Before full scale Russian invasion, Melitopol residents were proud of their intercultural nature and tolerance towards any religious confessions. Almost all key world religions were present in the city with 150 000 inhabitants. Christian denominations had the largest number of believers.
Orthodox, Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, Baptists, adherents of Yehovah’s Witnesses or charismatic movement… There were hundreds of churches and prayer houses…
Today the majority of religious organizations were forced to shut down their services.
Almost daily meetings supporting Ukraine were held in the central square of Melitopol in February – March 2022. Besides that, believers of different denominations conducted joint prayers every Sunday.
“The city is occupied whereas dozens of people sing “Great God, protect our Ukraine” in the central city square. No doubt, occupants did not like it”, as Mykhailo Britsyn, presbyter of church “Grace”, recalls.
Prayer house of this church was seized by occupants on September 11. Armed soldiers entered the house during the service and stopped it. They took passport data or even fingerprints from believers. They told the church received financing from the USA.
Persecution of priests, searches in churches and homes of heads of religious organizations of Melitopol area started in March 2022.
Russian occupants detained Dmytro Bodia, pastor of evangelical church “The Word of Life”, for more than a week.
Around ten occupants broke into the home of Bodia’s family in the Saturday morning on March 19. They asked pastor whether he was a US citizen and took him away. They also confiscated all mobile phones from his family members. That is why his relatives were unable to report immediately about his abduction.
After his release occupants recommended \ ordered him to leave the city.
Mykola Zholovan, the head of the church of evangelical Christian Baptists in Vasylivka village, was abducted on June 18, 2022.
Occupants abducted Valentyn Zhuravlov, pastor of church “The Source of Life”, during his service in Melitopol on the same day (the CJI reported about it). Armed Russian military approached believers during joint prayer in Victory Square and took away Zhuravlov (he has been co-organizer of the prayer).
Today the pastor resides in the city under the condition he will not conduct prayers and services.
Occupation administration confiscated the house of Melitopol Christian Church in August.
The house is located at the entrance to Melitopol from Berdyansk side. It is immense: with a pool, concert hall, after modern renovation. The surrounding territory is well maintained with palms, a fountain and a green lawn.
9 meters high cross stood in front of the church.
Invaders demolished the cross and put Russian flag.
After confiscation, the church premises were used by the Russian military. “We drove by and saw their soldiers in a courtyard, under palms, talking over phone”, as local residents told.
Today so-called “ministry of youth policy” is situated in the church.
The concert hall is used by occupation authorities for propaganda events. For example, the concert of propaganda group “PosleZavtra” with Russian flags and Z symbols was held there on the day of liberation of Melitopol from German Nazi.
An area of private houses, owned by believers of the church, is located next to the premises of the Melitopol Christian Church. Russian military seized them and settled in.
The house of Viktor Sergeev, senior pastor of the Melitopol Christian Church, was demonstrated by Russian TV propagandists. They declared they found there a box with weapons: grenades, flares and a rope for simple mines.
“I talked with invaders during the first days of occupation. Russian soldiers persuaded us that there was nothing to worry about as their goal was to seize Kyiv. However, they came with searches to our church and homes in a three weeks”, as Viktor Sergeev told.
He said that officers of the Russian Federal Security Service interrogated him and asked about sources of church income, pastor’s attitude towards city mayor and leaders of the country and proposed to record video with him demonstrating the believers’ joy about Russian invasion.
No believers agreed to cooperate with occupants.
Occupants put forward the following accusations against this religious community. Before 2021 it has been registered as Melitopol Christian Church “New Generation”. The Office of the Russian General Prosecutor recognized that the Spiritual Department of Evangelical Christians of the Ukrainian Christian Church “New Generation” was unwanted on the territory of Russia in August 2021.
The second accusation is that the religious community provides financial support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“It was not funny to see how they found weapons in my house. Because Russian soldiers lived in my house for several months”, as a pastor explained.
After interrogations Viktor Sergeev with his family left immediately the city.
Russian occupants ban the work of large as well as small religious communities.
Evening services of evangelical Christian Baptists in Chkalove village of Melitopol district were interrupted by Russian military on September 22, 2022. They came and told believers that “after referendum you will be expelled because we’ve got only one religion – Orthodox”.
As of now, pastors of the largest protestant churches of Melitopol area left occupied territory. Church services are forbidden. Believers go to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government or leave the country.
Protestants are not the only target of Russian repressions. It was reported that Sviatoslav (Pitersky), the archpriest of St Andrew church of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was expelled by Russian occupants from the occupied territory of Zaporizhzhia oblast.
He refused to receive passport of the Russian citizen and to recognize results of “referendum” as well as occupation authorities.
“I am too old to change passports”, as the priest openly declared.
Several priests of churches from the former Kyiv Patriarchate and now the Orthodox Church of Ukraine left the city during the first days of occupation.
Russian occupants visited Greek Catholic parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They recommended parish members to receive Russian passports if they would like “to work without problems”.
Only one church does not suffer from Russian repressions. It is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and its priests.
It was expected that dean of Moscow Patriarchate churches in Melitopol Maksym (Smyrnov) would cooperate with occupants as Melitopol became “the capital” of occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia oblast.
But archpriest Maksym does not actively support invaders.
It is remarkable that services with his participation in temporarily occupied Melitopol are still covered by the official website of Zaporizhzhia diocese, de facto part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
One priest told the CJI under conditions of anonymity that, first, archpriest Maksym tried to follow the principle “church is out of politics” after occupation. Second, there is another priest from Moscow Patriarchate who plays the role of active supporter of “new authorities”.
It is 38 years old Ioann (Prokopenko), the archimandrite and prior of St Savva monastery in Melitopol belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate.
The St Savva monastery in Melitopol was perceived as the center of support of “Russian world” years before, in 2014. The monastery is located almost in the city center (Monastyrska street); it occupies several hectares and dozens of buildings. It was reported that monastery hosted activists of the so-called “Russian Spring” in 2014. Ukrainian security services were informed about that.
However, there was no public reaction from Ukrainian authorities.
Any doubts about political orientation of the monastery disappeared after the Russian aggression.
The Monastery was quickly turned into the stronghold of the “Russian order”. Its nuns openly voted at “referendum”. Drugs were available in monastery shop even under severe shortages (they were supplied from Ukraine as humanitarian aid and then confiscated by occupation authorities).
Later archimandrite Ioann thanked in his interview the Pskov diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, occupation “administration” and occupied Sevastopol for the humanitarian aid which the monastery distributed “among those in need”.
Russian occupants did not break into Melitopol churches of Moscow Patriarchate and did not expel its priests.
There is an evidence of archimandrite’s political cooperation with invaders. Here is the speech of archimandrite Ioann at the public meeting supporting sham referendum in Melitopol:
“I bless you all to persuade authorities of our region to initiate referendum as soon as possible”, as Ionn said publicly.
More to that, he was invited by occupants to the public announcement of “referendum results” and annexation of temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine in Kremlin palace on September 30, 2022.
It is clear that this invitation became occupants’ gratitude for archimandrite’s services to Russian occupation authorities.
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