A new report claims Russia is "weaponising religion" in its conflict with Ukraine, "committing gross violations of religious freedom" and repressing churches in occupied areas.
Data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) states that at least 76 acts of religious persecution have been committed in Ukraine since Russia's invasion in February 2022.
Twenty-nine religious leaders have been killed or seized by Russian forces, according to the study, while 26 places of worship have been shut down, nationalised or forcibly converted to the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. A further 13 have been looted, desecrated or destroyed.
ISW's Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment suggests Russia is "likely conducting a campaign of systematic religious persecution" in a bid to "eradicate undesirable religious organisations" and promote the Moscow Patriarchate.
Legislation known as the "Yarovaya law" - requiring all religious organisations and churches in Russia to register with the government - was passed in 2016. ISW claims Russia's religious persecution in Ukraine is an extension of this state policy.
According to the study, this law has suppressed American Baptist and Pentecostal missionaries in Russia by banning "missionary activities", including preaching, prayer and the distribution of religious materials under the pretence of preventing "extremism" and "terrorism." Other religious minorities, including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church, and the branch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, are also thought to have faced persecution from Russian authorities.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) - an independent and self-governed Church - has been the target of 34 per cent of the reported acts of persecution, according to ISW's findings, while Baptists made up 13 per cent of victims. UOC property is being seized and transferred to the Moscow Patriarchate, and worship in the Ukrainian language is being eliminated.
It's alleged one Russian officer told Christians in Ukraine "Evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed. You need to be buried alive".
Christian persecution charity Release International says the ISW's "disturbing" report confirms the violent persecution Christians face in Ukraine.
CEO Paul Robinson said: "The report describes a campaign of state-sanctioned systematic religious persecution, targeting Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, Evangelicals and others.
"It condemns the conduct of Russian forces towards Protestants in occupied Ukraine as nothing less than brutal. In their words, President Putin is weaponising religion. State control over religion has become a factor in this war."
Robinson has called on Christians to pray that believers in Ukraine may "weather the storm" and that the Church in Russia will be "redefined" by the Lord through godly leaders.