on the seizure and re-arrest of the church building located in the village of Ptycha, Dubno district, Rivne region, Ukraine.
Our human rights organization has repeatedly drawn the attention of the OSCE and the UN Human Rights Council to the necessity of restoring the rights of the religious community of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in the Ptycha village.
Numerous court rulings confirm that the said religious community is the legal owner of the building of the Holy Virgin Assumption church. At present, the community’s ownership right to the church is not contested by anyone.
Since 2015, the adherents of the religious organization of the Kyiv Patriarchate, with the support of some radical organizations, have been recurrently trying to violently overtake the church. To achieve these goals, they committed violent seizures, initiated legal actions, and exerted pressure on local authorities, who on their part took various actions to either abolish the community’s ownership right to the church or to overtake it in any other possible way.
For instance, on 17.11.2015, Ptycha Village Council, adopted decision No. 25 to establish the shared use of the church building by the two parties to the conflict. Another decision of the Ptycha Village Council No. 324 as of 22.03.2017 was, in fact, another attempt to transfer the church to the community of the Kyiv Patriarchate by means of a local referendum, despite the existence of the court ruling confirming the ownership right of the UOC community to the church. The two above-mentioned decisions of the Ptycha Village Council were ultimately canceled after the community of the UOC had filed relevant lawsuits.
It is noteworthy that over the course of 2016-2017 the community of the Kyiv Patriarchate unsuccessfully initiated a number of trials to abolish the ownership right of the UOC community to the church building. All their claims were rejected by the court.
As can be seen from the above, after the UOC had won the trials, its community should have taken the possession of the church and use it without any obstacles, while the local authorities had to facilitate this by every possible means.
Instead, on January 19, 2016, the church was arrested under article 170 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine within one of the lawsuits that had been initiated upon the claims of the conflicting parties.
In fact, this article does entitle courts to arrest property, but only in the event, if there is sufficient grounds for the belief that such property has been an object, means, or an instrument of a criminal violation, or has been an evidence of a crime, or has been gained as a result of commission of a criminal violation and/or is proceeds of such. Even if the church building is considered by the investigative authorities as evidence to be preserved, all the necessary procedural activities could have been accomplished over a two year period. Moreover, since 2016 the investigative authorities should have already taken decision to either close the criminal proceedings or refer the case to a court. But neither has been done.
Obviously, the church building in the circumstances of this case can not be attributed to any of the categories of property that can be subject to court arrest. Consequently, the arrest has been applied unreasonably and unlawfully. This means that the criminal proceedings along with the court ruling to arrest the church building are the result of a political decision of local authorities who fail to prevent obvious and public violations of the rights of the worshippers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The community of the UOC, being a law-abiding legal person, has used its right to challenge the arrest, and since 2016 has filed motions to revoke property arrest with a view to renewing the performance of divine services in the church.
On April 2, 2018, the court ordered to revoke the arrest. However, on the same day the church building was violently seized by unknown armed persons. The police officers, who arrived at the scene of the crime, protected of the seized building preventing the legitimate owner, the UOC community, from entering the territory and the church itself, without taking any action to detain the real offenders.
On April 3, 2018, the church was again arrested on the basis of the appeal of the law enforcement authorities in a new criminal proceeding.
All these facts testify not only to the fact that law enforcement officials have committed gross violations of the legislation of Ukraine as well as the norms of international law, but also attest to the fact that government authorities are reluctant to defend human rights when it comes to believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In this way, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is apparently discriminated against in an overt and public manner.
In this regard, we draw the attention of the Ukrainian authorities to the position set forth in the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of (A/HRC/28/66), stating that “Violations of human rights do not only originate from the State; they are quite often carried out by non-State actors. Nonetheless, the State bears a responsibility for such acts inasmuch as they may reflect inadequate human rights protection. A first step towards providing protection against violence in the name of religion is a quick and unequivocal condemnation of any such acts, whenever they occur, by high representatives of the State. State representatives should indeed take the lead in rejecting violence, expressing sympathy for victims and providing public support for targeted individuals or groups. Violent attacks targeting members of groups that face systematic discrimination in the name of religion should be understood as attacks on the entire society”.
We believe that in the circumstances described herein, the officials of Rivne region and local law enforcement bodies have at least to publicly condemn the violent actions of the armed seizure of the church, expressing their support for the legitimate owner of the building, as well as show their respect for private property rights, and the right of the Ukrainian citizens to freely profess their faith in their own church building.
Therefore, NGO “Public Advocacy”, being in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council:
On December 26, 2014, a religious community of vlg.Ptycha was attacked by a group of people. The attacking side, with the direct support of the radical organization “Right Sector”, cut the locks, seized the church, motivating their actions that part of the local villagers had decided upon assignment of the church belonging to the UOC community for the benefit of another entity – the religious community of the Kyiv Patriarchate. The church is actually occupied by the representatives of another religious denomination, the Kyiv Patriarchate.
On April 20, 2014, the religious community of the UOC of vlg. Ptycha tried to administer in the church building belonging to it, but representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate prevented the UOC believers from completing the service, seized the church, organized resistance and did not allow in the owner (the UOC community) to end the divine service in the religious building. Consequently, under strong pressure from supporters of the Kyiv Patriarchate, representatives of local authorities decided to seal the church until the Kiev Patriarchate took legal action and court proceedings were over. The UOC community had to administer services in the senior priest’s garage, adjusted for religious needs. In September 2015, the Economic Court made a decision that the owner of the church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the community of the UOC-KP does not have any title rights to the church premises. However, despite the obvious legal judgment, the supporters of the Kiev Patriarchate continued to make raider attempts.
On November 1, 2015, in a room of the Ptycha village council, Petro A. Shevchuk, a representative of the religious community of the UOC-KP, took (according to the testimony - stole) the keys to the church, carried by the head of the village council. As a result, representatives of the Kiev Patriarchate again seized the church.
On 07.11.2015, the representatives of the UOC-KP of vlg. Ptycha, led by their senior priest, Ihor Zahrebelny, unlocked the church and got into it. However, after the arrival of law enforcement officers, the UOC-KP adherents started to go home. The UOC community requested that the deputy chief of Internal Affairs of Ukraine in Rivne region should hang extra locks on the church. When the request was met, the UOC community peacefully dispersed.
On 08.11.2015, the representatives of the religious community of the UOC-KP decided to stain the gate and Fr. Nicholai’s bench with faeces. However, once the UOC-KP supporters learned about the arrival of the reporters of the national TV channel «1 + 1», they personally cleaned up the previously marred gates and the bench.
On 15.11.2015, the representatives of the UOC-KP (20 women) got inside the church, demanding the abolition of the title rights of the UOC community of vlg. Ptycha. Realizing that they failed to obtain it legally, they locked themselves inside the church, and declared a pseudo-hunger strike. It is known that at the time of these events, the UOC-KP representatives openly and regularly carried food in and toilet buckets out. A separate sign of disrespect to the sanctuary is the fact that the people who seized the church used it as a toilet and directly defecated inside the building.
On November 16, 2015, negotiations were held between the representative of the UOC and the UOC-KP in Rivne Regional State Administration, chaired by Alexander Savchuk (deputy chairman of Rivne Regional State Administration) The meeting was attended by the head of Dubno DSA and law enforcement officials. Exerting pressure on the negotiators, Alexander Savchuk forced the UOC to transfer the church to the Kyiv Patriarchate. In particular, A. Savchuk called the head of Ptycha village council for taking a local decision on alternate service. On the same day, the religious community of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in protest blocked the road of international importance “Kyiv-Chop”.
On 17.11.2015, Ptycha village council, chaired by the village head, in presence of the chairman of Dubno RSA, law enforcement officials and representatives of the UOC-KP (I. Zahrebelny) and UOC (V. Buha), made a decision, according to which there was granted permission for alternate service in the church according to the schedule fixed by the two denominations. The decision was appealed in court by the UOC community.
On 18.12.2015, the UOC community of vlg. Ptycha tried to hold worship in the church. But the community of the UOC-KP, supported by members of the radical organization “Right Sector”, attacked the UOC believers and beat the clergy and parishioners. Law enforcement officers, who had arrived at the scene, were inactive. Also, the head of the organization “Right Sector” made an official statement that if the UOC community did not leave the church, they were determined to seize all the Orthodox churches in Rivne region. In the attack on the faithful, representatives of the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate and the «Right Sector» used batons, clubs, electric shocks, cold weapons, tear and pepper gas. According to eyewitnesses, the police at some point began to beat parishioners together with representatives of UOC-KP. Also the reports attest to the fact that the police neither detained nor stopped the representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate who beat the UOC parishioners with long sticks, threw “Molotov cocktail” and used electric shocks, fire extinguishers and tear gas sprays. There are registered facts when the police lined up in front of the disputed church and did not allow the legal owners – the UOC believers – to get into the building that belongs to them.
On 21.12.2015, negotiations were held under the supervision of the prosecutor of Dubno district. He, like other officials, insisted on the transition of the church building for alternate use to representatives of the UOC-KP. Later in the day talks with the deputy of Rivne Regional State Administration were carried out. They were attended by representatives of the Security Service, the Main Department of Internal Affairs of Ukraine in Rivne region, the head of Dubno District State Administration, spokespersons of the UOC and UOC-KP. But the negotiations resulted in no compromise achieved. Some state officials exerted discriminatory pressure on the UOC religious community, calling for alternate use of the church for the reason that the majority of residents of the village allegedly voted for the transition under the «jurisdiction» of the UOC-KP. The Security Service officers were reported to threaten the UOC clergy and faithful with criminal prosecution under the false pretext.
On 22.12.2015, one of the protesters in the church, a parishioner of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, suffered anaphylactic shock and was hospitalized.
On 23.12.2015, the parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church locked themselves up in the church and for five days did not get any food and water. They also suffered from cold in an unheated room. On the same day the UOC faithful picketed Rivne Regional State Administration, demanding the resignation of the Deputy Chairman of Regional State Administration Alexander Savchuk and protection of the believers’ rights. As a result, talks were held with the Deputy Chairman of the Regional State Administration Y.Y. Pryvarsky, which led to an agreement that people in the church would be changed; the light and heating would be on.
On 25.12.2015, representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate picketed Rivne Regional State Administration and Rivne Regional Council with a demand to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church separatists, to cancel the decision confirming title rights of the UOC community to the church in vlg. Ptycha. Rivne Regional Council decided to refer a statement on the abolition of private ownership of the UOC community of religious buildings in Rivne region (48 votes) to state authorities.
It should be noted that during the escalation of inter-faith conflict, Rivne Regional State Administration prepared and filed an appeal to the Court of Cassation against the decision of the court, which had entered into force, grounding their actions with the fact that the case must be heard by the Administrative Court. The cassation appeal of the state body contains only the above mentioned formal grounds and does not contain any allegations that the UOC is not the owner of the building or the decision of the court of first instance is in fact unjustified. So the public authorities made a step aimed at prolongation of the conflict, giving the Kyiv Patriarchate supporters reason for hope that it may be revised and hence the statement on the title rights of the UOC community to the church is inconclusive and may be subject to judicial review. Meanwhile, the community of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the registered owner of the church building and is not required to confirm in any additional way its entitlements to the church. The judicial process was initiated by the Kyiv Patriarchate.
A separate assessment should be given to the police, who, according to eyewitnesses, blocked food and water supply to the people trapped in the church, thus actually committing acts that could be qualified as torture and inhuman treatment. Also, it should be remembered that electricity and heating were turned off in the church, and the police prevented the resumption of power and heat supply to the people in the church. Food and water supply, as well as the resumption of power and heat supply, became possible under active pressure from journalists and the UOC faithful on the regional leadership of the police and state administration.
To learn more about religious freedom infringements committed against the UOC believers you are encouraged to consult our detailed reports and statements: