A religious freedom watchdog has warned of Pro-Russian forces persecuting non-Orthodox churches in Ukraine.
According to Release International, forces occupying areas in Ukraine have closed down the three largest evangelical Protestant churches in Melitopol and shut down churches in Mariupol. In another raid, soldiers reportedly claimed that only Orthodoxy would be tolerated.
Russian troops raided Grace Baptist Church in Melitopol while a worship service was underway, shut it down and ordered the pastor to leave the city.
UK-based Release International works with partners to support the persecuted Church worldwide. Its sister organisation Voice of the Martyrs Korea is in contact with Christians in the region.
Hyun Sook Foley described the raid on Grace Baptist Church on 11th September: "They entered the sanctuary while the congregation was singing a hymn, halted the worship service, registered the names of all present and detained several ministers."
She said the occupiers also gave the pastor, Mikhail Brisyn, 48 hours to get out of the city.
Grace Baptist Church worship service was being broadcast live when the troops moved in. Release International said the video has since been removed from the Internet.
In August, occupation forces shut down Melitopol's largest Protestant church, Melitopol Christian Church, known for its 1,000-seat auditorium.
Release International associates said occupation forces tore down its cross and have turned the building into a "cultural sports entertainment complex". That same month, they also closed Melitopol's Word of Life Church.
In the nearby village of Chkalovo, Russian Federation soldiers entered a church, broke up the evening service and shut the church down.
According to reports, they told the congregation: "Your feet will not be here after the referendum. We have only one faith, Orthodoxy." The church in Chkalovo has held worship services in the village every day since the war began, but was shut down on 21st September.
Release International said the confiscation of church buildings and the detention of pastors is also underway in other Russian-occupied cities including Mariupol.
At Kurchatov Church in Mariupol, armed soldiers with their faces hidden by masks detained Baptist Pastor Leonid Ponomaryov and his wife Tatyana after raiding their home on 21st September.
Oslo-based Forum 18 say Russian officials have claimed the Ponomaryovs were involved in "extremist activity". After searching their Baptist church, occupying forces "sealed" it to prevent future worship meetings.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The city was occupied by Russian troops and pro-Russian forces of the so-called Donetsk Peoples Republic in May 2022 and illegally annexed on 5th October.
Paul Robinson CEO of Release International said: "It's no surprise that the Russian occupying forces are closing Protestant churches and detaining pastors. They've been doing the same since they seized and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. This has set the pattern for what has followed.
"In Crimea and other occupied territories, they have raided places of worship, closed churches, banned missionary activity, fined people for leading worship meetings, seized religious literature and forced religious communities to re-register with the state, refusing re-registration to the vast majority. And now we are seeing churches raided, sealed and shut down, and the disappearance and detention of pastors in the occupied areas.
"Ukrainian Christians have been here before. They are begin driven back to the underground churches of the Soviet era. Yet the message of history should be clear to Russia: the Christian faith has survived 70 years of Soviet totalitarian rule, and it thrives today in China under similar conditions. Persecution can only strengthen the church."
The United Nations has condemned Russia's occupying forces for "violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief." It states that Christians, Muslims, and Jehovah's Witnesses have all been targeted, along with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is independent from Russian control.
In July, the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church visited the Archbishop of Canterbury. Most Rev Justin Welby said he had heard "the most heart breaking stories of atrocities against civilians and against Orthodox clergy in occupied territory".
Meanwhile, more than 50 countries will gather on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss bolstering Ukraine's air defence, two days after Russian missiles rained down on cities across the country, including the capital Kyiv.
Advanced air defence systems are designed to protect entire cities from air attacks. Russian air raids on Monday killed 19 people in Ukraine, wounded more than 100 and knocked out power supplies across the country.
Listen to Premier's interview with Andrew Boyd from Release International here: