Since February 24, 2022, when the Russian Federation started its unjustified and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, we have been witnessing appalling scenes of harm, pain and suffering inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians for days on end.
The tragic lot of millions of civilian refugees, mostly women and children, and the enormity of damage and destruction caused by the war bring to mind the darkest periods in the contemporary history of Europe and the world.
The Russian aggression has created infinite havoc. Fully premeditated acts of war target non-military objects, including sites of Ukraine’s cultural heritage and religious worship. The burning buildings of the Holy Mountains Lavra (Sviatohirsk Lavra) in Donetsk Oblast in the east of the country are among the symbols of this barbarity.
The Lavra is a vitally important place of worship in Orthodox Christianity. Its earliest mentions date back to the 17th century. With the onset of the Russian invasion, the Lavra became a shelter for civilians, including pilgrims and members of the clergy, older persons, persons with disabilities and children. This did not prevent Russian troops from brutally shelling the monastic complex. The attack wreaked damage on a number of its buildings. The Skete of All Saints, Ukraine’s largest wooden church, built in the early 20th century, was burnt to the ground.
The Holy Mountains Lavra (Sviatohirsk Lavra) is just one of numerous distressing illustrations of the Russians’ pursuit to destroy Ukraine’s places of religious worship. However, attacks have been also mounted not only on Orthodox churches in Mariupol and near Kyiv but also on the Islamic cultural centre in Sievierodonetsk. Cemeteries and remembrance sites have shared the same fate.
Russia’s fully premeditated acts of war target non-military objects, including sites of Ukraine’s cultural heritage and religious worship
Among the destroyed and desecrated ones are World War II burial grounds and memorials. Ukrainians of all creeds and ethnic origins are faced with brutal annihilation of places commemorating their identity, including belief related.
We must bear in mind that the Russian repression against persons belonging to religious minorities in Ukraine had begun long before the ongoing invasion. Since the Russian Federation illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, particularly harsh discrimination based on religion or belief has been brought down on the peninsula’s native Crimean Tatars. Their rights and freedoms have since been systematically violated by the occupying Russian authorities.
There have been cases of people being taken into custody, deprived of the right to a fair trial and imprisoned for political reasons or alleged extremism or terrorism based on their membership of the ethnic and religious community of the Tatars.
Tatar organisations, such as their representative assembly, the Mejlis, have been outlawed and their members repressed. Persecution and harassment have been extended to representatives of other religious minorities in occupied Crimea, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants.
Religious persecution has been ongoing in different regions of the world where conflicts are fuelled by religious fundamentalism and ethnic hatred. Openly violent acts are commonplace; in Owo in southwest Nigeria, some 40 people were killed in a bloody assault on St Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Pentecost Sunday earlier this year, on June 5. Systemic persecution of religious groups is another issue, as exemplified by the situation in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan or violence against the Yazidis displayed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq.
Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right. At its core lies the freedom to practise the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s denomination or to follow no religion at all as well as the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs. This human right is both universal and inalienable; everyone is entitled to it and no one can be forced to adopt or reject certain religious beliefs. No person should be discriminated against due to what they believe in.
Promoting freedom of religion or belief is an important objective of Poland’s foreign policy on human rights. It was on Poland’s initiative that the UN General Assembly resolved in 2019 to designate August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
To implement this initiative, Poland has partnered with countries that have made it one of their priorities to speak up for freedom of religion or belief. The UK has been among our closest collaborators in this regard. Along with the US, the two countries have hosted annual global international conferences on freedom of religion or belief. Launched in 2019, the events have gathered representatives of governments, civil society and leaders of various faiths.
These issues are particularly sensitive to us Poles. We remember World War II and what happened on our soil at that time.
We want the world to learn from its mistakes and prevent such tragedies from happening again.
I believe that our shared effort, both local and international, will get us to that goal, so that we never again have to look at images similar to those of the Holy Mountains Lavra (Sviatohirsk Lavra) on fire.
Zbigniew Rau is Foreign Minister of Poland.
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