scheme that swindled millions of their life savings) was elected head of the DPR, following the assassination of the former leader a few months ago. Leonid Pasechnik, former head of Ukrainian national security for the Lugansk Region, was elected head of LPR, after serving as acting head since the previous leader’s resignation under suspicious circumstances last year. Elections in both republics were widely denounced as illegitimate and Western governments refused to recognize them.
In October the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the President of Uzbekistan’s Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies to work together on religious freedom issues. This is good news from one of the most restrictive countries in Eurasia. The ceremony was attended by US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback. “The signed agreement gives hope and opportunity for religious minorities, including Evangelical Christians, to be recognized and included in public dialogue around important issues for the society,” shares Wade Kusack, who has worked with Mission Eurasia extensively on religious freedom issues and was part of IGE’s delegation.
Despite the encouraging Memorandum, believers in Uzbekistan face continued persecution and harassment from authorities for practicing their faith. A few weeks ago a Protestant church service was raided by 20 police officers, who searched the building without a warrant, confiscated church property and believers’ personal property, and took all forty Christians, including small children, to a police station for questioning, only releasing them at 2am. This happened just days after an appeal was denied to two believers fined for possessing Bibles and other Christian literature. The literature was seized after a church was searched without a warrant in May. Uzbekistan censors all religious literature, and these Uzbek and Kazakh language Scripture pieces had passed state censorship, but that did not stop a court from imposing the fine and ordering the literature destroyed.
In late September the upper house of Kazakhstan’s Parliament passed a law severely restricting religious freedom, including “ more restrictions on parents’ and children’s freedom to attend worship meetings and teach beliefs; more restrictions on and punishments for religious teaching without state permission; more restrictions on sharing beliefs; and apparently increased but vaguely defined confiscation of religious literature which does not pass the compulsory state censorship.” The law still needs to pass the lower house and be signed by the president to take effect. As is the case with most restrictions on religious freedom in Central Asia and Russia, the reason given for this legislation is combating terrorism. Tajikistan has been increasing internet censorship, limiting access to social media sites such as Facebook, taking publications critical of the regime offline, and cutting internet off altogether to sensitive regions. Turkmenistan has been suffering from food shortages for about two years now, and while the government is taking some measures to try to improve the situation, the president is also spending lavishly on airplanes and car races. Kyrgyzstan has also increased arrests for “extremism” mostly for possession of unapproved printed materials. However, the recent resignation of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister over corruption allegations is a reminder that change is possible.