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Ukraine's history is being destroyed, one church at a time

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Religion in Ukraine is a complicated tale. Since a 10th century conversion from Slavic paganism to Orthodox Christianity under the rule of the Kyivan Rus, Ukraine has remained quite firmly in the Eastern Orthodox sphere of religious influence. In more modern history, under Kruschev's anti-religion campaign, the Orthodox church and religious practice broadly were notably suppressed throughout the Soviet Union. Despite this, the Eastern Orthodox Church still survives in Ukraine today and represents the largest religious denomination in the country.

Ukraine is also, however, home to various religious minorities. Hasidism and the Hasidic Jewish communities trace their origins to a region in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Medzhybizh, which today is in western Ukraine. The Ottomans and the Golden Horde brought Islam along with them to southern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, where there are still Ukrainians practicing it today.

This unique and pluralistic religious history has led to Ukraine being home to not only a large number of significant historical sites, but also home to a large number of religious sites amongst them. The Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was the first in the country to be given distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Kyiv Cave Monastery. In 2011, the Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans in Chernivtsi was also added to the list. Then followed in 2013 by the wooden Tservkas (churches) spread across the Carpathian region shared with Poland. On the "Tentative" list there is the Bagçesaray Palace which served as the home of the Crimean Khans and holds two mosques dating back to 1532.

The gravesite of Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer), the founder of Hasidic Judaism, is located in Medzhybizh. The Breslov Hasidic Jewish community also has ties to Ukraine, where they make a pilgrimage to Uman every year to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the tomb of their movement's founder, Nachman of Breslov. Last year, somewhere around 23,000 followers made the pilgrimage for the event despite the warnings of the danger posed by the Russian invasion. This and other sites are at risk as Russian attacks across Ukraine have already damaged or destroyed churches, mosques, synagogues, and numerous other historical sites throughout the country through seemingly indiscriminate shelling.

As of 23rd January 2023, UNESCO has documented and verified damage to 236 sites since the renewed Russian invasion on 24th February, 2022. Amongst them are 18 museums, 83 buildings of historical or artistic significance, 19 monuments, 11 libraries, and 105 religious sites. And UNESCO's number only includes those sites which meet certain criteria. In a report by the Institute for Religious Freedom documenting the period of 24th February to 15th July 2022, they had already found 270 instances of damage or complete destruction of places of worship, spiritual educational institutions, and holy or sacred sites. In Donetsk alone there were 71 religious buildings damaged or destroyed, especially in the city of Mariupol which endured a months-long siege by Russian troops that devastated the city.

According to David Gutensohn writing for Zeit.de yesterday, at least 307 churches and religious sites have been damaged until now, with 142 of them being sacred buildings for the Ukrainian Orthodox church. In one such case, during Russian shelling in Sviatohirsk in Donetsk Oblast, they struck The Holy Mountains Lavra of the Holy Dormition outside the city. The Our Lady of the Joy of All Who Sorrow Skete, the Saint George's Skete, as well as an all-wood church from 1526, The Skete of All Saints were all destroyed.

Skete of All Saints, Hromadske Int. (@hromadske), posted 24.06.2022, Twitter

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has taken a massive toll. While Ukrainians are already heartbroken at the damage caused to their churches, chapels, monasteries, memorials, mosques, and synagogues, we should be too. As Russian shelling in Ukraine continues, so too will the destruction of these sites - with tens or hundreds or thousands of years of history laying buried under the ashes.

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