Tragedy in Ukraine Highlights Need for Religious Freedom Around The World | Opinion

Since February 24, 2022, when the Russian Federation started its unjustified and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, we have witnessed appalling scenes of harm, pain, and suffering inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians day after day. The tragic lot of millions of civilian refugees, mostly women and children, and the enormous damage and destruction caused by the war call to mind the darkest periods in the recent history of Europe and the world.

The Russian aggression has created unending havoc. Fully premeditated acts of war aim at non-military targets, including sites of Ukraine's cultural heritage and religious worship. The burning buildings of the Sviatohirsk (Holy Mountains) Lavra in Donetsk Oblast in the east of the country are among the most shocking 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 burned to the ground.

The Sviatohirsk Lavra is just one of many distressing examples of the Russians' pursuit to destroy Ukraine's places of religious worship. Russian attacks have been mounted not only on Orthodox churches in Mariupol and near Kyiv, but also on the Islamic cultural center in Sievierodonetsk. Cemeteries and remembrance sites have shared the same fate. Ukrainians of all creeds and ethnic origins are faced with brutal annihilation of places commemorating their identity, including belief-related ones.

We must bear in mind that the Russian repression against persons belonging to religious minorities in Ukraine began 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 been systematically violated by the occupying Russian authorities. There have been cases of people being taken into custody, deprived the right to a fair trial, and imprisoned for political reasons or alleged extremism or terrorism based on their identity as Tatars. Tatar organizations, 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 also been ongoing in regions of the world where conflicts are fueled by religious fundamentalism and ethnic hatred. 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. 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.

Holy Mountains Lavra monastery
SVIATOHIRSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 03: Orthodox Christian monastery the Holy Mountains Lavra is seen on the bank of the Seversky Donets River near the city of Sviatohirsk in Donetsk region on February 3, 2019 in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. Violence across the region has continued since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, despite several ceasefire agreements aimed at ending the conflict between Ukrainian and Russia-backed forces. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right. At its core lies the freedom to practice 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 on the basis of what they believe.

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 make it a priority to speak up for freedom of religion or belief. The United Kingdom has been among our closest collaborators in this regard. Along with the United States, our 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; we want to 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 like those of the Sviatohirsk Lavra on fire.

Zbigniew Rau is Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.