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The dangers for religion in Donetsk

Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues with losses and casualties reported on both sides. In Donetsk, tension has spread to religious groups where the number of people attending ceremonies has shrunk.

Both historically and culturally, Donetsk is the home to many nationalities and religions, but recent weeks have been a testing time for members of many congregations who try to keep the faith and survive the current conflict's violence, assaults and kidnappings.

Fear is keeping people from attending religious ceremonies and driving them out to of the region, according to Father Vasyl, a Greek Catholic priest.

"Fear is caused both by the anti-terrorist activities [from Kyiv] and also by the Vostok Battalion. Roughly one-third of the Donetsk Greek Catholic congregation has now left the city," Vasyl said.

Inside the Greek Catholic Church in Donetsk Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

"Roughly one-third of the Donetsk Greek Catholic congregation has now left the city"

Despite the reduction in his flock, 54-year-old Vasyl has been busy trying to help internally displaced people and provide them with humanitarian aid. He told DW that people are all praying for peace, but their prayer meetings have turned into a reflection of the news. They pray for those who have been taken captive and others who are wounded.

Praying politics

Other church leaders in Ukraine have taken political stances that go beyond prayers for the wounded and missing. Recently the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret Denysenko, condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea and also criticized Russian "provocateurs" who were inciting civil unrest and conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine.

One Baptist church member, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC MP) in eastern Ukraine was also playing a highly political game.

"What hurts me the most is that the UOC MP [is trying] to move in and muscle out other Ukrainian Churches in Ukraine," the Baptist member said.

A close up showing a corss and some signs at the Inter-faith prayer meeting in Donetsk. Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

Other religions seem to be under fire from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).

He said his own denomination was not respected by the UOC (MP), "[They] think that the Baptist Church is like a smaller, insignificant little brother."

According to him divide and rule seems to be their modus operandi in Ukraine. He continued that he finds it upsetting when he hears that UOC (MP) priests have been telling other non-UOC (MP) priests that their days are numbered.

A wall of silence

The UOC (MP) in Donetsk did not respond to these allegations and did not reply to requests to comment for this article.

At another denomination, Pastor Vladimir, a 67-year-old Baptist pastor, was happy to talk on condition that he wouldn't be asked any political questions. He did say that he hadn't had any specific instructions from the Baptist colleagues in the United States or Europe but that he had been speaking to local supervisors in Kyiv. They hadn't told him to evacuate though, just to "trust in God." Vladimir also mentioned an interfaith Church Council.

Inter-faith prayer meeting by the river in Donetsk. Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

The congregation at the Inter-faith prayer meetings has also dwindled after their tent was attacked

He said it included, "Protestants, Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman-Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Muslim leaders" and that they meet regularly once a month. Another interfaith prayer meeting is held daily by the river. But the tent where he said the meetings were held was attacked several times. Assailants threw the tent into the river and the congregation went from between 50-200 people down to 30 or 40 people.

Religious leaders reported fear among the members of their congregations. But they continue preaching in order to try and lessen their parishioners' fears and keep a sense of unity and community.

Beaten up

Sergei Kosyak is an Assemblies of God pastorfor a Pentecostal denomination of the Protestant church and a member of an interfaith prayer group. He said he felt he'd been left very much on his own.

"In Kyiv they are panicking even more than we do here in Donetsk," said Kosyak, 38. "Most of the advice that I get from my senior colleagues is to leave and just run away from this city. Very few people say 'be strong in your faith and stand firm.'"

Perhaps that is because a Polish priest was kidnapped last week and that has made the religious communities wary. Kosyak said he had received no security assurances from the Donetsk's Peoples Republic.

"No assurances of this kind were given and [it is] very unlikely [they] will be given," he said, adding that he had already been physically attacked, beaten up by representatives of the Donetsk Republic.

"They came and threw the [prayer] tent into the river. They didn't say who they were but they [were wearing] uniforms, they had the St. George ribbon and the Donetsk Republic's insignias. They posed and took 'selfies' while destroying the tent. The group was about 10 strong, but two of them with machine guns held us at gunpoint to stop us from moving or running away."

Kosyak explained that they threw the tent in the river because it was seen as "pro-Ukrainian" because they were "praying for Ukraine."

Injuries suffered by pastor Sergei Kosjak

Sergei Kosyak says he was beaten up in a Donetsk People's Republic building

"In the beginning we used to have the Ukrainian flag on display but then we removed the flag, but there was a map of Ukraine on the tent with the words: 'This is the place where we pray for peace and unity in Ukraine.'"

Then Kosyak was brutally beaten.

Pleading for mercy

"I went to the regional administrative building because there was a person I was in contact with, in order to attempt to negotiate, to leave the tent alone with no flags and maps," Kosyak said. "He happened to be away that day. [But] an ex-parishioner who happens to be pro-Russian, recognized me. At first he started to yell at me, as others joined him, they started to whip, punch, kick me and hit me with batons."

He said he was dragged from one floor to the next and spent a total of four hours in the building. They took his money and his car but then some other ex-parishioners - who were also Donetsk Republic members - managed to get him out of the building and to a hospital.

Despite his treatment, he said he is undeterred.

"Every day we continue our prayer meetings and a new tent will be put up next week. I hope the top people of the country will negotiate, if they fail, Donetsk is likely to become another Grozny," he concluded.

The closed doors of St Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Donetsk Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

The doors of St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church remain closed despite assurances from the Bishop that things "remained normal"

The situation was not much better at the Roman Catholic Church in Donetsk. Bishop Marian Buczek recently stated that Catholics were also afraid of attending Mass in Donetsk and Luhansk parishes since both regions declared themselves independent in the weeks following the May 11 referendum.

The kidnapping of Polish priest Father Witek, who has been released, has certainly added to the fears. According to Buczek, most of the Catholic parishes were functioning normally with the exception of Slavyansk, which is blocked by the Ukrainian army, and the Kramatorsk chapel which was machined-gunned by separatists. But at the Church of St. Joseph in Donetsk on one night this week no priest or parishioners arrived for the evening Mass and the church door remained shut.

Suspicion reigns

Suspicion appeared to reign at the Jewish Synagogue in Donetsk too. A person said Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski was not accepting calls from journalists and that the Jewish congregation had no comment to make regarding the current situation in Donetsk.

Situated in the city's northwest, at the Ahat Cami Mosque, Mufti Ruslan Hazad was unavailable for immediate comment due to his religious obligations, however Farida suggested trying to contact him later.

Inside Ahat Cami Mosque in Donetsk. Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

Leaders at the Mosque and the Synagogues remained tight lipped or absent

On leaving the mosque one of the caretakers said she was glad to see a foreigner: "A mosque should never be empty, it should be full of life, full of people, it is so sad now, all we want is peace. All guests are welcome, you are welcome, please come back again."

Unfortunately Hazad's duties kept him from being able to comment on the situation the following day.

Who calls the shots?

Svetlana, a Protestant parishioner summed up the feeling of tension and distrust in Donetsk at the moment, particularly when it comes to religion.

"You may call yourself a Christian but that does not mean that you are Christian. We have the Russian Orthodox Army now and they are recruiting young people in Donetsk, they claim to fight for the Orthodox land, which automatically means that any other faith, any other denomination will be displaced or removed or banned."

A Russian Orthodox Army roadblock in Donetsk. Copyright: DW / Filip Warwick

Some people in Donetsk accuse the Russian Orthodox Army of pushing only one religion to the exclusion of all else

It was still unclear whether these directives were coming directly from the UOC (MP) hierarchy in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, or even received their blessing, but Svetlana thought that their tacit support was probable and damaging to the civic atmosphere in Donetsk.

"I cannot speak for the UOC (MP) [but] I would not be surprised if they do it," she said. "I know that in cities such as Luhansk, Orthodox believers would take icons and would march in front of the armed pro-Russian people, which means they support the armed pro-Russian people."

Svetlana, like many religious people in the region, said she felt that the use of religion was harming believers themselves and making a mockery of people's faith. She said it also reminded her of a time not long ago when religion was banned and adhering to a faith could get people in trouble with the authorities.

The guarded reactions from religious leaders seem to suggest that religion is now a sensitive issue in Donetsk. Eastern Ukraine and its various congregations are for the time being limiting their exposure while trying, in difficult circumstances, to support those who need it most.

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