Dmytro Vovk – Visiting Cardozo Professor Provides Expert Testimony to U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Hearing Centers on Religious Persecution Stemming from Russia’s War in Ukraine 

Visiting Cardozo Professor, Dmytro Vovk, was among the high-profile expert witnesses who recently provided testimony at a virtual hearing organized by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The hearing centered on the religious freedom violations committed by the Russian government in Ukraine and Russia, particularly in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

As a refugee from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and an expert in human rights law, Vovk offered a unique perspective on the unfolding events in the crisis-ridden region. During the hearing, witnesses discussed mounting evidence of potential war crimes committed by Russia since its years-long invasion of Ukraine, with a particular focus on the targeting of religious groups, minorities, and holy sites. 

Dmytro Vovk, top left testifying at a recent USCIRF hearing on religious freedom violations committed by Russia

According to Vovk’s testimony, “since February 2022, the Russian military destroyed and damaged about 500 religious buildings including 12 synagogues and Jewish sacred places and the murder of at least 26 religious figures including military chaplains.” The tragedy of Russian collateral damage also included the memorial site of Babyn Yar – the site of a 1941 Nazi massacre of 33,771 Jews – and the Holocaust memorial of Drogobytskyi Yar, where a Menorah was severely damaged by Russian shelling. 

Another focus of the hearing was the safety of minority groups in Russia and Ukraine, including the Jewish community. Russian officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, have repeatedly used antisemitic rhetoric, Holocaust distortion, and accusations that Ukraine has been Nazified to justify Russia’s military offensive. 

According to Vovk, “the Jewish community is safe to practice their religion in Ukrainian controlled territory, and there have been cases of the relocation of Jewish communities from Russian occupied zones, and irrespective if Russia intentionally targeted Jewish sites, their military has demonstrated wanton disregard for civilian infrastructure and culturally sensitive locations.” 

Despite the tragedy and turmoil in the region, Vovk pointed to the heroic humanitarian efforts of the international Jewish community, which helped establish Anatevka, a displaced person’s camp for relocated Ukrainian Jews located on the outskirts of Kyiv. 

The panelists also discussed Putin’s weaponization of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and its role in exacerbating the conflict. Vovk explained that “we know that the leadership of the ROC, primarily Moscow Patriarch Kirill, has blessed and endorsed Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine, and there are also cases of Moscow Patriarchate priests’ collaborating with the Russian troops and occupation administrations.”  

This has led to several legal and ethical conundrums for Ukrainian lawmakers and courts as they aim to address Russian espionage and collaboration through faith institutions while at the same time preserving their adherence to international standards on religious freedoms.  

“On the one hand, religious freedom is not in any way an excuse for calls to violate state sovereignty or territorial integrity, or for collaboration with Russian military forces,” said Vovk. “On the other hand, international human rights standards emphasize that while counteracting national security threats, the government should focus on concrete individuals involved in illegal activities, not on the whole religious group or religion in general.” 

In light of these issues, Vovk presented a number of policy proposals, including advocating for Congress to allocate funds to restore Ukraine’s cultural landmarks and providing legal assistance to the Ukrainian government in drafting ethical legislation to address national security concerns in the religious sphere. He also suggested imposing sanctions and travel restrictions on individuals involved in religious freedom violations in both Russia and the Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation, including the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and Moscow Patriarch Kirill.